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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1902) [78:10]
Orchestre National de France/Bernard Haitink
rec. concert, Radio France, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, 30 June, 1 July 2004. DDD
NAÏVE V5026 [78:10]


An old friend of mine used to talk about how much he liked the music of Mahler and Shostakovich because it was so big and bombastic and he could crank up his expensive stereo system and impress all of his friends. It has always seemed to me, however, that big and bombastic was exactly what these two composers, especially Mahler were not. Rather, they were master orchestrators who painted with the entire palette of sounds available to them, making full use of all of the wonderful light and dark shades and rich hues that an orchestra of over one hundred players could give to them.

So it is with the fifth symphony, Mahler’s return to a purely instrumental form after the extensive use of voices in Symphonies two, three and four. And what a journey this is, through the gamut of emotions from the heraldic opening fanfare followed by the rather tortured second movement to the third movement scherzo, nearly schizophrenic in its mood swings, the achingly gorgeous adagietto and finally the triumphant and even joyous conclusion.

Bernard Haitink is certainly no stranger to the work of Mahler, with at least two complete recorded cycles under his belt and the rich legacy of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and instrument which he played so deftly for so long. Here present is an amalgam of two concert performances with the French National Orchestra, not an ensemble that I readily associate with Mahler. Under the experienced hand of Haitink, however, they turn in a most admirable, if not end-all performance.

There is certainly nothing to fault with Haitink’s interpretation. He maintains an overall sense of structure and never lets the music wallow in its own massiveness. He demonstrates wonderful contrasts of mood, tempo and dynamics, and his handling of the Scherzo with its constant shift between confident dance forms and somewhat disconnected contrapuntal episodes, is simply masterful. He delivers a breathtakingly lovely adagietto, full of all of the requisite longing and nostalgia but never succumbing to the over-ripe sentimentality prevalent in Mr. Bernstein’s wonderful but over the top renditions. And he brings the whole work to a strong, joyous and full conclusion without being right up in your face.

I have a couple of issues with the orchestra, in that there are times when the brass, particularly in the first movement, get a little unwieldy and out of tune. The double basses and low brass could be a bit richer sounding as well, but this may be as much a recording issue as anything.

The Paris audience is most respectful, completely silent until the huge burst of applause at the end. This is a fine release overall, and it is particularly interesting to hear what a conductor like Haitink can do with an orchestra not particularly known for their work with this composer.

Recommended as a comparison recording to such giants as Haitink with Amsterdam, Bernstein and Walter.

Kevin Sutton

see also Review by Anne Ozorio



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