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
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.