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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1904, revised 1907) [74.27]
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. Watford Town Hall, 16-18 July 1969
EMI CLASSICS 4332902 [74.27]

This CD proudly proclaims itself as having been re-mastered from “the original master tapes.” Well, not quite accurately. In the original LP release there was a notorious error in the scherzo (at 12.17 in track 3) where the solo horn obbligato simply missed out four bars. For the initial CD release Nicholas Busch, the errant player, returned to Watford Town Hall to restore this passage which were then spliced into the tape. Barbirolli was long dead by this time. One is pleased to hear that this amendment has been incorporated into this reissue as well. It has been omitted from some other CD issues which have appeared over the years. This is the use of technology for precisely the purpose it was intended, to make an already superb performance even better.
During the last decade of his life Barbirolli conducted a number of recordings which have achieved legendary status – one thinks of his Madam Butterfly, his Vaughan Williams Fifth Symphony and his Elgar – many of which would still even today number among the greatest performances of these works on disc. When Barbirolli’s reading of the Mahler Fifth first appeared on a pair of LPs, coupled with a transcendentally beautiful performance of the Ruckert Lieder by Dame Janet Baker, it would certainly have been counted among these. Even at the time doubts could be raised about the standards of the orchestral performance by players who at that date were far from familiar with the work – there are a number of minor errors of both technique and balance which nowadays obtrude. A couple of years later the appearance of Solti’s recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra highlighted the vastly superior standard of playing which could be achieved, even if Solti’s sometimes hard-driven approach yielded at a number of points to Barbirolli’s more heartfelt reading. At the present time, when we have had the benefit of a vast number of less fallible new recordings on disc, this reissued Barbirolli CD must perforce yield to the competition.
A word in is order about the Adagietto. In the first place, the title of the movement needs clarification. Mahler did not mean, as would have been expected by his predecessors, the title to be translated as ‘a little slowly’. In any event he usually gave his tempo indications in German rather than Italian, and the movement is clearly marked Sehr langsam – ‘very slowly’ – and within two bars he is further qualifying this with the indication molto rit. The Italian can also be translated as ‘a small slow movement’ and this fits the description far more aptly. It is the only movement in all of Mahler’s symphonies which is scored for strings alone, and it occupies a mere 5 out of a full score of 244 pages. Secondly, there has grown up a habit over the years of taking the marking Sehr langsam to its ultimate limits, so that the movement can last over a quarter of an hour in performance. This approach has been attacked by Mahler scholar Gilbert Kaplan, who contends that it should be played in about half that time or less. In evidence he cites Mahler’s own piano roll of the movement; but to this it can in turn be objected that Mahler, well aware of the limited sustaining power of the piano as opposed to the strings of the orchestra, kept the tempo moving simply to avoid any sense of the flow of the music grinding to a halt. Barbirolli tends towards the ‘slow’ rather than the ‘fast’ school of interpretation, squeezing every last ounce of emotion out of this love music; but he does not go the extremes of Bernstein, who takes over a minute longer, or Tennstedt, who takes a full half minute longer again. In fact he gets it just about right for Mahler’s Sehr langsam and avoids any sense of rush, such as can be found in other performances which trim four minutes or so off the duration of the movement.
Michael Kennedy’s booklet note from 1998 discusses Barbirolli’s legacy as a pioneering conductor of Mahler, describes the recording as “one of the great recordings of a Mahler symphony” but admits that it is “a spacious interpretation”. That is true only in the first movement, taken considerably more slowly than we expect nowadays and which does not altogether avoid a feeling of ponderousness as a result – although yet again he is quicker than Bernstein; the latter with more pointed playing from the Vienna Philharmonic gets more feeling of movement into the music. Kennedy also concedes that some may find the tempo for the second movement too slow. He is slightly slower here even than Bernstein. In fact, it feels fine to my ears. This was the first recording of the Mahler Fifth that I ever heard, but I would like to feel that it is more than nostalgia which makes me love it so much despite its failings.
Paul Corfield Godfrey