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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901-1904)
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Yoel Levi
rec. Atlanta Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, 13-14 February 1995
TELARC CD80394 [72:38]
Experience Classicsonline

Yoel Levi’s recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony came out in 1995 and so I was surprised to see it cross my desk again, not being aware of any re-issue initiative on the part of Telarc.

All the same, this was a good opportunity to revisit the interpretation that convinced me, when I first heard it, that even an American Orchestra without a Mahler tradition could deliver faultless, possibly spectacular Mahler.

In my survey of Mahler recordings - perpetually under construction, because these days good Mahler recordings are being issued faster than I can type - I’ve placed it rather high on my list for its neutral interpretation and splendiferous sound. It’s just below Riccardo Chailly’s in that ‘category’, whose Fifth is similar in those two aspects but with the Concertgebouw offering more colour than the Atlanta Symphony. 

Quite the opposite from his Telarc colleague Benjamin Zander, who favours drama, sharp contrast, and even exaggeration, Levi falls on the side of what I call “well behaved Mahler”. This is not – necessarily - meant as a derogatory categorization: Chailly, Haitink, and Tilson-Thomas are all at home there, and by all accounts superb Mahler conductors. But if Zander, Mitropoulos, Bernstein and Sinopoli are your (only) measure of what makes good Mahler, Levi won’t be for you in any case. 

Among recently issued Mahler Fifths is Solti’s “final performance in a concert hall”, with the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich (Decca). A monument to Solti, maybe, but certainly not to Mahler. It isn’t even Solti’s best recording of the Fifth, which should be all the damnation necessary for Mahlerians to stay away. Dudamel (on DG) audaciously recorded an audacious Mahler Fifth: A success until compared to other versions. Perhaps it is marred by excitement for its own sake? Dudamel is to be experienced live for the whole deal; on CD his undeniable charm and magic suffer. 

At least in Europe, the Berlin Classics “Basics” edition is available, which also includes a Mahler Fifth. For the price of a fancy coffee drink, you can purchase this unpresumptuous-looking CD with a picture of the Venice canals (Hello Visconti!), but no performer information on the front cover. It reveals itself as Václav Neumann’s first, 1969, recording with the Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig. It is a performance not to be missed at any price. Like a swift kick in the rear, this interpretation never stalls and it moves through the treacherous Adagietto in an unsentimental yet loving nine minutes and forty seconds. The first movement is nice and tight – the instruction “Schritt”, even a ‘measured’ one, being a rather brisk walk, after all – not a Sunday saunter. This performance is also included in the mix-and-match Brilliant Mahler box.

Simon Rattle’s Berlin Fifth just re-issued in the Rattle-Mahler box set on EMI (despite Sir Simon’s insistence that his Mahler traversal was not to be considered a “cycle”), suffers from relatively dense sound compared to the clear and open sonics of Levi. There’s as a saggy Funeral March that just about sabotages the excellent last two movements (see review by Tony Duggan and Marc Bridle here).

The first movement of this symphony can – should – be riveting and full of tension between the several lacunae of funeralesque calm. Neumann achieves this with tight screws, Kubelik (DG, but not –sadly– on Audite) through buoyant vigour, Bernstein (DG) at least partly through exaggeration. Best of all – most compelling and emotive, most unforgivingly relentless (and this may be a surprise or even mildly controversial to readers) – is Pierre Boulez (DG) in this. Levi manages better than some, but not to the degree that these latter mentioned conductors do. 

Uncompromising and inevitable, too, is Haitink in the Fifth during the Eurovision Christmas Matinée concert (25 XII 1986). Alas, that performance, part of a near-complete set on Philips, can only be gotten from the Netherlands these days, so comparison - otherwise a given, not the least because of very similar timings with Levi - won’t be terribly helpful to most (the set is also available on DVD, now). But before this review sprawls too much toward a comparison of Fifths in general, back to the Levi at hand: 

Levi’s second movement, with just over 15 minutes on the slow side, has all the momentum it needs, even when the delicate slow section comes to a virtual hold. The sound is so detailed that you can hear the violinists’ fingers slide on the strings – yet without this detail being so intrusive that you can’t ignore it, if you don’t want to hear it. The Telarc sound offers almost surprising roundness here, not the stereotypically ‘glare & blare impressiveness’ that their engineers often try - and succeed - to impress with. 

I am missing, amid all the detailed excellence, the vehemence in this movement. I wish it grabbed the listener more by the lapels: After sawing and hacking through the turmoil, with winds and brass snarling along, the premature climax of the broad D-major chorale (12:10) should transport even the most reluctant ears. Mine only get nudged. There simply isn’t enough sweep with Levi. 

The Scherzo is surely a big-footed one – but a cynic might attest Levi furthermore the need for a hip replacement. I don’t hear Viennese gaiety here, or at least not enough. The clarinet gaggling and clucking beneath the four horns leading to the first prominent horn solo is too reluctant.  Very few conductors – Kubelik, Barshai (Brilliant – Tony Duggan’s review here) – get this done in a nicely, happily clicking, mechanical way. The layered horn entries that come before the next horn solo are not as overpowering as I’d want them to be, but then Haitink does spoil one by letting each instrument linger on its note, to devastating effect. Levi still succeeds compared to Rattle, where that moment is a dud and Neumann, who separates the notes too much. 

The Adagietto has been much written about – and it is so powerfully moving that it survives even Bernstein and his funeral elegy approach or Haitink’s almost accidental fourteen minute indulgence on the Berlin Philharmonic recording. Fittingly Bernstein played it at Robert Kennedy’s funeral and it was played at Bernstein’s. But it is empathetically not a song of mourning and otherworldly removal – not the symphonic version of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”. For analogies to that, the slow movement of the Fourth Symphony is better suited. Instead it is a tender love song. Alma was supposed to have her heart melt over this, not her feet fall asleep. Even if we grant Mahler’s piano rolls of this movement to be played faster than an orchestra would allow (< 8 minutes), surely swift is more correct than slow. 

In any case, few other pieces of music can so plainly demonstrate the difference between objective and subjective time. “Play fast – sound slow” is, or should be, the preferred way. Neumann (9:40), to an extend Rattle (9:32), Zander (8:30), and Barshai (8:20) get this beautifully done. Bruno Walter, who should know, took just over seven and half minutes for it in his New York recording [Sony], but I can’t say that that makes the best case for my “swift = better” theory. At 11:05, Levi is in the safe, slowish middle, likely to please most listeners. The key is to keep the movement in constant flow. To what extent Levi succeeds is going to be a matter of each listener’s subjective preference more than measurable or objective musical fact. 

The fine Rondo-Finale (15:43) is well put together and the ASO outplays many orchestras with greater Mahler credentials that have tried themselves on this. Were it that accuracy was the be-all and end-all in Mahler, this movement would get even higher marks than it already does. But other conductors catch fire much sooner. Rattle does at around 2:40 – Levi at around 11 minutes. The last minute – from the major climax onward – is plain terrific with Levi, though, it should be said, it is difficult to make that part anything less than impressive. 

Overall, my impression of Levi’s Fifth is better than the nitpicking of every movement might suggest. But there is no denying that I do not think as highly of it any more, as I once did. There is too much high octane competition available, for a Mahler record to succeed on sonics alone. Even if I exclude the love-or-hate Bernstein - a must in every serious Mahler collection but not an ideal first choice - there are still upward of half a dozen recordings that I’d prefer: Abbado–Berlin/DG, Barshai, Boulez, Chailly, Kubelik–DG, Neumann–Leipzig. If, like me, you have one or two dozen versions of each Mahler symphony on your bulging shelves, Levi certainly deserves the space. Otherwise this recording is attractive enough to deserve consideration and sampling, but doesn’t merit a ‘blind’ recommendation. 

Jens F Laurson 



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