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Gustav MAHLER (1869-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901)
London Symphony Orchestra/James DePreist
rec. Abbey Road Studios, London, 29-30 April 2005. DDD.
NAXOS 8.557990 [72:43]

Mahler's Fifth Symphony dramatises change and contrast over a huge tripartite structure consisting of five movements. From the depths of tragedy at the very start to the heights of triumph at the very end, every facet of this bi-polar world is explored in amazing detail. This is accomplished sometimes broadly across whole parts or movements, sometimes microscopically within movements, the changes from one extreme of emotion to the other existing side by side within a few bars. A great performance not only makes all these contrasts felt but also welds them into an unforgettable whole. There really are no harder calls for the conductor in the Mahler canon with a special kind of alchemy needed to touch every nerve of the work. I must tell you at the start that James DePreist simply does not have that alchemy in this super bargain recording from Naxos.

The clincher for this view lies in his performance of the crucial third movement. This is a long and deliciously meandering Scherzo where the symphony seems to have achieved a kind of plateau from the storms and stresses of the first two movements. But don't be deceived. Mahler is showing us nothing less than life itself with all its pleasures and foibles and the contrasts that this work are all about are there still to be heard. They are just not as marked or extreme as elsewhere. Through this movement we will emerge changed beyond recognition and the final two movements will be made possible by it, will be made to make sense by it. Something you will only appreciate when you have heard a great performance. In terms of simple clock timing James DePreist conducts what is the second slowest performance of this third movement on record and here lies part of the problem. If a conductor is to perform a very slow overall performance of this movement - like Bernstein who is a bare thirty seconds faster than DePreist, or Wyn Morris who is a bare twenty seconds slower and therefore the longest of them all - then he is going, like both of them, to have to be aware that there must be significant variations in tempo and phrasing within and between each of the episodes in order to keep the ear of the listener engaged and interested right through. This is rather like a great story-teller who would vary his tone and delivery. DePreist, however, decides on his very slow tempo at the start and he sticks to it - doggedly, unremittingly and slavishly to such an extent that I was bored by the music when it was barely a third of the way through. It never seems to vary and so lacks completely any of the story-telling involvement that is so crucial. There is even the feeling for me that the LSO are champing at the bit to be allowed to bend themselves around the music more and press on. Sadly DePreist's leaden grip is just a dead hand on the reins, stifling any of the little dashes of humour, moments of reflection, flashes of light and elemental energy that suffuses Mahler's inspiration. If you needed illustration that it is the presentation of each contrasting episode rather than overall tempo that counts then look no further than the recording by Bruno Walter. His is the fastest performance of this movement (and of the whole symphony) on record. Yet he manages to convey every little twist and turn at every moment and this leaves you as changed as the symphony itself changes. Bernstein and Walter understand what this music is all about, how it works, what makes it tick, and they bring their own different stamps with the same result. DePreist does not.

The outer movements under DePreist are more conventionally played, though it has to be said that they are not especially outstanding when compared with long-standing recommendations. The first movement is soundly presented with a good, though not especially memorable, funeral march. I have known less powerful dramatic thrusts midway, but I have certainly known more powerful ones too - think Frank Shipway's recording for real hysteria. The treacherous second movement comes off quite well though Barshai and Bernstein, to name but two, are far more daring, far more the risk-takers here, and this kind of approach is more appropriate. This furious music with its solitary meditation in the middle and its "false" chorale climax has brought better conductors than DePreist to grief, but I have the impression that the LSO is more in control of events than their conductor. The Adagietto fourth movement breaks the ten minute barrier but I have heard a lot slower versions than this and even though, like many people these days, I do think the overall clock timing should be quicker, the strings of the LSO do DePreist proud with an eloquent and moving passage of repose. The last movement is, like the second, efficiently played and reaches a satisfying enough climax after good recalls of the Adagietto. But by then the damage has already long been done by that dire third movement which no amount of fine, solid playing from the LSO elsewhere, or the bright, rich recording from Abbey Road will save.

At super-bargain price on Brilliant Classics (92205) you can get Rudolf Barshai (coupled with his own performing edition of the Tenth) and it is his Mahler Fifth that still remains my own favourite . But I still go back also to Rudolf Schwarz on Everest (EVC9032), Barbirolli on EMI (CDM5 669102), Bernstein on DG (452 416-2), Frank Shipway on Membran (222845) and, of course, that remarkable Walter version on Sony (SMK 64451). Any or all of these will give you a performance of this remarkable work to last you a lifetime and still leave not too big a dent in your bank account.

In a fiercely competitive list, this very ordinary performance from DePreist is completely ruled out of consideration by a plodding Scherzo that just bores. And boring is the last thing that Mahler should be.

Tony Duggan


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