Gustav MAHLER (1869-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901-2)
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
live rec. 20-22 May 2011, Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh
EXTON OVCL-00460 SACD [73:38]
I have a dozen versions of this symphony on my shelves. Not only is it one of
the most extensively recorded of Mahler symphonies but it is also one of the
most consistently successful. So how and why would I be able to recommend yet
another recording? I certainly don’t need another and it would have to
be something special to merit recommendation. That’s especially the case
as this issue is undeniably expensive compared with bargain issues such as Frank
Shipway’s stunning reading with the RPO on their Tring label or reissues
of the celebrated versions by Abbado with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or
the accounts in the big bargain boxes offering the collected symphonies conducted
by Tennstedt, Maazel or Levine.
While their SACD sonics have generally been adjudged their strongest feature,
the three previous issues in what is projected to be a complete series have
met with a mixed reception regarding their artistic success. In them some hear
a literalism or lack of poetry; others praise the “truthfulness”
of Manfred Honeck’s interpretation. Most agree that the Pittsburgh Symphony
Orchestra plays extraordinarily well, not least their Principal Trumpet George
Vosburgh and Principal Horn William Caballero. Indeed those two soloists surpass
themselves in this latest recording, even if their fellow string-players cannot
emulate the sheen and glow of the greatest orchestras forming the competition.
The Pittsburgh has had some financial difficulties of late but has acquired
stability with the appointment of Austrian conductor Honeck in 2008 and the
extension of his contract through to 2020. Honeck was a violinist for the Vienna
Philharmonic playing under Bernstein and Pittsburgh predecessor Maazel. He generally
favours a warm, Romantic, traditional sound and while he has a keen ear for
balancing sonorities he is unafraid to give the brass their head.
So, what of the specific merits or otherwise of this latest issue? I find it
to be very fine but without anything especially striking to say. Direct comparisons
with numerous competing versions leave me convinced that Honeck’s vision
of this symphony is lacking somewhat in energy and attention to detail. Tennstedt’s
phrasing, accenting and dynamics for example, are so much more varied and absorbing
from bar to bar in the opening Trauermarsch. There is a lack of the necessary
wildness and fierce concentration in both of the first two movements. Honeck’s
trumpets do not shout, nor do the flutes scream “mit grösster Vehemenz”
as they should and there is insufficient Schwung in his beat. This lack of passion
is somewhat redeemed by the attack of Honeck’s Finale. Some have complained
of the stridency of the brass here but I don’t mind their out-and-out
assertiveness in a performance which sometimes borders on the good-mannered.
The Adagietto, too, palls in comparison with the very best by such as Bernstein,
Maazel and Tennstedt. All three had celebrated Mahler-specialist orchestras
at their disposal: the Vienna Philharmonic in the case of the first two and
the London Philharmonic, specially trained in Mahler by Tennstedt. By comparison
with those two orchestras there is some want of richness in the Pittsburgh string
tone. Nobody can make this music breathe like Bernstein while Tennstedt, too,
in both his live and studio recordings, evinces his genius for long-breathed
phrasing. Honeck tends to pull the tempo about rather aimlessly and loses the
pulse in an account which is amongst the longest but not the tautest.
The Scherzo conforms to the established pattern of first-rate playing without
quite capturing the last degree of nuance in the music. In this case, the delicate
ironic balance evokes what Willem Mengelberg called “forced joyfulness”.
Yet all is beautifully played in first-rate sound. There is virtually no indication
that this recording was made from live performances. I have to say that I listen
to this disc on standard, rather than SACD equipment, although by all accounts
this series has so far met with the approval of SACD enthusiasts. Ultimately,
there are too many truly great recorded versions of this most popular of Mahler’s
symphonies to justify my giving it a top billing, good as it is.
Very fine but without anything especially striking to say.