Recently I reviewed a Berlin Classics recording of
Mahlerís Sixth Symphony conducted by Gunther Herbig made "live"
in Saarbrucken in 1999:
I thought it one of finest recordings of that work
I had heard. Now here is a recording of Mahlerís Fifth from the same
conductor: a studio version from the early 1980s when Herbig was conductor
of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra in the old East Berlin. Whilst I donít
think it the equal of the Sixth itís still a recording that further
illustrates Herbig as a conductor of major importance and a Mahlerian
of some stature. As also did a recent superb Mahler Ninth with the BBC
Philharmonic in a studio broadcast from Manchester.
Under Herbig the first movement of the Fifth opens
with a stark, precise and challenging funeral march that is then swept
away by a superbly breath-catching surge forward at the crucial Trio
I "jump-off"(marked "Suddenly faster. Passionate. Wild")
showing Herbig in full control of this movementís faculties as he takes
Mahler at his word. As does the dread and dark quality Herbig imparts
to the return of the opening fanfare music. This really is something
out of 19th century gothic horror. Notice also the varied
wind tones, well balanced and blended, something that will last the
whole performance through. Then in the passage leading up to where Mahler
ushers in the movementís coda with a "collapse climax" marked
"Lamenting" Herbig speeds up, an effect that surprised me
with a new perspective brought to the music. A fascinating and compelling
first movement, therefore. The second movement begins, as Mahler intended,
with maximum vehemence. This is the counterpart, almost the mirror image,
of the first and is the completion of Mahlerís Part One so the conductor
must show awareness of all this in the way he knits the common material
of both movements together. Herbig does this just fine, but the conductor
must also bring out the particular character of the movement on its
own: a constantly changing, bipolar, helter-skelter, teetering on the
edge of disintegration yet hanging together. Few conductors can bring
that off completely but Herbig is certainly among them. The kaleidoscope
is varied and holds the interest throughout. Depths are plumbed and
heights are scaled superbly. Note especially Herbigís delivery of the
heavy brass at 428-463 and the way the chorale-climax leaves something
held back showing his awareness that it isnít until the last movement
that this special moment will really clinch the emotional resolution
of the work. The final descent at the close of the movement is suitably
dramatic and pregnant with questions that the third movement/part two
has to try to answer.
Clarity and a sharp rhythmic imperative mark out the
third movement. Also, at over eighteen minutes, an acute awareness by
Herbig that, as Mahler himself said, this music should not be rushed.
But neither is it indulged in any way. Rather the press is on the world
of the dance and I also liked Herbigís care for clear contrapuntal lines
allowing those winds that I mentioned earlier to come through well.
Certainly Herbig has changed the mood of the symphony effectively now.
The horn solo trios have about them the air of a "play within a
play" by the way Herbig subtly slows his tempi for the fine un-named
soloist to shine.
So far, so good. But I wrote at the outset of this
review that I didnít think this recording the equal of the Sixth Symphony
under Herbig and it is in the final two movements where I felt a curious
but very palpable falling away of what was promising to be something
quite special. Donít misunderstand me, though. The Adagietto fourth
movement is certainly well played, but there is not quite the degree
of nostalgic reverie and depth of feeling that this lovely music surely
needs. Itís a close-run thing but I felt rather detached from the symphony
from now on. Then the last movement, whilst also well played and certainly
rising to a barnstorming conclusion, comes over as a trifle ruthless.
There is nothing wrong with a spring in the step in this movement. But
at this kind of tempo a little more wit and twinkle would have gone
a long way to showing the other side of Mahlerís character. So well
illustrated by this symphony of change and contrast which the conductor
must catch from first bar to last. Herbig just fails to do so in these
last two movements.
Having heard and greatly admired Herbigís Mahler Sixth
from just three years ago I would love to hear how he conducts the Fifth
now as my final conclusion on this recording from twenty years ago must
be one of "interpretation in progress". I am sure his thoughts
would have settled by now. On the basis of the Mahler I have heard from
Herbig, I certainly do hope to hear more. Maybe Berlin Classics will
oblige and gain access to that BBC Philharmonic Ninth.
The recorded sound is clear and well balanced but lacking
in some atmosphere and itís a trifle thin when the strings are playing
high in their register. The orchestra donít have the character of the
great city ensembles or give any evidence that they are a lesser band
playing beyond themselves but they have some fine wind soloists and
that goes a long way in this work.
My first choice for this work remains with Rudolf Barshai
on Laurel Record (LR-905) that I reviewed here:
Rudolf Schwarzís old recording on Everest (EVC 9032)
is also worth a listen and I reviewed that here also:
On reflection I should say that in my original review
I was perhaps too harsh on the recorded sound of the Schwarz recording.
Living with it over time in its present incarnation I think it can pretty
well hold its own against most modern recordings and, in some cases,
even be judged superior.
Herbigís is an interesting and rewarding earlier recording
from a fine Mahlerian, but one that by the end doesnít quite deliver
what it promised earlier.