> Mahler Symphony 5 Swarowsky [TD]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C minor (1901-3)
Wiener Symphoniker/Hans Swarowsky
Rec: Austrian Radio studio, February 1971
BERLIN CLASSICS 0017202BC [77:56]


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It is unfortunate that for a lot of people Hans Swarowsky may be better remembered for the achievements of others. Let me explain what I mean. For many years Professor Swarowsky was head of the famous conductors class at the Vienna Conservatory. In his years as a much-admired teacher he was responsible for the early nurturing of many talented students, among them Zubin Mehta, Claudio Abbado, Giuseppe Sinopoli and Mariss Jansons. So you can perhaps see why he may go down in history better regarded as a teacher rather than as a conductor in his own right. However he did enjoy a long career with some good, though not outstanding, posts with orchestras and opera houses away from his life as a teacher and mentor. He emerged from the great golden tradition of Austro-German music making.

He was born in Budapest in 1899 and died in 1975. He first studied Psychology and History of Art at Vienna University. Later as a musician his teachers included Busoni and Rosenthal in piano, Schoenberg and Webern in theory, Weingartner and Franz Schalk in conducting in addition to lessons with Richard Strauss and Clemens Krauss. He would later succeed Krauss as Professor of Conducting at the Conservatory and act as uncredited collaborator on the libretto for Straussís Capriccio with him. So that is some pedigree. Odd, therefore, that he never quite made it to the top of his profession as a conductor and be celebrated in the way that so many of his contemporaries were. He made few recordings either, so it isnít as if he might be "rediscovered". Those recordings he did make were often for smaller labels. For example he recorded a complete studio "Ring" cycle in 1968 in Munich which you can sometimes pick up for a song. There are also a couple of Mahler Fourths knocking about. This is his only other Mahler recording Iím aware of and even this is from archives of Austrian Radio, not meant for issue, even though it was made in the studio with the orchestra of which he was Principal Conductor just after the WWII until Karajan took over in 1947. In fact Swarowsky had been one of the two native conductors (Moralt was the other) allowed to conduct at the first post-war Salzburg Festival whilst the likes of Karajan and Bohm were still under a political cloud.

In this recording of Mahlerís Fifth Symphony the first movement stresses darkness and tragedy even to the extent of reining in the outburst of frantic passion that Mahler drops into the middle in order to set out his stall of extremes being mapped and that costs the movement some variety. Certainly the tone that Swarowsky adopts is impressive in itself, and impressively delivered, but ultimately I found this approach inappropriate. There are still some highlights, though. Notice the way the cello line is given special care in the funeral march passages and the vivid way the funeral march itself returns following that central. This over stressing on Mahlerís dark world in the first movement is continued in the second. This begins with one of the most impressive deliveries of the opening bars I have ever heard: cellos and basses really testing their bows to breaking point. The problem is that Swarowskyís tempo is a mite too underpowered to really propel the music forward with the kind of headlong onslaught it needs in the fast passages. There seems to be too much pull from the dark abyss of the close of the first movement and there are passages of the second that should sound as though this is trying to be thrown off. Swarowsky is well aware of Mahlerian colouring, however. So, as with the first movement, the second is impressively done but too much stress is laid again on the darkness with no idea that behind it there is light trying to break through. The overall underlying tempo also tends to make this most difficult movement sprawl rather. The chorale-led climax is a bit too grandiose to be convincing and the ending is certainly too loud though this may be a fault of the engineers.

Clocking in at 19.12 this recording has one of the longest accounts of the third movement I have heard. I know Mahler feared conductors would take this movement too fast but I think there are limits. Also, when presented like this in such a steady way, the music tends to being uninvolving. As though one were being presented with a map of a landscape rather than an aerial photograph of it. Too little attention gets paid to the little highways and byways that are down there. The playing of the orchestraís soloists is certainly splendid but they need a stronger baton to really shine and banish that lingering dark tone that still seems to cast its shadow over the one movement that has to let the light in to complete the emotional world of the work. This means that by the arrival of the Adagietto fourth movement I feel Swarowsky had largely missed any chance of delivering the multi-faceted nature of the work. I was not surprised that his Adagietto was beautiful, romantic and dark-grained. Again very well done by not really serving the wider picture. The fact that Swarowsky takes a spacious view of the last movement need be no bad thing, however here what emerges is too Autumnal, resigned and elegiac to really lift the spirits and completely counterbalance the first movement.

Well-balanced recording and fine playing make this too grave and too dark recording of Mahlerís Fifth Symphony worth seeking out for the view of a conductor largely overlooked.

Tony Duggan

Tony Duggan's Comparative review of Mahler 5 recordings

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