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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901-1902)
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/François-Xavier Roth
rec. 2017, Studio Stolberger Straße, Cologne
Reviewed as a 24/44.1 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM905285 [70:42]

François-Xavier Roth came to my attention at the 2013 BBC Proms, where he directed Les Siècles in a pithy performance of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. The recording that followed was just as invigorating (review). I haven’t warmed to everything I’ve heard him do, but his recent account of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë has all the freshness and clarity that makes that Sacre so special (Harmonia Mundi). Roth has already recorded Mahler’s First, with the South West German Radio SO Baden Baden (Hänssler Classic 9.3294). I’ve not reviewed that yet, so, for me at least, this Gürzenich Fifth is the first time I’ve encountered him in Austro-German repertoire.

Given Roth’s propensity for revitalising familiar scores, I was braced for a very different take on this oft-played symphony. As it happens, ‘different’ doesn’t begin to describe what’s on offer here. For starters, the first movement has none of the exaggerated weight and amplitude we’ve become used to – Osmo Vänskä’s recent Minnesota recording for BIS comes to mind – but the pared-back plainness of Roth’s reading is oddly appealing. Not everyone will like his leisurely, bucolic pace – no overdriven passages, no overwrought climaxes – especially when this opener is far less elemental than expected. In that sense, Roth unashamedly yokes his Fifth to the sunny, open-faced Fourth, rather than attempting to presage the dark, angst-ridden Sixth.

The beginning of the second movement certainly isn’t as vehement as it sometimes is, but the light, wistful charm of what follows is hard to resist. Once again, Roth’s unusual phrasing and ear-tweaking balances are quite a challenge; indeed, traditionalists might even feel he’s perverse at times, not least because he re-charts familiar terrain in a way that makes one see it anew. Think of it as the musical equivalent of a Mercator projection, a novel way of viewing established poles and continental plates. I suspect Manfred Honeck tried the same thing with his recent Shostakovich Fifth (Reference), but what sets Roth apart is his unwavering conviction and consistency of vision.

And given this conductor’s success with ballet scores, it’s no surprise that the dancing rhythms of the Scherzo are such a delight. However, a strange transformation is afoot; while the earlier movements bask in the retro-glow of the Fourth, there’s a growing sense that symphonic light is now being filtered through a very different lens. Indeed, it’s as if this has become a distant memory of the century just past, its familiar forms and expectations already fading like an old photograph. That air of nostalgia is inherent in this music, but I’ve never heard it made so explicit, or been so unsettled by it. Then again, could we expect anything less from Roth, whose talent for re-evaluation and revelation is already so well known?

The problematic Adagietto – alas, inseparable from the images of a maudlin, mascara-ed Dirk Bogarde in Visconti’s Death in Venice – is also refracted through these altering optics. Too often turgid or soupy, this movement emerges with a spare, disembodied beauty, the like of which I’ve not heard before. Some will harrumph and complain that it isn’t Mahler; well, I think it is, just not as we know it. But is that such a bad thing? The composer, who famously rejected slavish adherence tradition as a form of laziness, would surely have embraced a performance that turns ubiquity on its head – and so decisively, too.

And despite the accustomed jolliness at the start of the Rondo-Finale, it seems curiously equivocal. Also, those inured to the monumentality that, say, Leonard Bernstein and Claudio Abbado bring to this movement, are likely to baulk at its seeming lack of weight and thrust. Don’t forget, it’s being viewed through a lens that heightens textures and sharpens contrasts; that’s all to the good, given the accretions that masked essential colour and detail. Roth is still propulsive here, and, despite some minor caveats, I feel this quirky, skittish sign-off makes perfect sense, albeit in a very unexpected way. That it does so is testament to Roth’s skill at making us see those well-travelled landscapes in a completely different light.

Having listened to this recording twice now, initially with some perplexity, and then with frank astonishment, I can confidently predict it will divide the critics, perhaps even polarise them. But after the endless parade of often predictable performances – it seems everyone wants to try their hand at these symphonies, even when they’re not suited to them – that’s no bad thing. Indeed, Roth’s utterly absorbing Fifth has whetted my appetite for his recording of the First. Any gripes? Yes, the sound; although clean and fairly well extended, it's rather dry and close. Not at all what one expects from this source.

Old Vienna, refracted through a strange new lens; try it, if you dare!

Dan Morgan



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