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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901-1902) [73:21]
(Trauermarsch [12:35]; Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz [15:04]; Scherzo [19:12]; Adagietto, sehr langsam [10:49]; Rondo-Finale, allegro [15:25])
San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 28 September-2 October 2005. DDD
SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY 821936-0012-2 [73:21]

Having raved about the San Francisco Tilson Thomas recording of Mahler’s 7th Symphony, I was delighted to have the opportunity to sample the great 5th Symphony, packaged like the others in this series with a nice box and booklet, and with sumptuous SACD hybrid sound. Once again I have the luxury of a big thick 1904 edition Peters Edition score, bought for virtually no money in an unwieldy heap with all the other Mahler Symphonies from a Dutch charity shop ignorant of their true value. My other reference is Leonard Bernstein’s 1988 DG recording, chosen as ‘Building a Library’ recommendation some years ago by David Mellor. While Mr. Mellor’s opinion may not be my reference on most things, at least the 1999 ‘Rough Guide’ to Classical Music is in agreement, with Lenny’s DG Mahler 5 in there with their top 100 ‘Essential CDs’.
So, leaving this image of your friendly reviewer deep into his element, does Tilson Thomas topple Bernstein’s legendary Vienna Philharmonic recording? Certainly, much of what I admired in the 7th Symphony recording is present in this new 5th. The detail is quite remarkable. Following the score you can sense the accuracy in terms of balance and colour, with all boxes ticked in terms of satisfaction with regard to sound quality. By comparison, Bernstein’s orchestra can sound quite blowsy at times, the pre-fire Alte Oper in Frankfurt no doubt contributing to a considerably vast and resonant sound platform.
The opening pages of the symphony are something of a microcosm when comparing the two recordings at hand. Why is it that Bernstein seems to be able to create more drama and more impact – why is it his recording rather than Tilson Thomas’s you want to hear right to the end? Small points add up to substantially different results. Bernstein (arguably) seems to have the better solo trumpet in general, but it’s the attention to dynamics which make the difference – subtle inflections which transform the opening curtain-call. The solo builds from a low D# to one an octave higher in the first seven bars – the high note having a small diminuendo which the San Francisco player ignores. Just before the tutti chord which crashes in at the end of the solo, Bernstein uses the diminuendo from sf to reach  p which is intended for the entry of the second trumpet, going up to ff in half a bar, for the solo trumpet as well. This is a bit naughty, but boy does that extreme crescendo make the ‘hit’ of that first chord something stunning. Again, at this point the San Francisco trumpet seems to ignore that last diminuendo before the opening tutti, which is a shame – if you want real crescendo you have to start quietly. Reaching down into the Pesante depths before the first ‘tune’ at figure 2, Bernstein is somehow rougher and more forceful with those hammer blow triplets: Tilson Thomas gets there as well, but the impact is less – subtly so, and only in evidence when you make direct comparisons like these, but to me they sum up my reasons for preferring one over the other. With Tilson Thomas, the transition between the end of that descending scale and that violin/cello theme at 2 sounds just that, a transition. Bernstein is already giving us the chills, emphasising the funeral-march nature of those eight bars.            
I could go on like this for hours, but I should imagine you are getting the point by now. Moving along to the second movement there is another case in point. After rehearsal mark 11 there is a bare section with only celli and a timp pedal roll. This cello section solo at the change of key between rehearsal marks 11 and 12 is marked PP klagend. Tilson Thomas gets the PP, but Bernstein shows the way to wring a klagend character from this relatively simple line – allowing the celli some portamenti between the seventh interval leaps, and emphasising them with extra stresses – admittedly not in the score, but surely providing Mahler with more of what he seems to have wanted.
The opening of the Scherzo has Tilson Thomas coming out on top for once. Bernstein takes Mahler’s ‘nicht zu schnell’ marking just a little too seriously, and it is with the San Francisco orchestra that we get more of the Ländler schwung that this music seems to demand. I would at this point like to make clear that this new recording and performance is in no way a bad one – very, very far from it. The orchestral playing is of the highest quality, and with demonstration sound collectors of this edition need have no qualms about adding this disc to their collection. Bernstein is in some ways a unique case, but another of my reasons for selecting his version as a comparison is that both make claims as being ‘live’ recordings. I have no way of proving otherwise, any more than I could disprove a spiritualist orchestra’s claim to have made their recording ‘in the presence of the composer’, but be sure of one thing, both ‘live’ recordings have had any offensive bumps or squeaks airbrushed into oblivion. There is a little moment in the new recording which proved this to me. In the first movement at 7:27-8 there is a digital ‘splice’, a small bump in the decay at the final chord before Tempo 1 which even Mr. Doppler would never be able to explain away as anything other than a big fat edit. The San Francisco make no claims otherwise, but like the DG Bernstein set, you never get to hear how much of the work was done the day after the concert, with invited bodies to sit in the audience so that the acoustic is comparable with concert conditions (I know, I was that soldier). There is another mildly disturbing blip at 5:03 into the final movement, as if someone might have spluttered sugary coffee onto the tape at some stage, but for a live recording the present disc is otherwise as clean as the proverbial whistle, with no applause at the end – just some ghostly whispers in the decay of the final chord.
The only remaining million-dollar question is; will Tilson Thomas bring us to an other-worldly nirvana with the famous Adagietto fourth movement? The secret here lies in the strings of course, and the San Francisco ‘sound’ is relatively cool in comparison to Bernstein’s vibrato-laden Vienna violins. The DG recording highlights the harp just a little too much for my ears, so it comes back to a question of taste. Bernstein loads the lines with more emotional charge; Tilson Thomas gives us a more ethereal transport to those heavenly heights.
This new Mahler 5 is a truly excellent performance, and a stunning recording. If it is Bernstein which keeps me sitting until my bladder is fit to burst rather than wandering off to make a coffee, then that might just be my problem, and I really don’t want to put you off with such unsavoury details. I would most certainly recommend this recording for study purposes for the detail alone, and for SACD sound these San Francisco issues are hard to beat for sheer orchestral glory. The benefits are all there in the clarity and quality of the production, my only real caveat is in the character of the performance – something about which I would expect listeners to be able to make their own minds.
Dominy Clements

see also review by Tony Duggan


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