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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony no. 5 in C sharp minor (1901-03) [70:55]
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, December 1970.
PENTATONE PTC5186 183 [70:55]
Experience Classicsonline

In my time as a classical music listener, a fifteen-year journey that I’m sure is short compared to some of my fellow reviewers, I’ve haven’t quite decided what to make of Bernard Haitink. At the time the Mahler bug bit me, he was recording a cycle in Berlin. I quite liked what I had the opportunity to hear on the radio, but the project was cancelled and the issues were out of print before I had the chance to pick up any of them. It now looks like some have reappeared on CD: 4 and 5 on Philips 475445; on DVD: 1 and 2 on Philips 000654009; and 1, 2, 3, and 7 on ArkivMusic’s print-on demand system. More generally, I’ve found Haitink sometimes renders very compelling and sonically gorgeous accounts of various works in a straight-ahead style that lets the composer’s voice shine through. At other times he renders something so prettified and inoffensive that it seems one has stumbled across an album of Muzak. I had this Jeckyll and Hyde experience just this week — discovering that some of his Tchaikovsky symphony recordings are surprisingly good, while his recent Brahms cycle with the London Symphony (LSO0070) is unconscionably bad. So what was I to expect from the SACD reissue of his 1970s Concertgebouw Mahler Fifth?
Something that Haitink gets right is the Adagietto. Often reviewers treat this as a question of tempo, or total time for the movement. While this can be a helpful indicator, the question really is: is this movement integrated into the architecture of the piece, or is it being lovingly caressed or put on display because of its beauty and fame? Haitink does an excellent job of the integration here. Another plus, a result of both good conducting and good engineering, is that every little detail, every line of musical argument, can be heard clearly. This effort of transformation, putting nearly forty-year old quadraphonic sound into SACD format, doesn’t quite create a twenty-first century recording, but still, it’s very good 1970s sound. The Eighth is the only other symphony in Haitink’s cycle that was recorded quadraphonically and is being released in SACD by PentaTone.
A place where Haitink gets things wrong is with his brass timbres. When working with the top Middle European orchestras, there’s the temptation to make the beautiful sounds these orchestras are so notably capable of. This can go wrong — it’s not the appropriate sound. In Mahler’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies the brass needs to snarl and occasionally bray. In Haitink’s hands they have much more of a tendency to purr.
In the end, this release will be of interest to two groups: ardent Haitink fans who want a copy of this recording in the best sound possible, and for audiophiles for whom the draw of experiencing a quadraphonic transfer is irresistible. For the rest of us, it is not necessary. There are several excellent performances of the Fifth in contemporary, though not SACD, sound: Bernstein’s DG recording, Chailly, and Gielen. Zinman’s SACD series to date augured well for what he might accomplish with the Fifth, and Dan Morgan's very recent review bears this out, so audiophiles are spoilt for choice.
Brian Burtt


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