> MAHLER Symphony 5 Kubelik TAH419 [TD]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb(UK)

One of the most grown-up review sites around

54,416 reviews
and more.. and still writing ...

Search MusicWeb Here



International mailing

Founder: Len Mullenger                                    Editor in Chief:John Quinn             

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor (1901-2)
Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam/Rafael Kubelik
(Recorded at a concert in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam on 21 June 1951)
Remastering by Charles Eddi at Sofreson
TAHRA TAH 419 [64.58]



This is a thoroughly convincing and idiomatic performance of Mahlerís Fifth Symphony from a time long before the so-called Mahler "boom" began. A performance like this shows that Mahler was indeed fully understood, in Holland if nowhere else, as early as 1951 and that there was a young Bohemian-born conductor who understood him too. This is Rafael Kubelik as a young man who knew every inch of this piece even then and he is conducting an orchestra who knew it better than any other on the planet. It is taken from a performance at the 1951 Holland Festival that also included Otto Klemperer conducting the Second Symphony with the same orchestra that you can hear on a Decca release. As with that Klemperer recording, the mono sound is taken from radio transcription discs. Though this set of discs appears to have stood the test of time better. There is a small degree of surface noise but itís slight and shouldnít bother anyone used to listening to such recordings. Ruled out as a first choice for this reason, yes, but certainly one for the discerning Mahlerite to add to the collection. As always with Tahra they have gone back to the original master for this official release (with the blessing of Mrs. Kubelik and the orchestra) and so this is the best sound available. I cannot praise Charles Eddi too highly for his minimum intervention in the restoration. There is also enough of this great hallís acoustic to give sense of space also but we are close in enough to hear an extraordinary amount of detail from the orchestra.

The old idea that tempi in Mahler performances have become progressively slower as time has gone on is again borne out by this performance. Kubelik was never a ponderous Mahlerian. In his DG studio recording of the Sixth Symphony he is hyperactive in the first movement. But this 1951 performance of the Fifth shows him even fleeter of foot than in his 1971 DG studio recording (available in a boxed set of the complete cycle) and certainly in a later "live" recording on Audite (95.465) from 1981. Timings show that overall in 1951 he takes just under 65 minutes, whereas in 1971 he takes just over 68 and in 1981 just over 71. In fact in 1951 his timing comes closer to Bruno Walter in his NYPO recording of 1947 on Sony. Yet the tempo differences between the three Kubelik performances are all proportional and I am not concerned by the fact of quicker tempi here. Tempo is not everything, after all. What matters most are aspects of phrasing and the relationships between the differences of tempo within each movement and across the work, as well as how well the players seem to get into the metabolism of the music.

This is the Concertgebouw Orchestra in the year of Mengelbergís death and even though he hadnít stood in front of them for six years this is still his orchestra. You just know that they know this music, love it and understand it, and it was Mengelberg who taught it to them over many years after he learned it from Mahler. Not only because many of these players must have played it under the man himself, their orchestral parts must also have been be littered with notes gleaned from Mengelbergís direction. So I donít think itís stretching the imagination to say that we are listening here to a tradition of playing that can be traced back to the composer, irrespective of the unique insights brought to bear by Kubelik himself. Because this is his performance primarily and not, Iím sure, a Mengelberg clone. Itís a case of youth and experience coming together and it produces a gem of a disc.

A carefully paced fanfare and a beautifully delivered funeral march dominate the first movement. There is weight but there is also power. The great "jump-off" point at bar 155, Trio I, explodes vividly to uncurl itself with a controlled power that carries superb contrast to what has gone. There is no hint of hysteria here, just drama. Notice especially how all the strings "ride" the brass and percussion with supreme confidence at the point just before passage collapses back to the fanfare. That indicates Mahler playing of the highest order. There is a hint of real anger in the funeral march return also which is quite refreshing. It suggests that the deceased did not go quietly and it illustrates Kubelikís ability even then to dig out details of the music, the mark of a great Mahlerian. Listen too to the woodwind choir when playing out. Not the sweet and cultured tones we have become used to of late. Here are some "reedy" players who are not ashamed to sound just a little weatherworn, as Mahler would have expected. That great "way point", the moment marked "Klagende" at the end of the movement followed by the descent to the coda, is as deep and terrifying as it should be with the trumpetís last return carrying so much tragic weight by a player who has clearly played it many times. You can certainly tell when musicians love and understand the music in front of them. There is a confidence in what they do, especially when they are especially exposed, as the principal trumpet is in this movement. Do also notice the very quiet final pizzicato note on double bass. There is now compelling evidence to suggest that the violent "Bartok-like" thwack that is so often heard here is incorrect and moves now appear to be afoot to correct this in a new edition. Is this performance, from 1951, how Mahler meant it to sound? If so, Kubelikís performance certainly seems to justify it and I wonder if the evidence is there in the score part being used in 1951 in Amsterdam. In his two later recordings Kubelik delivers this note with maximum force. It is on such detailed points as this that Mahlerian scholarship can turn.

Even in 1951 Kubelik has the measure of the difficult, shifting second movement. He never uses excessive force in any direction, never thrusts forward too quickly, never pulls back too slowly. Neither does he ever impose on the music an excess of emotion that it doesnít have. It is the perfect example of letting Mahler speak for himself. Of course the orchestraís familiarity with the music must help here. The fearsomely complex counterpoint playing holds no fears at all. There are passages where the players are like a chamber orchestra playing by listening to each other. In the passage leading to the great chorale climax Kubelik covers all bases from despair to the brief happiness, even a touch of nostalgia in the trumpets, but thrusts home the final denouement with real confidence. Though time will tell if there has been too much. This moment should never prove to outshine that at the close of the symphony where the chorale comes back, remember. In sum, Kubelik keeps the thread of the argument with apparent ease, though I suspect it was not easy and he needed the full panoply of this great orchestraís inherited collective soul to pull it off. He also delivers the two movements together as Part I, which is as it should be.

Though this is a very fleet performance of the Scherzo the mood under Kubelik is dead right from the start and it never appears to be rushed. Gone is the tragedy and anguish from the first two movements. Here is the energy and bounce juxtaposed with those lonely contemplative moments when the horn and other solos take the stage. After all, juxtaposition is the meat and drink of this whole symphony across the three parts and this central movement must reflect its own juxtapositions so long as the conductor doesnít appear to rush as the composer feared and, in spite of just 16 minutes, Kubelik doesnít seem to. How he pulls off the trick of appearing to be spacious and yet not be, I have only theories. I suppose it all comes down again to the idiomatic phrasing and the sense of the pieceís special poetry; a match of a master conductor and an orchestra experienced intimately with the music. Note the way the horn theme, always undergoing transformation, is carefully attended to every time. You have the feeling that these players know how to always look for a slightly different way of playing what appears to be the same material. Not an attribute you come across too often in Mahler but you certainly know it when you hear it. In the end it is the energy and love of life that flows out of this movement and it provides the correct keystone to the workís complexity, as we shall see. The horn solo is very soft and mellow, by the way. Antidote to the sharp, penetrating sound we hear so often today and an echo from a bygone age.

Kubelik was never one to indulge the Adagietto fourth movement. He seemed to know that too slow a tempo betrays Mahlerís intention of a "song without words" and here in Amsterdam he delivers just such a song shy of ten minutes. The strings of the Concertgebouw are very warm-hearted and consoling before the last movement enters "attacca". The first aspect I noticed here was the wonderful character of the plangent woodwinds which, even in this mono radio disc recording, are balanced pretty well ideally. Then the strings again show superb discipline and that confidence in their knowledge of the music. Not least in the recalls of the Adagietto theme where the relationship is between the two movements of Part III are made manifest. By now this is clearly one of those performances where everything has gone right. We have gone from bitter tragedy to unalloyed joy and ultimate triumph passing through pastoral contemplation. The final chorale climax does indeed trump the first appearance and so that crucial structural imperative has been attended to which is always a good sign that all was well. True, you will here more transcendent endings than this, but few with more warmth of heart.

There is a story that Furtwängler once attended a performance of Mahlerís Fifth Symphony conducted by Rafael Kubelik and after congratulating him backstage nevertheless wondered if it was all worth the effort. Kubelik certainly believed Mahler was worth the effort as this recording from early in his career and at what must have been near the time when Furtwangler heard him proves. As a performance I think this is the best of Kubelikís three available recordings. His 1971 DG studio recording is let down by an ugly recorded sound. His 1981 Audite performance sounds better but in comparison with this 1951 performance there is much of the vitality of Mahler that seems to be missing, not to mention the grand tradition of the Concertgebouw orchestra oozing from every bar.

An archive recording all Mahlerites should own for the young Kubelik and for the old Concertgebouw.

Tony Duggan

Return to Index

Untitled Document

Reviews from previous months
Join the mailing list and receive a hyperlinked weekly update on the discs reviewed. details
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board
Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.