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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 (1901-2)
Duisburg Philharmonic/Jonathan Darlington
rec. September 2010, Philharmonie, Mercatorhalle Duisburg
ACOUSENCE ACOCD21811 [69:09]

Symphony No. 5 (1901-2)
Kindertotenlieder (1901-04)
Brigite Fassbaender (mezzo-soprano)
NDR Symphony Orchestra/Klaus Tennstedt
rec. 1980, Laeiszhalle, Hamburg (symphony), Kiel Castle
PROFIL HÄNSSLER PH13058 [73:06 + 26:38]

Symphony No.5 (1901-2)
WDR Symphony Orchestra/Jukka-Pekka Saraste
rec. June 2013, Cologne Philharmonic Hall

I recently found a Mahler Fifth for review that fell victim to one too many moves: unfiled and with the booklet somewhere else (since retrieved) and slightly dusty and with a reminder to review it sticking to the front. Lo and behold, I found the 500 word torso of a review on my computer to go with it, too. Rather than just finishing the job started, though, I thought I’d add to this Mahler Fifth—namely Jonathan Darlington’s with the Duisburg Philharmonic on Acousence—two other somewhat recentish Fifths: One live recording of Klaus Tennstedt with the NDR Symphony Orchestra (coupled with Kindertotenlieder where the main attraction is Brigitte Fassbaender), and another live recording, now with the WDR Symphony Orchestra under Jukka-Pekka Saraste, both issued by Profil-Hänssler.

I remember wanting to hear the Darlington because I had previously hit upon their Mahler Sixth Symphony which, out of nowhere, shot to the top-group of Sixths in my Mahler survey on ionarts: “[There] is also an ‘unlikely incredible’ recording I became aware of only this month: Jonathan Darlington and the Duisburg Philharmonic put down a first movement that comes as close to my ideal as any. On the audiophile Acousense label the Duisburg band puts its foot down from the opening notes achieving a gripping, raw cello sound and enormous forward drive … The cowbells, unfortunately, sound more like an inconsiderate caterer’s dinner cart being pushed by the orchestra, but that’s my only real complaint. The Scherzo and the Finale are ravishing. A terrific performance well caught in concert.”

Well, that’s certainly reason enough to extend the Duisburgers one’s ears (they also have some fine Hans Rott and a true Mahler “Titan” on that label)… even if — as I started my review of this CD initially — it’s no wonder if you have never heard of Acousence records, seeing that it has no-name acts, shoddy distribution, and very little track record worth speaking of. I don’t even remember myself how their discs first ended up on my desk, but I do remember how they made me perk up with that Rott and said Mahler.

Now the Duisburg Philharmonic, looked at from a seat of luxurious symphonic surplus like London, Munich, or Berlin, would seem a perfectly provincial orchestra. Despite a 125 year tradition. Despite being formed by conductors like Max Reger, Hans Pfitzner, Paul Hindemith, Carl Schuricht, Richard Strauss, Bruno Walter. Carlos Kleiber, Christian Thielemann, and Fabio Luisi. Or premiering Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Germany. Or having both Eugen Jochum and his very talented but much less known brother Georg Ludwig as music directors, and later Lawrence Foster and Bruno Weil. That kind of a history really goes some way showing up our preciously acquired prejudices. Or the wealth that German provincial orchestras can offer. So does the disc, which is another very successful recording from the band. It’s part of a crop of successful Fifths that was recent when it came out (2012), in a symphony in which I usually find it harder for a conductor and orchestra to distinguish themselves than most of the others. (The most notably notable release of Fifths from around that time might be Markus Stenz’s Fifth with the Gürzenich Orchestra on Oehms, which tops the SACD category for Fifths on my Mahler survey.)

Darlington conducts a first movement that is very deliberate, with beautiful and pronounced accentuations; not wily or outré… and with just a hint of convivial softness. There is a wonderful sense of manipulating time and unnoticeably switching tempos, subjective and objective, the trumpet fanfare is as soft as butter, but musters a ton of oomph! “Empathic” was among the words I scribbled down, for the second movement, which is a little slower than my impatient ears want to hear it at first…. but features a continuously built, from which develops an elastic, joyous momentum. I get from it a fine sense of physicality, that swelling and receding, the expectations of movement—unmet and unfulfilled. The tasteful ‘under nine-minute Adagietto’, in timing similar to Stenz, moves just right or, on the flipside, indistinctly: No funereal-romantic elaboration à la Bernstein, no creep’n’crawl Scherchen, no breezing through like Mengelberg, either. The finale successfully caps a fine performance without much of an obvious USP. If you like Darlington, or if you spent your honeymoon in Duisburg, it might be a must-have… otherwise it is probably best suited for the Mahler-addicted crowd that is happy to explore another very good newish, slightly-off-the-beaten-path performance.

Tennstedt begins genteel, then notably slow. This happens step or two after the beautiful trumpet fanfare, which is very dance-like, with a nice (still slow) spring … but then it’s just slow, after all. The impression is borne out only partially by the timing, which indicates Tennstedt taking a minute and a half longer than either Darlington or Saraste. Still, despite the laggardly pace, the transition and climaxes are very nicely done … one just has to allow Tennstedt the time to get there. Too bad some sour horns and the (very) occasionally adventurous string section mars the tepidly excellent impression. The Adagietto is longer than I prefer it (10:54), but it works very nicely along elegiac lines without becoming drippy … and the Finale, now no longer slow, brings about as rousing a finish as this symphony should have. I reckon that I should have liked to be at this performance, if time travel to May of 1980 were possible, but on record it doesn’t carve itself out a niche. Then again, you never know: Tennstedt, who is one of the most overrated Mahler conductors on record, has his fans and they may wish to explore what competent Kapellmeisterish things he did away from London.

If I - strangely - enjoyed Tennstedt’s take on the symphony better while listening to it than remembering listening to it, the Kindertotenlieder with Brigitte Fassbaender are played no such tricks on or of perception. It’s a straight-forward good account, carried by the tragic, low, generous—turning from elegant to boisterous on a dime—voice of Fassbaender, which is possibly in the “Essential Mahler” category. It can be had in better sound with Chailly on Decca’s studio recording with the DSO Berlin, but here her voice is still a little fresher: A toss-up depending on your preferences.

Saraste, who recorded the Fifth for Virgin with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2001, meanwhile, begins with a trumpet fanfare that has an unpleasant pitch-ambiguity: At first I thought the orchestra is shifting a semi-tone up, on entering high. It doesn’t, actually, but the fact that it made me think it did, for however brief a moment, soured me. There’s much in this fluid, sometimes very elegant account that regains my admiration… but essentially it’s a well-performed middle-of-the-run kind of Mahler Fifth, in the line of his WDR predecessor Gary Bertini’s Mahler, neither sensational in its execution and sound (like Chailly) and definitely not raw and gritty (Barbirolli, perhaps? Neumann/Leipzig, and Rudolf Barshai come to mind). And among such civilized Fifths, I’d be more likely to pull Jap van Zweeden’s LPO recording off the shelves, instead. Or the earlier Saraste, which is, in its still-leaner, elegant ways, a treasure. Or, for that matter, Darlington, though not likely Tennstedt, whose shelf-space is secured mainly by the Kindertotenlieder.

Jens F Laurson

Previous review (Tennsted): Michael Cookson



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