Years ago I silenced a roomful of theatrical folk when
I announced that I didn’t share most people’s opinion of Laurence Olivier’s
performances on film of Shakespeare. After the sound of pins dropping
and what I swear was tumbleweed blowing across the carpet I was asked
how I could possibly hold such a bizarre opinion, not least express
it in the company of those who regarded "Dear Larry" as blessed
by the shade of Shakespeare himself. My reply was that in the young
Olivier’s performances of Shakespeare "I can see the wheels going
round" which is also, to bring myself to the matter in hand, my
feeling about Simon Rattle’s Mahler. For me Rattle conducts Mahler like
the young Olivier plays Shakespeare: with every word considered and
interpreted; every glance, every gesture, every movement and resonance
calculated – micro-managed, you could say, to an almost obsessive
degree. Substitute notes, bars, motifs, themes, rhythms and tempi and
you should see what I mean about Simon Rattle’s "micro-managed"
Mahler. Of course, like Olivier’s Shakespeare, Rattle’s Mahler can be
deeply impressive and frequently illuminating, an antidote to so many
routine and lacklustre Mahler recordings and performances that come
by down the years. Give me Rattle’s penetrating vision over those every
time. However, in the end and especially over time, which is the acid
test in recordings, I think it the kind of approach to Mahler that can,
at its most inappropriate, take attention away from the work being performed
placing it on the interpretation and how that interpretation
is achieved. I suppose what Rattle in Mahler and Olivier in Shakespeare
lack is what I can best describe as "the art that conceals the
art". No matter how good they are, and they are both very
good, you shouldn’t really be aware of how a conductor or an actor achieves
what they do, and the problem with them is that you can most of the
time. It all should just happen in front of you; the means employed
to do it concealed from the audience. You should come out of the concert
hall, or the theatre, without any impression that it has taken any effort
at all. You should not, as I put it to my outraged theatrical friends
regarding Olivier, and do so now regarding Rattle, be aware of "the
wheels going round".
The scherzo third movement of Mahler’s Fifth, as played
on this new recording, is as good a case in point of this "flaw",
if I can call it that, in Rattle’s Mahler. Remember firstly what should
make this whole symphony work. The Fifth dramatises in music the concept
of change and contrast. It is a supreme test for conductor and orchestra
because it challenges them to explore extremes of expression whilst
maintaining a unity of purpose that ultimately leads to satisfaction.
Do anything else and it doesn’t cohere since this symphony travels the
greatest emotional distance of all Mahler’s works. It’s a tall order
to cover all the bases and some conductors don’t even come close. Most
are good at the dramatic/tragic/dark end of the work, but fewer appreciate
the need to bring out the fantastic/joyful/lighter end that balances
the piece across the whole range. Even less can balance the two perfectly.
The third movement is the point at which you know if the conductor has
succeeded in catching the protean nature of the work by switching completely
the mood of the first two movements to reflect the breadth of Mahler’s
conception. I don’t think Rattle does that sufficiently here and certainly
not to the same degree as Rudolf Barshai (Laurel Record Laurel-905),
Rudolf Schwarz (Everest EVC 9032), Sir John Barbirolli (EMI 5 66910
2) and Benjamin Zander (Telarc 2CD-80569), to name just four. The problem
lies in this "micro management" by Rattle of every moment
in the score that I referred to earlier. It has the effect on repeated
listening of "straitjacketing" music that must be allowed
to breathe and develop almost unaided. Rattle really does need to learn
that sometimes "less is more" and that he doesn’t have to
be heard to be doing something, anything, to every moment of
the music. The horn-led trios are especially lacking in earthy spontaneity.
This in spite of the fact that the superb horn soloist Stefan Dohr was
brought to the front of the orchestra at the concerts to play them.
I don’t think this frees up the soloist’s performance at all. Quite
the contrary, I think it’s another example of Rattle trying to control
every response in the audience. Certainly Rattle has come a long way
from his dreadful Proms performance of this work five years ago when
he barely skated over the surface in what was the quickest performance
of the piece I have ever heard, as well as the most superficial and
unfeeling. But I think he still has some way to go on the evidence of
the way he treats the scherzo now. What emerges is a very sophisticated,
calculated reading of the movement: the metropolitan man going into
the countryside but armed with his digital camera and his mobile phone.
I said that most conductors are good at the dramatic/tragic/dark
end of the work and Rattle is certainly among these. The first movement
delivers a dark, almost brutal opening to the funeral march which is
unsettling in its violence with the march proper veiled and studied
and the first trio especially distinguished by the trumpet riding the
rest of the orchestra magnificently as we are pitched forwards with
great attack. It is in movements like this that Rattle’s "control
freakery" in Mahler pays the most dividends with all the tragedy
and despair you could wish for but making the fact that he will ultimately
fail to clear it from your mind later in the third movement that much
more regrettable. The second movement is deeply impressive here too.
The conductor must bring out a constantly changing, vividly bipolar,
helter-skelter experience teetering on the edge of disintegration. Few
conductors can bring it off completely but Rattle is certainly among
them. I do feel, however, that, as was the case in the Proms performance
five years ago, Rattle doesn’t quite understand the structural imperative
behind the climax to this movement. Remember that the chorale theme
that will eventually bring triumph to the whole symphony at the end
of the last movement is predicted here. Under Rattle the passage sounds
too much like the climax of the work itself. There should always be
something left in reserve for the end of the symphony and, as we shall
see, this proves not to be the case when the end does at last come.
However, this second movement compliments the first very well in the
Rattle scheme of this symphony.
By the time we reach the fourth movement, the famous
Adagietto for strings and harp, we should have passed through a crucially
transforming third movement and be in another world of feeling altogether.
But, as I have said, I don’t think Rattle’s way with Mahler suits the
third movement and, so at the arrival of the Adagietto, I think the
performance is already flawed. In a radio interview Rattle talked of
rehearsing the Berlin Philharmonic and referring to the old "Death
In Venice" tradition of playing this movement far too slowly which
happily now seems to be losing its grip with conductors at last playing
it more with the kind of tempo Mahler used. "Nobody died!"
is what Rattle told the Berliners at this point. However I mentioned
earlier that Rattle gave what I considered a very poor reading of this
symphony at the Proms five years ago. Whilst it is the case that he
has deepened his view of the work since, which has meant broader tempi,
it was his reading of the Adagietto five years ago that was the only
illuminating part of his performance. On that occasion he played the
Adagietto just as it should be: a beautifully wistful "song without
words", timed in my notes on the night at 8:15. Here in Berlin
Rattle has increased his timing to 9:33 and so seems to be contradicting
his own strictures about the tempo for this movement by going slower.
You could argue that his new slowing down is proportionate with the
way he has broadened in all the other movements. The problem is that
I believe the earlier performance’s tempo about right and that it would
have worked beautifully this time with the broader last movement if
only Rattle had done it. I would have also allowed the reprises of the
Adagietto in the last movement to sound like the first time we heard
it, so knitting the movements together. If you want to hear how the
Adagietto should be done listen to Rudolf Schwarz’s recording. His 7:31
Adagietto is wonderful, especially when run together with his 16:48
last movement. Rattle is only twenty seconds or so faster than Barbirolli,
but since Sir John’s last movement is one of the broadest on record
even he manages to knit the last two movements together in the way Rattle
fails to. Rudolf Barshai also pulls off the Adagietto/last movement
connection well, of course. In his interview Rattle seems also to have
fallen under a school of thought that has gained currency in recent
years that maintains the Adagietto is a musical "love letter"
from Mahler to his wife Alma, reported at second hand by Mengelberg.
So we seem now to have gone from "Death In Venice" to "Love
Story" in one jump and not, I believe, to the music’s benefit.
Thank heavens Rattle didn’t quote from the mawkish trash that Mengelberg
maintained was the "poem" that can be sung to the Adagietto
or all would have been lost. The movement is beautifully played by Rattle
and the Berliners but in the scheme of the symphony I think another
example of his Mahler style failing to serve the music appropriately.
The last movement itself goes along at a terrific lick
but I think that Rattle’s determination to control of every last detail
lets him down again. There really needs to be a degree more wit and
humour to carry us away and counterbalance the effect of the first two
movements. Excitement and drive are important but there is more in this
wonderful music than that. The orchestra plays it all superbly and it
must have been a terrific, white-knuckle ride to be in the hall and
hear it. But I was left wanting more and needed to turn to Barshai,
Schwarz and Barbirolli whose slightly broader, earthier and more characterful
accounts win the day for me. These men may not have orchestras to compare
technically with the fabulous Berlin Philharmonic which, under Rattle,
look poised to start a new and exciting era, but they more than make
up for that in spontaneity and depth of feeling. An acquaintance in
the audience at the London performance of this symphony a month or so
after those in Berlin put it very well when he said the Berliners play
"like an obedient new bride trying every trick to keep the new
young master happy".
The sound on this new issue is sharp and quite close.
I thought the high strings had a bit of an edge and the brass could
be rather noisy, but the detailing and perspectives are excellent and
what is captured gives a wonderful impression of a "live"
occasion even though this is a compilation from a number of performances.
I mentioned at the outset that Rattle’s "micro
management" in Mahler, so much in evidence in this work, does not
serve this music well over time whereas in some other Mahler works under
him it can prove more satisfying. The Tenth Symphony, for example, gains
from it superbly. There, where nerve ends need to be exposed, the approach
is perfect. Passages of the Second, Sixth and Seventh are likewise well
served by the Rattle manner. The Fourth, however, suffers greatly from
Rattle’s mannerisms. Maybe he is best heard in the Fifth Symphony "live"
once or twice. For all of its virtues, for me this recording cannot
compete with Barshai, Schwarz, Barbirolli, Kubelik and Bernstein among
older versions and Zander and Gatti (BMG Conifer 75605 51318 2) among
more recent ones. I recommend them to you first with Rattle as a fascinating
I have reviewed Rudolf
Barshai’s version as well as Rudolf
Benjamin Zander’s and I also warmly recommend Barbirolli’s recording
that I deal with in my Mahler
recording survey , though be aware that this recording has been
reissued with another number on EMI Great Recordings of the Century
(EMI 5 66910 2). It still offers a unique experience, as do Rudolf Schwarz
and most especially Rudolf Barshai.
Simon Rattle’s admirers, of whom I am one, will need
no prompting to buy this. As a souvenir from a remarkable set of occasions
this recording of Rattle’s Mahler Fifth is still one for the
collection. But it is not the "killer" version of Mahler’s
Fifth that many may have hoped for.
Marc Bridle has also listened to this recording
Rattle has conspicuously avoided performing Mahler’s
Fifth as often as some other Mahler symphonies and this, his first recording
of the work, is by no means a total success. It is certainly a weightier
performance – both in terms of tempi and playing – than a notorious
CBSO concert performance some years ago which clocked in almost 7 minutes
faster than this live Berlin one. All movements gain in timing, although
the first two struck me in Berlin as somewhat leaden, an impression
the CD confirms, and perhaps even exacerbates on repeated listening.
That leadenness is almost misleading given the erratic
tempo with which Rattle opens the symphony; catharsis is suggested,
but, as it turns out, only suggested. The very opening of the work produces
some undisciplined dynamics from the trumpet (there is almost no distinction
made between the p triplets and sf half-note) and even
less of an effort is made to make the rests actually mean anything (notably,
Rattle also conducts the Prelude to Tristan with a similar ignorance
of rest marks whereas Bernstein understands exactly what is demanded
in both works). Only by the time we reach the fig.1 Pesante marking
does the performance seem to begin to settle dynamically and approach
anything like Mahler’s opening marking of ‘strict’, ‘like a cortege’.
There is certainly no wont of passion during the movement’s first march
but it is during the Trio where the movement embraces its first true
failure. Pulling back inordinately, with some untypically Mahlerian
rubato, Rattle comes dangerously close to letting the tension slacken
so much as to divide the movement. The effect is to nail a wedge between
its intended development.
The stormy second movement fares better, although again
Rattle’s tendency is towards broad tempi. Other conductors, such as
Sinopoli, both in his studio recording and in an even better broadcast
performance from the Royal Festival Hall in 1995, expose the vehemence
of the opening much more dramatically; his basses play with an altogether
sleeker, more sinister ostinato than Rattle’s more measured Berliners.
EMI’s slightly reticent recording attenuates the Berliners normally
broad tone, although in the Philharmonie itself the effect was marginally
more dramatic than this recording suggests. It is, however, still underwhelming
when the impression should be anything but underwhelming.
Some uncharacteristically scrappy playing opens the
Scherzo: bassoons and clarinets are rather unfocussed, and certainly
not ‘Nicht eilen’ as Mahler marks in the score. Yet, Rattle gives this
movement – Mahler’s longest scherzo – a beguiling radiance which the
strings, in particular, cultivate to even greater effect in the adagietto.
The opening subject of the symphony, given to the principal horn, is
almost steely in its beauty although I find the Berliner’s soloist,
Stefan Dohr, rather detached emotionally. His playing, whilst undoubtedly
refined, seems bland beside that of David Pyatt in a very recent London
Symphony Orchestra performance under Pierre Boulez. Boulez’s less spacious
tempo made the moments of pianissimo horn playing all the more entrancing,
almost as if the notes were suspended in time. With Rattle one often
feels that the only suspension is one of disbelief. Some of his conducting
throughout this performance is shockingly prosaic.
What EMI have successfully achieved in this movement
is the balance given to the obbligato horn. Heard live the effect was
specious, yet over-projected, especially with this soloist’s tendency
towards loudness. The recording barely suggests the horn is at the front
of the stage at all which in part begs the question why this should
be done at all – except for the visual spectacle which on a CD is a
Rattle’s view of the adagietto has changed markedly
since that Birmingham performance. Much broader than he was (now he
turns in a performance at 9’32") there is a greater element of
dreaminess to the movement, even if the overall impression is that the
performance lacks sufficient expressivity. There are still problems
with dynamics (the harp’s arpeggios at bars 31 and 32 are neither as
flowing nor as held back as in some performances) and in the strings,
notably at bar 44 where the crescendo is almost sublimated completely,
there is too much of a willingness to ignore the stresses Mahler wrote.
However, the playing of the Berlin strings is sumptuous – and where
they do manage to get the dynamics right the effect is seductive.
The wind are much better at the opening of the Rondo-Finale
than they were at the opening of the Scherzo. Indeed, in many
ways this is the most successful movement of the entire performance.
The Wunderhorn theme is lyrically intense – almost vocal in its
delivery – and the accelerando which leads into the first brass chorale
is evocatively done. Rattle is neither as blistering nor as inexhaustively
imaginative as some conductors in this movement (Boulez, Bernstein and
Karajan spring to mind as conductors who somehow manage to achieve both
of those virtues in the finale) yet he gives it an inexorable forward
momentum which is often thrilling: at the close, the playing of the
Berlin brass is imperious and the staccato woodwind trills are extremely
well articulated, for example, and one does at least feel that Rattle
reaches some kind of apotheosis at the work’s conclusion.
It is an apotheosis that is reached via a somewhat
erratic journey, however. As a whole this performance lacks the visionary
impact of Claudio Abbado with this same orchestra at the 1995 Amsterdam
Mahlerfest, or, indeed, a number of other conductors, and the playing,
whilst generally magnificent, is all too often vulnerable. Rattle neither
veers towards a Bernstein-like demonism, nor towards a Barbirolliesque
affectedness, but at the same time fails to offer a mainstream alternative
to either of those interpreters. If occasionally there are inspired
moments of reflectiveness, or fleeting moments of spontaneity, they
are too infrequent to make this a recommendable version. Too often Rattle
is led by a wilful use of rubato which negates both. Whereas the ever-observant
Abbado gives this symphony an unrivalled sense of fantasy and humanity,
Rattle somehow conjures up a performance which is infuriating for the
possibilities it suggests.
EMI’s recording is fine, but far too reserved for this
symphony; too often, the balance is congested, or, worse, overly bright.
In fact, it flickers like a burning candle so regularly as to be slightly
problematic. The timings EMI give are incorrect, and the notes make
absolutely no reference whatsoever to the revised performing edition
Rattle opted to use for this performance. With a little more time on
their hands EMI might have corrected both these faults.
Ignore the hype and instead opt
for a great performance of Mahler’s Fifth. For that, you need to turn
to Abbado on DG, recorded in 1993, or Bernstein, also on DG, and recorded
in 1987. Both leave Rattle standing at the altar.