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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901-1902) [73:00]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, March 2016, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich
Reviewed as a 16-bit press download
BR KLASSIK 900150 [73:00]

Symphony No. 5 [75:30]
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Všnskš
rec. June 2016, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis
Reviewed as a stereo 24/96 download from
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2226 SACD [74:57]

Two new Mahler Fifths, one from a conductor with a proven track record in this repertoire, the other not. Two very different orchestras as well, with well-defined sonic signatures and recorded by engineers with impeccable credentials. But, just in case you think you’ve died and gone to heaven, I must warn you that there are some surprises here, not all of them pleasant.

Mariss Jansons’ Mahler is decent, if not stellar, as his Concertgebouw (RCO) readings on both audio and video tend to demonstrate. Also, having both the RCO and the BRSO at his disposal has allowed him to rerecord some works with both ensembles. This Suk/DvořŠk album is a case in point. Osmo Všnskš has also been able to take a second bite of the cherry, albeit with the Sibelius symphonies; his Lahti box, full of wonder and a powerful sense of discovery, is a must for all Sibelians. I’m much less enthusiastic about his Minnesota remakes – much praised elsewhere – not least for the sleek, rather corporate sound of that orchestra.

The BRSO, with whom Rafael KubelŪk recorded his fine Mahler set in the 1960s, continues to impress in this music; indeed, their recent recording of the First Symphony with Yannick Nťzet-Sťguin was one of my top picks for 2016. But then Mahler has been well-served by other bands/conductors as well: the New York Philharmonic (Bruno Walter and Leonard Bernstein); the RCO (Bernard Haitink); the London Philharmonic (Klaus Tennstedt); the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra (Claudio Abbado); and, of course, the Wiener Philharmoniker (Zubin Mehta, Pierre Boulez and Bernstein).

That’s not an exhaustive list, of course, but it’s no coincidence that when it comes to Mahler’s Fifth those partnerships excel. Walter’s classic 1947 recording is mandatory listening, especially in Andrew Rose’s splendid remastering for Pristine. Tennstedt was at his best in this symphony – on CD for EMI-Warner and on DVD for ICA Classics – while Abbado’s Berlin and Lucerne versions are among the most cogent, †far-sighted and hard-hitting I know. Then there’s Lenny’s WP recording for DG, which Brian Wilson declared his benchmark when reviewing the Všnskš. I doubt many would quibble with that.

Let’s start with Jansons and the BRSO. I’ve also listened to a 24/96 downloaded of his earlier RCO recording, available from eClassical. The latter is a little quicker, notably in the Rondo-Finale – 15:45 as opposed to 16:20 – but there’s not much in it. His BRSO Trauermarsch is darker – grittier, even – and I prefer it to the very refined RCO version. It’s swings and roundabouts though; for instance, the side drum is more disquieting in the Bavarian recording, but the Dutch one is rather better at conveying weight and amplitude. And if you want grŲŖter Vehemenz in the second movement, Jansons and the RCO should fit the bill; ditto if you like a nimble, dancing Scherzo.

I’ve heard it said that the Concertgebouw choose who they play well for; true or not, they’re at their refulgent and responsive best in the Jansons Fifth (as indeed they are in a barnstorming performance under Daniele Gatti, recorded as part of the Mahler celebrations in 2010). In both cases the horns are simply glorious, eclipsing the Bavarians at every turn. The same is true of the Amsterdam strings in the Adagietto, which have all the glow and purity of line that’s missing from the Munich performance. And yes, the RCO’s Rondo-Finale is tauter and packs a bigger punch, especially in the closing pages.

Neither of Jansons’ Mahler Fifths is a must-have, but if I had to choose I’d take the earlier performance over the later one, not least because there’s a greater sense of the work’s architecture, its nodal points better prepared for and more convincingly executed. Jansons is just more compelling first time around; besides, it’s always a pleasure to hear one of the world’s great Mahler orchestras at their very best. And, quite apart from the lower resolution of their recording, the Bavarian Radio engineers have done a fine job here; that said, they must yield to their Dutch counterparts in almost every respect.

Now for Všnskš, whose only Mahler recording until now was a Lahti Das Lied von der Erde from the early 1990s. Given that the acrimonious Minnesota lock-out is past, the time is right for another big project; indeed, Všnskš has extended his contract with the orchestra until 2022. Without wishing to jinx this new cycle I do have reservations about the conductor’s credentials in this repertoire, especially when the competition is so fierce. And listening to audio samples – †the opening immense, but not in a good way – I began to worry about the album’s sonics as well.

As it happens, the genuine article is not nearly as overpowering as I’d feared; also, Všnskš paces and phrases the Trauermarsch very well, although he’s not as wild as some in those big, despairing outbursts. The range and detail of this recording is astonishing, Mahler’s distinctive timbres most beautifully rendered. What really surprises me here are Všnskš’s echt-Mahlerian rhythms; they’re far more supple and spontaneous than either of Jansons’ performances. The Finn also finds greater light and shade in this opener – more drama, too – and that’s very encouraging.

The second movement is no less appealing, the playing both clean and propulsive. And while Všnskš dwells lovingly on the smallest details he does so without really sacrificing shape or momentum. Quiet passages are very quiet, but they’re still perfectly audible. The sheer tactility and presence of this recording, and its plausible balances, puts the listener firmly in the front stalls, those drenching climaxes properly scaled and thrillingly caught. No, Všnskš isn’t as excitable as Bernstein or as powerful as Abbado here, but his steady, implacable approach is still pretty compelling. As for the Scherzo, it’s attractive enough, but Jansons and his Dutch payers are more buoyant – and affectionate – at this juncture.

But it’s Všnskš’s unforgivably sluggish Adagietto – 12:39, as opposed to Jansons’ 9:16 in Amsterdam and 8:51 in Munich – that, quite literally, stops this performance in its tracks. Beautiful, yes, but utterly misguided. And despite some fine playing, Všnskš’s Rondo-Finale strikes me as dull and discursive. Goodness, where has all that energy and promise gone? Perhaps such ruinous misjudgements are what separate merely average Mahlerians from good or great ones. In any event, these final movements do for Všnskš’s Mahler Fifth as surely as a stiletto between the ribs. In short, a terrible disappointment after such an auspicious start.

Musically, Jansons and the RCO are the winners here; technically, though, BIS are way out in front.

Dan Morgan

Previous review (Všnskš): Brian Wilson



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