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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1902)
Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich/David Zinman
rec. 17-19 April 2007, Tonhalle, Zurich, Switzerland
SONY-BMG 88697314502 [72:58]


Experience Classicsonline

David Zinman’s Mahler cycle has now reached the halfway point and I’m delighted to say that this Fifth lives up to the high standards – and expectations – of his earlier recordings. It’s been a rewarding journey, not least because Zinman brings a welcome clarity and freshness to these familiar scores. He is aided in this enterprise by an orchestra and recording team who respond wholeheartedly to his approach. The result is a remarkably intense, consistently inspired set of readings that continue to delight and surprise.

Jaded Mahlerians will certainly sit up and take notice as the Trauermarsch gets under way. Seldom have those opening triplets sounded so electric, the orchestral riposte so seismic. Of course it’s only the beginning but the rest of this movement unfolds at an unerring pace, tempi well judged, ensemble as crisp and clear as one could hope for. Zinman isn’t as wild or vehement as some in the middle section but still there are many epiphanies along the way. Not surprisingly the Super Audio layer renders those insights all the more tangible, adding greatly to the sense of renewal and rediscovery.

In fact the recording engineers have surpassed themselves here – no mean feat, given their spectacular achievements in the Second and Fourth Symphonies. I’d go so far as to say this is one of the most three-dimensional, life-like Mahler Fifths I’ve heard in a very long time. Perspectives are entirely natural, the brass ring out without ever sounding strident and the amount of inner detail uncovered – a characteristic of this cycle – is simply astonishing. As I remarked in my review of the Fourth, Zinman removes all the accumulated grime from these vast canvases, and while the result is not as radical as Sir Roger Norrington’s it’s altogether more satisfying.

Zinman may seem a little tame in the wilder moments of the first movement but he is suitably stürmisch in the second, those stabbing rhythms superbly projected. He articulates the funeral march very well indeed, surrounded as it is by spectral wisps of sound. And no-one could accuse him of lacking vehemenz in the orchestral outbursts, the Zurich band always responding with passion and bite. More important Zinman has a firm grasp of the movement’s architecture, screwing up the tension and releasing it at all the right points while still maintaining overall control and coherence.

If the tectonic plates of the second movement grind together with massive, spectacular results then the ensuing Scherzo: Kräftig, nicht zu schnell seems idyllically stable by comparison. Surely we are back in Wunderhorn territory, Mischa Greull’s obbligato horn playing as relaxed and sunny as I’ve ever heard it. And if Zinman paces the funeral marches perfectly he is just as adroit in the waltz-like rhythms here. Of course there are a few aftershocks but in between there is much to savour, including those delectable pizzicato strings at 7:09. As for the percussion they are simply splendid, the cymbals sounding very natural indeed.

The Adagietto’s relentless association with Death in Venice is most unfortunate but then this music is often played so slowly and overlaid with so much sentimentality that it seems positively funereal. Mahler expert Gilbert Kaplan has argued for a brisker tempo – he has even released a recording of this movement to prove his point – but more important, surely, is that a simple, sensitively phrased approach works best here. One could argue that Zinman is a touch too clear-eyed but he shapes – rather than moulds – the music very persuasively, never allowing the underlying pulse to flutter and fade. It’s deeply felt, too, soulful but not exaggeratedly so. The harp is beautifully caught, the massed strings sounding suitably silken. For once the Adagietto sounds like it should do, as some of the most luminous, life-affirming music Mahler ever wrote.

I once heard Claudio Abbado deliver a quite terrifying reading of the Rondo-Finale that has stayed with me ever since. Even though Zinman can’t quite match that he comes close. Indeed, it may all seem too helter-skelterish at times but the music – and this orchestra – can easily sustain it. If I have any quibbles it’s that Zinman doesn’t always delve deeply enough here. That said one can’t deny the sheer impact of his reading.

Zinman’s Mahler won’t please everyone, as indeed Norrington’s doesn’t, but this Fifth is very special indeed. In many ways it builds on the considerable strengths of the first four recordings in this cycle, all of which have renewed these works for me in ways I scarcely thought possible. It’s not the only Mahler Fifth I would wish to own – Leonard Bernstein’s DG account and Klaus Tennstedt’s live performance on HMV Classics are especially fine – but if you’re looking to rediscover this great symphony you’ve come to the right place.

Dan Morgan



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