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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 (1902)
Orchestre Nationale de France/Bernard Haitink
recorded in concert by Radio France, 30 June, 1 July 2004, Paris. DDD.
NAÏVE V 5026 [78:00]

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It's always an event when Bernard Haitink conducts Mahler. At seventy-five, he has decades of experience at the highest levels and will always have something to say. He has worked with the best Mahler orchestras in the world who understand his approach and have produced wonders for him. The Orchestra National de France isn't in the same league. It's not a bad orchestra, by any means, being a Radio France orchestra. In the past they've had conductors like Jochum, and currently their musical director is Kurt Masur. This certainly isn't a bad recording. But neither is it state of the art. It's useful to listen to nonetheless to figure out what makes it tick ... or not, as the case may be.

The Trauermarsch is decidedly stately, as if each marcher's foot had to be drawn up to the other before taking the next step. There is validity for this approach, for formal military marches can be exceedingly slow. But this is the beginning of a symphony. The contrast between the fanfare theme and the quieter parts of the movement don't come over with the sense of forward trajectory they need to keep the symphony moving. Mahler does write that the movement should be “at a measured pace, like a cortege” but played with such formal impersonality it doesn't convey the idea that something or someone is being laid to rest, which is the whole point of a cortège. As for the second movement, which Mahler described as “Stürmisch bewegt” (violently agitated, with utmost vehemence), this sense of formality again stymies the passion that underlies nearly everything Mahler wrote. About nine minutes into the movement things begin to pick up, with swirling textures and the crashing of drums. The dramatic peaks of sound at the end, almost Wagnerian in character, should be the culmination of the movement, rather than an afterthought. The Scherzo sounds promising enough, the “nicht zu schnell” instruction being carefully observed. I quite liked the entry of the trumpets here, and the precision of the violin passages that follow. But again, there is no sense of urgency, of heading forth towards a resolution. Haitink and his players linger over details like the rat-a-tata-tat of percussion and bells, but they are there for a purpose: to echo, perhaps, a vehicle speeding along relentlessly. As for the Adagietto, the shimmering textures and subtleties are achieved at the expense of muscle and vigour. The Rondo, however, is played with real vivacity and lightness, and is quite pleasant.

This is perhaps the most “classical” of Mahler's symphonies and a formal, “classical” interpretation has its merits. For me, however, an interpretation that leads somewhere matters more. How do we get from the cortège to the cheerfuless of the Rondo-finale? In many versions, the trajectory is achieved by a sense of forward thrust and tension that this version downplays. I don't believe that musicians as good as Haitink deliberately play “just the notes”, and there's always something to learn, even from a performance that doesn't please as some of the greatest do. From this I got a sense of formal structure, but little sense of development or inner direction. This recording has its merits, but in a market as full of superb Mahler Fifths, it's not one to rush out for.


Anne Ozorio







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