Symphony No 5 in C sharp
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Daniel
Arthaus Musik 100 032, 75
Daniel Barenboim is not the most natural of Mahler conductors, but this Chicago
performance, caught on camera during the orchestra's visit to Cologne, is
actually very fine. The five movements are held together convincingly (although
the adagietto is far too slow for my tastes) and there is a real sense of
the symphony's grandeur. Brass chorales are given plenty of throttle, and
there is some gorgeous phrasing from the strings.
Although this is by no means a slow reading, there are moments when the
excitement seems to drag (at the close of the first movement, for example).
A Proms performance Barenboim gave a couple of years ago generated more tension,
but this Cologne version is by no means totally lacking in that department.
The closing bars of the Rondo-Finale, for example, are spellbinding and quite
thrilling (although not quite in the Bernstein class).
The advantage of being able to see a great orchestra in action (as opposed
to just hearing it) brings its own benefits, most notably in how the personnel
are divided. American orchestras nowadays seem very happy to recruit more
women players than their European counterparts. At a recent performance of
Mahler's Ninth with the New York Philharmonic I noticed that the entire flute
section was female. Barenboim's Chicago Symphony Orchestra employs six horns
for this Mahler 5, half of which are women. You will look in vain for a similar
distribution in any British or European orchestra. Musical purists who defend
the Viennese practice of disempowering female musicians will find no support
for their arguments here - for the power of the Chicago brass (horns in
particular) is any thing but underwhelming.
And for those of you who have never seen Barenboim conduct live, the vision
of this rather conservative man throwing himself around the podium, with
gestures big enough to embrace the planets, will either fascinate or repel.
I have seen greater conductors achieve considerably more in terms of dynamics
from virtual stasis on the podium than the energetic Barenboim, and lesser
conductors with even more graphic gestures achieve virtually nothing for
their efforts. It will unquestionably be a matter of taste whether you can
watch his style of conducting with any comfort.
The sound on this disc is wonderful - undoubtedly helped by the acoustics
of the Cologne hall. However, watching this performance will make people
who have been to the RFH weep. Seeing an audience sat in seats spaced out
like first class on a jumbo jet will cause envy for those of us who have
sat huddled together in seats less comfortable than on a London bus. It is,
perhaps, the only depressing thing about this disc.