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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No 5 in C# minor (1904) [68:10]
(I Trauermarsch [11:54]; II Stürmisch bewegt mit grösster Vehemenz [13:43]; III Scherzo: Kräftig nicht zu schnell [17:27]; IV Adagietto: Sehr langsam [10:01]; Rondo-Finale: Allegro [14:42])
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
Rec. live in Symphony Hall, Birmingham in October 2004 DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 62055-2 [68:10]

Although the thought may appear a little surprising, there can be little doubt that Birmingham now has a significant Mahler tradition. But its begetter has moved on and, in any case, it doesn’t really include the Fifth Symphony because Sir Simon came to it, along with the Eighth, only quite recently. His successor Sakari Oramo has, by all accounts, proved very worthy and here sets down what seems to be his first Mahler recording in performances drawn from two concerts given about a year ago. It seems logical to compare this performance with Rattle’s 2002 live recording from Berlin – taken from his first concerts there as principal conductor (see link to review below). Of course there is a morasse of other Mahler Fifths out there and I will also make some comparisons with Walter (1947), Barbirolli (1969), Karajan (1973) and Haitink (live in 1986).

Both Oramo and Rattle are unremarkable throughout in terms of tempi and they don’t come close to the concision of Walter or longueurs of Barbirolli. Oramo’s approach is long on structure and sensitivity but not, perhaps, particularly distinctive. He is certainly less interventionist than Rattle. Neither quite captures the various moods of this piece as fully as Walter does – his opener is the most funereal, the second movement has the most vehemence and his is the most flowing but still rapt adagietto. But, coming back to the Oramo/Rattle comparison, there was a greater sense of occasion in Berlin (as there should have been!) and Rattle’s version stands out more.

The playing of the excellent City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is idiomatic and they are given very good recorded sound. This was a performance that one would certainly have been pleased to catch in the concert hall. There is little or no audience noise until the well-deserved applause at the end.

In negotiating the maze of Mahler Fifths, it would make sense to acquire at least one studio and one live version. Walter’s version with the New York Philharmonic comes from the studio and is indispensable despite the historic mono sound (see links to reviews of a recent reissue). For me, he gets much closer to the heart of this piece than the idiosyncratic Barbirolli or slightly clinical Karajan, both of whom go well over the 70 minute mark; Walter takes just 61 minutes but doesn’t sound rushed. Haitink also cleared the 70 minute barrier in his live Christmas day concert from the Concertgebouw but this is another a live performance to be reckoned with - no patching here – a real one-off. My marginal preference for a live version would be for Rattle but, as Tony Duggan’s review shows, he may not suit all tastes. Indeed Oramo could be a safer choice. I have little doubt that City of Birmingham fans will love this disc and anyone looking for a decent middle-of-the-road version of this work in fine sound is unlikely to be disappointed.

Patrick C Waller

Link to review of Rattle’s Mahler 5:
Link to reviews of Walter’s Mahler 5:



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