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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1902) [68:10]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. live, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 26, 28 October 2004. DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 62055-2 [68:10]

As the timing for this recording shows, this is one of the fleetest Mahler Fifths that I know, though Bruno Walter is swifter still in his celebrated 1947 recording, which takes an astonishing 61:04. However, itís not just the duration of the performance, occasioned by some fairly swift tempi, that is remarkable. Taken from concerts last October (2004), this is the clearest Mahler 5 that I can recall hearing. Sakari Oramo seems to be engaging with Mahler at present for the 2005/6 season will see him conducting the CBSO in the first two symphonies as well as Das Lied von der Erde. It will be interesting to see if he brings to these scores something of the same transparency and clarity that he achieves here.

And that clarity is important. Writing of this very symphony, Michael Steinberg has pointed out that around the time that he was composing the work Mahler acquired a complete edition of Bach and was deeply impressed by the contents. Intriguingly, Steinberg relates that on the one occasion that Mahler conducted the Fifth in Vienna he prefaced the performance with Bachís motet, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 225, a fascinating juxtaposition. Steinberg argues that from this point on Mahlerís music became more polyphonic, influenced, in part at least, by the composerís appreciation of Bach. In this present performance Oramo, aided and abetted by his players, certainly achieves an impressive degree of clarity and a significant amount of detail is revealed.

In this the recording engineers must have played their part too. I found that, in comparison with some other recordings of the work that I own, I had to set the volume level a bit higher. But once Iíd done that the recording has a pleasing natural ambience. The recording and performance bring out many little details I hadnít quite noticed before. The soft percussion around 4:18 into the first movement is tellingly, but not ostentatiously, reproduced. Indeed, the capture of quiet percussion playing throughout the performance is a delight. Another example of this that particularly caught my ear was the soft bass drum roll 12:04 into the third movement. Small, even pedantic, details you may think, but they attest to the care with which both performance and recording have been prepared.

But what of the performance itself? Some listeners may well find the first of the workís three parts (movements I and II) a trifle cool. The opening funeral march, for example, doesnít have the weight and emotion that Barbirolli offers, let alone the angst we hear from Bernstein in his live DG recording with the VPO. In terms of comparisons, once Iíd heard just a couple of minutes of Oramoís reading I knew there was no point in even getting out of the jewel cases either of Klaus Tennstedtís live recordings; the performances are just too differently conceived! Oramo impresses through his refusal to be too emotional and to overplay his hand too soon. However, if one listens to Barbirolli or Bernstein in the opening measures of this work one is conscious of Great Events being launched. You donít get that with Oramo and I rather miss that. That said, itís a finely detailed reading of the movement and the CBSO play excellently throughout.

Thereís ample thrust at the start of the second movement. Oramo takes the fast music, which predominates in this movement, very fast indeed. Despite his challenging tempi, however, the CBSO cope very well (e.g. around 8:00). Yet, though thereís excitement Ė of a certain kind Ė Iím not sure that the music has sufficient weight or bite. Bernstein, for example, makes the VPO fairly snarl in places and by contrast Oramo seems to miss some of the malevolence that Mahler wrote into some of these pages. When the chorale occurs near the end of the movement thereís an appropriate grandeur though a slightly broader tempo might have delivered even more.

The substantial scherzo that lies at the heart of the work is particularly suited to Oramoís relatively light touch. Actually, in this movement his pacing is much closer to what Iíd expect. I enjoyed the performance and the CBSOís principal horn player, Elspeth Dutch, plays her vital part very well indeed, though sheís not as forward in the aural picture as Iíve heard on some other recordings. I suspect Oramo did not replicate the experiment of his predecessor, Sir Simon Rattle, who, in his Berlin recording had the horn player placed at the front of the orchestra.

Having given us three pretty brisk movements Oramo springs something of a surprise by adopting a traditionally broad speed for the celebrated Adagietto. Where Bruno Walter (1947) eased through the music in just 7:35 and Rudolph Barshai (1997) was scarcely slower at 8:17, Oramoís performance plays for 10:01. Oddly, in terms of tempo at least, heís closest to the ripe, emotional conception of Barbirolli here though he doesnít encourage the same ripeness of tone that Barbirolli drew from the New Philharmonia. Yet again he keeps the textures admirably clear and the CBSO strings play beautifully for him. At the final climax of the movement (9:00) the first violins in alt sound perhaps just a bit thin but, by contrast, the descending bass line as the climax passes is projected very strongly indeed, though not to the musicís detriment.

In the finale weíre back to bracing, indeed challenging tempi. The string-led fugue not long after the start of the movement is taken at a real lick. It was in this movement, however, that I had my most serious reservations. It just seemed to me that the music was being pressed too much and for all their individual and corporate skill the CBSO do sound under pressure at times. Worse still, at the extremely brisk basic tempo several key phrases fail to make the necessary impact. Frankly, I thought the music was being rushed unnecessarily. The apotheosis of the second movementís chorale is a disappointment because it isnít allowed to blossom and flower, as it should. Itís worth noting that though the track timing for this movement is 14:42 the music only plays for 14:05, the rest being given over to enthusiastic applause. For me, the slightly less frenetic overall approaches of Bernstein (15:00) or Barshai (16:18) are more rewarding.

So, thereís a good deal to admire in this performance and I found the clarity of Oramoís performance very refreshing. Iím sure that in the concert hall, as a one-off experience, Iíd have been as delighted as the Symphony Hall audience clearly was. However, Iím not sure how well this version, despite its many merits, will stand up to repeated listening. In the last analysis, this is a reading that I admire in many respects but it doesnít stir me in the way that Barbirolli, Barshai or Bernstein do.

In summary, this is a very well played performance, presented in very good sound - though you may need to adjust the playback level. Itís a very enjoyable recording but I donít think it disturbs existing recommendations as a library choice.

John Quinn

see also review by Patrick Waller

 

 



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