Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor(1901-1902) [73:38]
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
rec. live, 20-22 May 2011, Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh, USA. DSD recording; stereo only
EXTON OVCL-00460 SACD [73:38]

Manfred Honeck’s Pittsburgh Mahler has been getting some good press, so now’s my chance to hear what all the fuss is about. The First, Third and Fourth symphonies have already been issued by this Yokohama-based label, whose packaging and liner-notes suggest their main market is the domestic one. Also, some of their previous SACDs - Ashkenazy’s Respighi for instance - were disfigured by a bright, often glassy sound. There are notable exceptions though; Jaap van Zweden’s coupling of Rite of Spring and Apollon Musagète is musically and sonically excellent, which is why I nominated it as one of my Recordings of the Year in 2008 (review).
The recent double centenary has produced a number of exceptional Mahler recordings from the likes of Claudio Abbado, David Zinman, Jonathan Nott, Riccardo Chailly and Simone Young, several of which I’ve reviewed on these pages. Abbado’s Fifth (review) and Zinman’s (review) are very different but both are compelling in their own way. Then there are the classic accounts from Leonard Bernstein (Sony and DG) and Klaus Tennstedt on EMI; the latter’s final, live account - by far his best - is now available as an ICA DVD (review). Indeed, these audio and video versions of the Fifth are the cornerstones of any self-respecting Mahler collection. That also means competition is fierce, so this Honeck Fifth will have to be something special if it’s to be ranked in such company.
The Trauermarsch starts well enough - there’s thrilling amplitude in the opening bars - and it’s clear the Pittsburgh orchestra are in splendid form. What’s less appealing is Honeck’s four-square, and sometimes wayward, approach to what follows. Others - Abbado and Bernstein especially - are much more wild-eyed in this music, their funeral rites rather more unsettling than they are here. Nowhere is that more evident than at the return of the opening trumpet tune - at 5:35 - and the sudden climax that ensues. These are nowhere near as ferocious or as unbridled as the very best. That said there’s enough to enjoy here, albeit in a low-key, somewhat detached fashion. The recording is impressively detailed and wide-ranging too.
I suppose what I miss here is that element of risk-taking, of the music being forged in a white-hot crucible right before one’s eyes. Tennstedt and Abbado are sans pareil in this respect, notably in the großter Vehemenz of the second movement; here Honeck is apt to cross the Ts and dot the Is but he doesn’t read between the lines. Yes, some of the writing here is most alluring, but it’s often tinged with uncertainty and angst; none of this comes through in Honeck’s rather literal reading. Make no mistake, as a concert performance this is a competent Fifth, but as a recording its idiosyncrasies may not wear so well. That’s certainly true of the irruptions and manic diversions of this movement which, although arresting in isolation, don’t always add up to a cohesive and dramatic whole. 

Honeck is rather more yielding in the nicely sprung rhythms of the Scherzo, even if he tends to miss the whimsy in these lovely tunes. He’s most effective - and affecting - in those passages that recall the sunny uplands of the Fourth. No such qualms about the playing though, which is very polished and remarkably consistent for a series of live performances. Exton’s instrumental perspectives are well judged too, making this one of their most likeable - and natural sounding - discs. That applies to both the Red Book and Super Audio layers, although multichannel enthusiasts will be disappointed that Exton now only record in stereo.
Post-Kaplan I’m always surprised to hear the Adagietto played more like a dirge than a love song. Yes, it is heartfelt, but I’m more convinced than ever that such moulding - gilding, even - is misconceived. As for the Rondo - Finale it bears the hallmarks of Honeck’s approach thus far: long on detail and short on echt-Mahlerian character. It has the added disadvantage of an oft-faltering pulse and a frequent loss of focus. Abbado’s Lucerne account is almost brutal in its beat and thrust, and one simply has no chance in the path of those Swiss avalanches. Honeck whips up quite a storm here - those big, crunching tuttis are spectacular - but he still has time for Mahler’s quieter, more lyrical excursions.
By the time I reached the symphony’s final pages I was more persuaded by Honeck’s reading than I was at the halfway mark. While this Fifth doesn’t displace longstanding favourites it has its moments; what a pity there aren’t lots more of them. Is Honeck’s Mahler cycle one to watch? Yes, I think so; this issue has certainly piqued my interest in his earlier instalments, which I hope to review in due course.
Nearly but not quite; a decent Fifth, superbly recorded.
Dan Morgan

Nearly but not quite; a decent Fifth, superbly recorded.