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Gustav MAHLER (1860–1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor
SWR Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart/Roger Norrington
rec. live, 19–21 January 2006, Liederhalle, Stuttgart, Germany
SWR MUSIC SWR19517CD [68:05]

As many are aware, Mahler provided explicit and profuse instructions for the conductor on how to lead a performance of his symphonies. Yet, because of the music’s often radical mood swings, intricacies, cathartic and epiphanic moments, and grandiose nature, many conductors take it upon themselves to go to extremes and exaggerate tempos, accents, dynamic markings and the like. Thus, you have those who adopt a very subjective approach in their interpretations—Bernstein, for example—and those who are quite objective, mostly adhering to the composer’s instructions—Boulez comes to mind here. I would say Roger Norrington is in the latter camp.

In this live 2006 performance from Stuttgart, reissued here on the SWR Music label, Norrington doesn’t play down emotions or big moments or suppress the post-Romantic side of Mahler, despite his vibrato-free or pure-tone playing preference for the orchestra; rather, he lets these elements emerge as part of the musical fabric but in proper balance with the other aspects of the score. That said, he still imparts his own individual stamp on the music.

The first movement is performed briskly: out of a dozen other recordings in my library, only Zubin Mehta, from 1976 with the Los Angeles PO on Decca, is faster, and just slightly so. However, the better performances of this movement, in my view, are those with tempos somewhat on the brisk side. The opening trumpet call, which is linked to the first movement climax of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony as well as to the Beethoven Fifth motto, is performed as rapidly as I’ve ever heard it. But the playing of it by the principal trumpet is crisp, accurate and very spirited. The funeral march is phrased and played quite well and the whole movement is totally convincing. Detail abounds, brass especially emerging clearly and in proper focus, though I think the trumpet sometimes seems just a little too prominent.

The remaining movements feature tempos generally in the moderate range. Norrington makes the second movement very “stormy” and “vehement”, as Mahler wanted (Stürmisch bewegt, mit grösster Vehemenz). Again, there is a crispness to the way the brass play: attacks are potent and full and never overdone or harsh sounding. Woodwinds are spirited throughout and strings seem always to play according to Mahler’s markings, their dynamics wide-ranging and subtly applied. The orchestra plays the third movement in the same trenchant manner, the music initially sounding playful and carefree and later coming on with the necessary menace, alarm and anxiety.

The ensuing panel, arguably Mahler’s most popular symphonic movement, is beautifully played by the strings and nicely phrased by Norrington. The pacing is slightly on the brisk side, and here is where the vibrato-free sound is most noticeable. To me it does not detract from the overall effectiveness of the music, but some listeners may find it lacking in warmth. Actually, less seasoned concertgoers and record buyers may not notice much difference between Norrington’s pure-tone sound and a more traditional one. As for the finale, in this reading it is joyously colorful, triumphant and brilliantly played by this Stuttgart ensemble. Again, the strings play exceptionally well, their dynamics very subtly employed, especially in the quieter passages. Overall, this is an excellent performance of the Mahler Fifth, though for reasons cited, it will provoke a measure of controversy.

The sound reproduction in this live setting is very clear and generally well balanced, but the album notes are paltry, with one sizable paragraph on the symphony and brief biographical notes on the conductor and orchestra. The recorded competition in this work is quite formidable. Bernstein (Sony & DG), Sinopoli (DG), Chailly (Decca & Accentus video), and Paavo Järvi (C Major video) are among my favorite versions. Of these, I would say it comes down to two conductors, Bernstein and Chailly: the first Bernstein on Sony with the New York PO is marginally preferable to the later Vienna PO account, which is still quite fine especially if you favor a slower, more massive Fifth, and both Chailly versions are excellent, but of course his later Gewandhaus rendition has the advantage of allowing you to see the performance as well. Norrington’s effort is nearly as good as these, and if you prefer a leaner, more objective approach, go for the Norrington. If his were your only Mahler Fifth, you would be well served.

Robert Cummings

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