Gustav MAHLER (1860–1911)
Symphony No. 5 (1901-2) [70:57]
St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov
rec. in concert, St. Petersburg Philharmonia Great Hall, September 2003

"Italians play music emphasizing its melodic flow; Germans find weight in the harmonies."

"French composers and conductors favor a reedy orchestral balance."

Listeners and commentators alike rely on these and other such generalizations - one might call them stereotypes - to help classify and describe performances and sounds. As with most generalizations, there's a kernel of truth to them: there are, in fact, national styles and traditions of performance, passed on among musicians from one generation to the next, which have evolved over the years in response to music's perceived requirements. Still, every performance is unique, and won't necessarily conform to our preconceived ideas.

Thus, the prevailing expectations for Russian string playing - and, perhaps, for Russian understanding of the Mahler style - might have portended a dreadful Adagietto movement here: thick in tone and texture, burdened with a throbbing vibrato, weighted down with heavy sentiment. In fact, the Adagietto proves the best movement in Temirkanov's concert recording. The conductor plays the movement spaciously, but he draws the string lines clearly, without sentimentalizing them. The contrasting middle section stays in tempo; at 5:06, the players use very little vibrato, making for an anticipatory stillness. The return of the main theme is gently wistful. The bass pizzicatos during the ritard at 8:30, while soft enough, unfortunately land with a heavy "thunk".

For much of its duration, particularly early on, Temirkanov's finale is nearly on this level. After the opening fragments, the horn launches the first theme-group forthrightly. The low strings are as resonant as you'd expect from Russian players, but their little dotted figure at 1:06 really dances. The fugue that follows moves at a nice clip, but with good control; it doesn't match the unbuttoned, rustic joy of Tennstedt (on the EMI analog recording), but it's enjoyable on its own terms. I particularly enjoyed the in-tempo, undulating treatment of the Grazioso passages, at 3:48 and again at 6:48, which retro-fit a theme from the Adagietto into the Finale's rhythm and motion, though lumbering basses mar the start of the second one. On the down side, numerous, brief moments of imprecise co-ordination; unimportant in themselves, they take a cumulative toll on the players' concentration, as do some of Temirkanov's clumsy rhetorical touches, so ensemble becomes increasingly skittish. In the coda - where the conductor favors the trombones in the balance in a cheap, applause-courting way - the strings' last big downward run is a cloudy, ill co-ordinated rumble.

The funeral march that begins the symphony is rather interesting, not because of Temirkanov's propensity for unmarked tenutos on upbeats, applied so regularly as to devolve into an irrelevant mannerism, but because of its pervasive melancholy (as opposed to sombre or elegiac) tone - a distinctly "Russian" take on the music. The Scherzo, after an iffy start, with horn and clarinets diverging on the little upward scale, has many lovely things in it: the conductor draws the various episodes, especially the more lightly scored ones, with a nice plasticity and feeling for instrumental color, eliciting plenty of character.

The second movement, admittedly problematic in any case, misfires, and not because of considerations of style, idiomatic or otherwise. Temirkanov's inconsistent recorded work - I've not seen him conduct in the flesh - leaves the impression of an imaginative interpreter whose stick technique isn't up to his conceptions. His wholesale rubato in the Rachmaninov Second Symphony (EMI) was compelling, a Scheherazade with the New York Philharmonic (RCA) hard-edged but imposing. Conversely, the Symphonie fantastique (RCA) was a string of ensemble disasters, beginning with the first bar, where the winds come unstuck during the ritard.

Such control issues - the sort of thing to which I've alluded in passing elsewhere in the performance - unfortunately end up dominating the second movement. The opening bass gestures, an imprecise, indiscriminate rumble - you can't really make out their rhythm or shape - set the tone for the following turbulent tutti and, indeed, for most of what follows. The violins are slurry and far from incisive at 0:44; the cellos want to run the quarter notes all through the Bedeutend langsamer second theme, with blurry definition; and nervous co-ordination lapses abound. Even when Temirkanov's feel for color comes into play - note the dusky, woodsy cellos at 4:12 - the effect is emotionally reticent. Only in a few isolated moments - the mournful horns at 5:20; the insinuation of the woodwinds into the texture at 10:30 - does the conductor manage effectively to project mood.

In ordinary frontal stereo - I didn't hear the Super Audio layer - headphone listening reproduces masses of sound from the brass choir with a thrilling brilliance and depth. Over speakers, however, the effect is less marked, and one becomes aware that the strings, whether in the mix-down or in the actual playing, are backwardly balanced.

Temirkanov's performances are never boring, but this one won't wear well. Stick with your own favorites, mine being Mehta (Decca or Warner/Teldec), Barbirolli (various EMI issues), Solti's analog (Decca), and the aforementioned Tennstedt.

Steve Vasta