Mahler: Symphony No. 5
Gustav MAHLER (1860–1911)
Symphony no.5 in C sharp minor (1902) [69:06]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle
rec. Philharmonie, Berlin 7-11 November 2002

EMI CLASSICS 50999 9 65935 2 3 [69:6]

Rattle’s Mahler 5 with the Berlin Philharmonic has become an ‘EMI Master’, meaning that it has been reissued as part of a series of top drawer recordings that includes Klemperer’s German Requiem and Schwarzkopf’s Four Last Songs. A little too early, some might say, to attribute such greatness to a recording that was only first issued in 2002, and that is still available in its original packaging.

To recap its history: the recording is of a live performance, Rattle’s first as principal conductor of the BPO. In order to capitalise on the buzz, EMI got the disc out in record time, and it was available in the shops - that was when people still bought CDs in shops - within a month of the performance. They also released a DVD, which included Thomas Adès’ Asyla, and that too is still on sale, for not much more than the price of this reissue incidentally.

Critical opinion of Rattle’s early years with the BPO was mixed, and he came in for a lot of stick in the German press for a perceived drop in the orchestra’s standards. English-speaking critics were more sympathetic, as was the orchestra itself, who re-elected Rattle to a second term without too much internal debate. On the strength of this reissue, we can assume that the original CD of his debut concert sold well, but acclaim for it was far from universal.

The problem, I think, was that both the performance and the recording were close to benchmark standard, so close in fact that the tiny deficiencies really stood out. The fact is that this is a live recording, and there are a number of slips from the orchestra that would have been tidied up if it had it been done in the studio. Having said that, this is the Berlin Philharmonic, and the slips we are talking about – the occasional split from the brass and one or two ensemble problems – really are minuscule. In fact, the orchestra acquits itself very well. You’ve got the silky string sound, fruity yet focused woodwind solos, plenty of power from the brass ... the complaints I’ve read about the performance seem very pedantic when you listen to the results.

From a technical point of view, the audio is very close to studio standards, and high studio standards at that. The Philharmonie is a great recording venue and the sound here shows it off at its best. Not a peep out of the audience (no applause either) suggesting rapt attention for this historic performance.

Rattle is his own man when it comes to Mahler. He has said in interviews that he distances himself from Bernstein’s reading of the Fifth, and that is quite clear from this recording. Whereas Bernstein maintains a passionate intensity throughout, Rattle shapes the emotional contours and regularly allows the temperature to drop. That makes for more comfortable listening, which may not be to everybody’s taste, but is certainly to mine. The second movement, for example, doesn’t open with the burning intensity you will find elsewhere; Rattle holds back on the opening gambit from the lower strings. Why? To create anticipation and to build the texture up to a really searing climax a few minutes in. Control and reserve are also very much in evidence in the outer movements. Some have complained that the opening doesn’t have the momentum required for a ‘Trauermarsch’ and I can see the point. But this is another case of Rattle dropping the intensity between the climaxes in order to shape the music and to always have something in reserve.

The climaxes can sometimes get a little carried away, and this is perhaps a consequence of the live recording. Take the opening: the trumpeter makes a great job of his unaccompanied solo, but when the orchestra enters tutti it is pretty intense. He is still required to carry the remainder of his solo over the top, and ends up sounding quite hoarse as a result.

No such problems for the horn soloist (Stefan Dohr) in the scherzo. In line with a direction given to Mengelberg by the composer, Rattle places the solo horn at the front of the orchestra. It works well, although probably is not entirely necessary, as the orchestra retains a sense of reserve throughout the movement and rarely reaches the dynamic peaks of the earlier movements. In fact, the scherzo is impressively carefree, counterpointing the angst earlier on. I would say it is the most successful movement of the recording.

In the Adagietto you can forget all about Dirk Bogarde, or about Leonard Bernstein for that matter. This is a fast reading coming in at 9:32. That’s not the fastest out there; Abbado’s recording with the same orchestra allots only 9:00 to the movement. I understand that Rattle blames the earlier fashion for slow Adagiettos on Bernstein’s misreading of Mahler’s intentions – similar perhaps to his misreading of Elgar’s intentions with Nimrod. The advantage of the faster speed is that the harp creates a coherent framework for the movement through its pizzicato punctuation: it’s much more directed, more symphonic, but still retaining plenty of intrigue. Wonderful string playing here, incidentally, but then you’d expect that from the BPO wouldn’t you?

Clarity and suppleness are the characteristic traits of the finale. Rattle maintains an impressive balance between the episodic rondo character and the overall dramatic trajectory. Some of the tempo changes are quite abrupt, as if the new conductor is ostensibly exerting his authority over a work that players must know backwards.

A benchmark recording then, or merely a document of a historically significant concert? As I say, you’d have to be pedantic to complain about the slips from the orchestra or any other misfortune stemming from the live recording situation. Many listeners of my generation grew up with Rattle’s CBSO Mahler recordings, and to hear those same interpretive insights with the added benefit of the Berlin Phil’s virtuosity makes this disc an attractive prospect indeed. Let’s just say that it is a recording that is very much of its time, but that is also deserving of its reissue status as a highlight of EMI’s sizable back catalogue.

Gavin Dixon

Rattle’s CBSO interpretive insights with the added benefit of the Berlin Phil’s virtuosity … an attractive prospect indeed… see Full Review