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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901/2) [72:20]
Bamberg Symphony/Jonathan Nott
rec. No data given
TUDOR 7126 [72:20]


Experience Classicsonline

Now that the Mahler Fifth has passed into the business-as-usual repertoire of most orchestras, it's not every day that the opening notes make the listener sit up and take notice. It happens here, though: every note of the trumpet solo is intoned with round, clear tone, with the dotted and double-dotted rhythms crisply differentiated so as to provide a sense of lift.

Such attention to detail, to the placing, weighting, and balancing of notes and chords, marks the entire performance. Jonathan Nott sees to it that every musical "i" is dotted and every "t" is crossed, not out of a spirit of pedantry, but to achieve the maximal expressive effect -- sometimes pictorial, sometimes abstractly "musical" -- with minimal means. 

Thus -- to return to the first movement -- the soft timpani strokes at 1:12 suggest a sustaining heartbeat, even as the music slows down; in the march theme that follows, the dotted rhythms are pointed in a way that underlines its wistfulness. In this theme, Nott's care over all the little accents and fortepiano effects in its contrapuntal underpinnings makes for unusually active, vibrant textures; in its varied statement at 8:14, the conductor, applying the occasional discreet tenuto, colors the various harmonic shifts to bring out its contrasting phases of desolation and optimism. In the final statement, the "soft" landing at the fortefortissimo (11:59) makes for an expansive climax, rather than a harsh one, after which the movement closes amid dissolution. 

The tricky Scherzo also goes exceptionally well. Nott sets a medium tempo, but, again, carefully points the articulation and accents to elicit a graceful lilt; that lightness, miraculously, is maintained as the textures fill out. Even smaller-scaled peaks, like the horn-based climax at 9:27, have a radiant glow. The acceleration beginning at 10:19 has an unbuttoned forward impulse, but doesn't lose the underlying waltzy elegance. Nott is especially good at bringing out the differences of detail that "spice up" the various recapitulations -- after the sudden pullback to Tempo I at 11:00, for example -- and his pointing of the hemiolas in the bass at 12:06 enlivens the rhythm. At 14:03, the basses' motif emerges clearly, for a change -- it's not played any louder than usual, but it's sculpted with more purpose. The Wild coda is thrilling yet ambivalent, somehow fusing exuberance and menace. Throughout this movement, the unidentified solo hornist plays with deep, round tone and infuses his solos with a waltz-like buoyancy. 

At the start of the Adagietto, the clarity of detail briefly becomes a liability. The tempo feels self-consciously held back, and the theme doesn't immediately emerge from the welter of precisely pointed notes around it -- the harpist could have phrased more. Once things get going, however, the music opens into full-throated climaxes without sacrificing rhythmic rigor. Nott steps up the intensity for the uneasy central section with just a mild acceleration -- resulting in a tempo which would better have served the opening! The pianissimo at 5:25 is a nice moment of suspension, and the recap is lovely and serene. The sectional transitions in this movement are seamlessly executed. 

The horn-call heralding the start of the Rondo-Finale almost overlaps the Adagietto's final chord, as permitted if not necessarily suggested by the score's attacca marking. The sprightly opening fragments are leavened by flexible ritards; in the main theme, Nott inflects the various lines to underline the interplay of parts. The realization of this movement is perhaps incomplete -- a fair amount of supporting detail, although clear enough, sounds unnecessarily reticent -- but the overall balance among buoyancy, firmness, and tonal weight achieves a cumulative jubilation. 

The astute reader will have noticed that I've not discussed the second movement. Unfortunately, it doesn't come off nearly as well as everything else. Nott takes the same pains over fine points of balance and accent as elsewhere, but a lot of the playing sounds subdued, even uncertain, as if the players hadn't yet quite digested their assignments. The strings manage their figurations well enough, but without the tonal command they display in the other movements. Only the brass contribution is uniformly positive -- note the deft, solid trombones and tuba at 8:46. The clarity and focus we hear at 11:51, as the music moves into the two closing chorales, would have been helpful earlier. 

In the first and third movements, at least, the Bamberg Symphony sounds like a first-class orchestra, playing with firm, warm tone and producing a full ensemble sonority. If they're less accomplished in the other movements, they're still a far cry from the dull, tired-sounding orchestra that anchored Vox's early stereo catalogue. 

I heard this SACD in plain frontal stereo, and it's mostly impressive. The overall ambience is clean, yet there's plenty of fullness and depth as the textures expand. I like the almost tangible sense of texture, contrasting horn and liquid clarinets, for example, in the Scherzo, in which spatial effects also come off well: at 1:48, the sectional horns, while clear and "present," obviously sound from a different location than the soloist; the plaintive trumpet at 8:40 seems to be calling across a vast open expanse. I was, however, disappointed by the creeping congestion whenever the percussion got going, a flaw on far too many modern CDs, "super audio" or otherwise. 

What to do? Two, maybe three, movements of this performance are better than on any other modern Fifth. But overall, this one must yield to the Zander (Telarc) among more recent issues, though even Telarc's excellent engineering isn't as breathtakingly clear as Tudor's. Meanwhile, Jonathan Nott's musicality and scrupulous musicianship mark him as a conductor to watch. Stay tuned.

Stephen Francis Vasta 




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