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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901-2)
Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester/Hans Rosbaud
rec. 22 October 1951, Saal 1, Funkhaus, Cologne. ADD
ICA CLASSICS ICAC5091 [66:01]

Hans Rosbaud (1895-1962) might fairly be described as a musician’s musician. The notes in the booklet include Francis Poulenc’s 1954 verdict: “Music buffs believe that the greatest living conductor is Toscanini; musicians know that it is Hans Rosbaud.” Noted for his championship of contemporary music, he was much admired by Pierre Boulez among other luminaries. He spent a great deal of his career conducting radio orchestras in Germany and in particular the orchestra of Radio Frankfurt before the war and, from 1948 until his death, the orchestra of South West German Radio in Baden-Baden. I was interested to read that he was also a regular guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1959 onwards.
 
If I describe this performance of Mahler’s Fifth as direct and objective I don’t wish to imply that it’s a performance devoid of feeling; such is not the case. However, this is not a soul-baring reading of the type that you might associate with conductors such as Bernstein or Tennstedt. Nor does it have quite the emotional warmth that one finds from, say, Barbirolli. It’s noteworthy that Rosbaud takes 66 minutes to play the symphony - and I don’t feel that he rushes his fences - whereas Bernstein (‘live’ with the VPO in 1987 - review) takes 75:00; Tennstedt (‘live’ LPO, 1988 - review) takes 73:24 and Barbirolli’s celebrated 1969 account with the New Philharmonia plays for 74:29. Mind you, Rosbaud is nowhere near as fleet as Bruno Walter who, in his 1947 New York recording, whips through the score in just 60:51 (review). One other thing to say is that though the orchestral playing is perfectly satisfactory - a few rough edges apart - Rosbaud doesn’t seem to cultivate a particularly beautiful orchestral sound; rather, the sound is lean and muscular - and none the worse for that. You may feel, as I do, that the principal trumpet is sometimes too prominent in the first movement but I wouldn’t count this a serious drawback.
 
Rosbaud’s handling of the opening funeral march is impressive: the music has due weight but it’s never allowed to become unduly expansive. I find that all the points that need to be made are duly registered. The opening of the second movement is suitably tempestuous, as is much of the movement, yet the lyrical second subject, first heard on the cellos at 1:27, is phrased warmly. The extended recitative-like cello passage (from 4:05) is expressively done also. The chorale, when it appears at 10:49, is powerful yet the rhetoric is disciplined.
 
The scherzo comes off very well; Rosbaud gets strongly projected playing and vitality from the Cologne orchestra, even if the playing is not always entirely polished. The conductor gets a bit tick in the box from me for his handling of the famous Adagietto. Here we have a performance of Mahler’s lovely music shorn of any Death in Venice accretions - and rightly so. It’s instructive to compare other timings with the 8:53 in this present performance. Bernstein takes 11:13 and Tennstedt 11:21. Barbirolli is less effusive at 9:52 while no one is anywhere near as swift as Walter (7:36). I detect no lack of feeling or expressiveness in Rosbaud’s reading and he is not afraid to deploy a judicious amount of portamento. It’s good to hear a straightforward approach to this music.
 
Even if one has heard more unbuttoned, virtuoso accounts of the rondo finale Rosbaud is still persuasive and certainly engaged my attention throughout. The Cologne orchestra offers spirited playing and Rosbaud is fully in command of the music - as, indeed, he is throughout the symphony - bringing the symphony home powerfully. I’m unsure if the performance was truly ‘live’ or recorded under studio conditions but I couldn’t detect the presence of an audience; there is no applause at the end.
 
The sound is perfectly acceptable, especially given its vintage. There is a useful note by Kenneth Woods.
 
The ICA Classics series is artist-led and none the worse for that. Inevitably there have been a good number of releases featuring celebrated conductors such as Boult, Giulini, Klemperer, Svetlanov and Tennstedt. It’s very good to find recognition being given here to a conductor whose reputation with the public may not have been as great as that of some of his illustrious peers. This release provides evidence that the reputation that Hans Rosbaud enjoyed among his fellow musicians was justified. His Mahler Fifth is a notable addition to the symphony’s discography and is well worth hearing. I congratulate ICA Classics on their enterprise in issuing it.
 
John Quinn
 
Masterwork Index: Mahler 5