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The Mahler Symphonies A synoptic survey by Tony Duggan

Symphony No.5 [updated August 2006]

"With each new symphony - and sometimes with each new movement inside each new symphony - we are taken into a different world. In each case there is a passionate, even desperate identification with a certain attitude - but only in the last resort, for what it is worth; suddenly the scene changes and another attitude is being identified with - but again, only for what it is worth." So wrote Deryck Cooke on what another Mahler scholar, Neville Cardus, characterised as Mahler's ability to "shed a skin" with each new work. This aspect of his creative life was never more in evidence than with the arrival of the Fifth Symphony and the two symphonies that followed. The Wunderhorn-based visions and dreams of the first four symphonies that, along with first love and religious questioning, provided an escape valve and a vast comfort-zone, were replaced in the three purely instrumental works of his middle period by a clear resolve to face the realities of life. No more fairy tales, no more theology, no more overt programmes, no more voices, no more poetry. Structures are tighter and more symphonic, textures are clearer and more experimental, ideas are more uncompromising and more self-centred. There are still the vestiges of the past. No artist's creative life is neatly compartmentalised. There are Wunderhorn song analogies in two of the three works but the context has changed. Song influences in these works are now just as likely to come from Mahler's settings of poems by Freidrich Ruckert which run contemporary with them. So with the Fifth Symphony Mahler grows up, puts away childish things and sees the world through a glass sometimes darkly sometimes not.

The Fifth Symphony presents us with the musical equivalent of a split personality. Musical polar opposites are presented side by side - tragedy and joy, depression and mania, pain and pleasure, despair and hope, etc. These opposing attitudes are held together by a tripartite structure that charts a general course out of despair towards ultimate joy but with a journey that is by no means smooth. The first two movements form Part I, the last two Part III. The third movement forms Part II by itself and it's in this movement, a huge Scherzo lasting up to twenty minutes, that the opposing forces all appear to meet and become transformed rather than resolved (resolution must wait) into what Mahler thought of as a portrait of a man of the world. So this third movement/Part II is the hub of a revolving wheel whose perimeter is the four movements making up Parts I and III and from whose revolutions fly off the opposing ideas Mahler uses as his material which the two parts either side present.

The first movement is a drastic funeral march with elegiac asides and one incredible outburst of anguish. The second movement is an eruption of furious energy punctuated by moments of utter despair and a tantalising vision of paradise and resolution before despair seems to finally win. The fourth movement is a nostalgically-charged song without words for strings and harp, the fifth a jubilant, neo-classical rondo that concludes by recalling the vision of paradise from the second movement as a true resolution that knits the disparate work together. And in the centre is that third movement with its little dance episodes, its romantic horn solos and its outbursts of benign energy. For the conductor the Fifth Symphony must pose the greatest challenge in Mahler. He must bring unity to a work that is about disunity. To make it work he must allow us to hear every aspect of it in equal measure.

The fourth movement, the much-loved Adagietto for strings and harp, is Mahler's most famous composition. Frequently heard alone on radio stations and in those compilation discs much beloved of the company marketing departments, it's probably the piece of music that introduces the name Gustav Mahler to more people than any other. Its use in the Visconti film "Death In Venice" only added to its popularity. It is, of course, an intensely beautiful piece, well-deserving fame and affection. However, I and many others believe fame and affection has taken a toll on performances in that most conductors opt to play it slower than was meant by the composer. There is no doubting its appeal when performances stretch to twelve, thirteen, even fourteen minutes. But the fact is there's strong evidence to suggest Mahler only meant it to last around seven or eight and to stretch it out robs it of its delicate magic and compromises its place in the greater scheme. Even leaving aside the evidence of contemporaries whose notes confirm a more animated interpretation (and the example on record of Mahler's disciples Walter and Mengelberg) there's the strongly-held belief this is, as Donald Mitchell suggests, a Ruckert "song without words" to be played in line with what the human voice could cope with. Performances that last anything into double figures surely fall outside that. I would only add a further point. In the fifth movement Mahler recalls the theme of the Adagietto in the way that he also does themes from the first movement in the second movement. I believe the recapitulation of the Adagietto material in the fifth movement works better the closer it sounds to the way we heard it first. Since the reprise of the material in the fifth movement is, by nature of the movement it's contained in, quicker then an Adagietto nearer to it in tempo reinforces the point Mahler is trying to make that these two movements are connected. Of course, a slow Adagietto should not rule out a recording of the symphony. As Mitchell also says: "There are occasions when the 'wrong' tempo in the right hands can convince, whereas the observe does not...." With that fact firmly in mind I still believe this question of the Adagietto's tempo should be there when considering different interpretations of the Fifth Symphony.

Since writing the first version of this survey many new recordings and re-issues of this symphony have appeared in the catalogue to tempt collectors, both new and experienced. My task has therefore been to decide whether any of them fall into the extra-special category I have outlined in my Preface.


Bruno Walter made the first complete recording of the work in 1946 and this is available on Sony (SMK 64451). It's a recording that all those interested in this composer should hear as it's full of insights into the work by his closest disciple, not least in the sub seven minute Adagietto. However, I don't think it can go in as a general recommendation. Tempos are very quick throughout and, though this probably reflects Walter's more astringent approach at that time in his life, you cannot escape the impression that another determinant was the need to fit the recording on to 78rpm sides. The early recording technology also means that the sound, though clear, is rather boxy and unatmospheric. There were plans for Walter to re-record the work in stereo but his death intervened.

Rafael Kubelik recorded the Fifth officially only once as part of his complete cycle on DG with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. He gives a lean and hungry performance on that occasion. The first movement has no "fat on the bone" so this means itís rather lacking in the Tragedy department. A significant loss especially as this whole symphony works on balancing Tragedy with Triumph and all stops in between. The second movement is excellent. Quick and fierce but the steely, abrasive edge on the recorded sound really becomes a trial here, distorting the sonorities. However, Kubelikís pacing of the disparate episodes remains faultless. Things improve in the Scherzo where there is spring in the step and poise in the delivery: a feeling of joy and carnival, though again the sound is still a problem. This was the last of the symphonies to be recorded for this cycle so the question of the problematic sound quality is even more perplexing. There is another Mahler Fifth from Kubelik and this orchestra on the market. Itís a "live" one on the Audite label (95.465) that makes this studio version seem like a blueprint in that the later one is a touch more substantial and spacious where it counts and better recorded. However, I am going to pass over both of these in favour of a "live" recording of a performance Kubelik gave with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in 1951. Itís on the Tahra label (TAH 419) and is a thoroughly convincing and idiomatic performance from a time long before the so-called Mahler "boom" began that I find insists itself into this survey revision as a main recommendation. A performance like this shows that Mahler was indeed fully understood, in Holland if nowhere else, as early as 1951 and that there was a young Bohemian-born conductor who understood him too. Put him in front of an orchestra who knew it better than any other on the planet and the result is magic. Itís taken from a performance at the Holland Festival that also included Otto Klemperer conducting the Second Symphony with the same orchestra that you can hear on the Decca release mentioned in my survey of that work. As with that Klemperer recording, the mono sound is taken from radio transcription discs. Though this set of discs appears to have stood the test of time better. There is a small degree of surface noise but itís slight and shouldnít bother anyone used to listening to such recordings. Ruled out as a first choice for this reason, yes, but certainly one for the discerning Mahlerite to add to the collection. As always with Tahra they have gone back to the original master for this official release and so this is the best sound available. There is also enough of this great hallís acoustic to give sense of space also but we are close in enough to hear an extraordinary amount of detail from the orchestra.

The old idea that tempi in Mahler performances have become progressively slower as time has gone on is again borne out by this performance. Kubelik was never a ponderous Mahlerian, of course. Here we find him even fleeter of foot than he was in the DG studio recording. In fact in 1951 his timing comes closer to Bruno Walter in 1947. And yet the tempo differences between the three Kubelik performances are all proportional and I am not concerned by the fact of quicker tempi here. What matters most are aspects of phrasing and the relationships between the differences of tempo within each movement and across the work as well as how well the players seem to get into the metabolism of the music. This is the Concertgebouw Orchestra in the year of Mengelbergís death and even though he hadnít stood in front of them for six years this is still his orchestra. You just know that they know this music, love it and understand it, and it was Mengelberg who taught it to them over many years after he learned it from Mahler. Not only because many of these players must have played it under the man himself, their orchestral parts must also have been be littered with notes gleaned from Mengelbergís direction. So I donít think itís stretching the imagination to say we are listening here to a tradition of playing that can be traced back to the composer, irrespective of the unique insights brought to bear by Kubelik himself. Itís a case of youth and experience coming together and it produces a gem of a disc.

A carefully paced fanfare and a beautifully delivered funeral march dominate the first movement. There is weight but there is also power. The great "jump-off" point at bar 155, Trio I, explodes vividly to uncurl itself with a controlled power that carries superb contrast to what has gone. There is no hint of hysteria here, just drama. Notice especially how all the strings "ride" the brass and percussion with supreme confidence at the point just before passage collapses back to the fanfare. That indicates Mahler playing of the very highest order. There is a hint of real anger in the funeral march return also which is quite refreshing. It suggests that the deceased did not go quietly and it illustrates Kubelikís ability even then to dig out details of the music, the mark of a great Mahlerian. Listen too to the woodwind choir when playing full out. Not the sweet and cultured tones we have become used to of late. Here are some "reedy" players who are not ashamed to sound just a little weatherworn, as Mahler would have expected. That great "way point", the moment marked "Klagend" at the end of the movement followed by the descent to the coda, is as deep and terrifying as it should be with the trumpetís last return carrying so much tragic weight by a player who has clearly played it many times. You can certainly tell when musicians love and understand the music in front of them. There is a confidence in what they do, especially when they are especially exposed, as the principal trumpet is in this movement. Do also notice the very quiet final pizzicato note on double bass. There is now compelling evidence to suggest that the violent "Bartok-like" thwack that is so often heard here is incorrect and moves now appear to be afoot to correct this in a new edition. Is this performance, from 1951, how Mahler meant it to sound? If so, Kubelikís performance certainly seems to justify it and I wonder if the evidence is there in the score part being used. In his two later recordings Kubelik delivers this note with maximum force. It is on such detailed points as this that Mahlerian scholarship can turn.

Even in 1951 Kubelik has the measure of the difficult, shifting second movement. He never uses excessive force in any direction, never thrusts forward too quickly, never pulls back too slowly. Neither does he ever impose on the music an excess of emotion that it doesnít have. It is the perfect example of letting Mahler speak for himself. Of course the orchestraís familiarity with the music must help here again. The fearsomely complex counterpoint playing holds no fears at all. There are passages where the players are like a chamber orchestra playing by listening to each other. In the passage leading to the great chorale climax Kubelik covers all bases from despair to the brief happiness, even a touch of nostalgia in the trumpets, but thrusts home the final denouement with real confidence. Though time will tell if there has been too much. This moment should never prove to outshine the corresponding one at the close of the symphony where the chorale comes back. In sum, Kubelik keeps the thread of the argument with apparent ease, though I suspect it was not easy and he needed the full panoply of this great orchestraís inherited collective soul to pull it off. He also delivers the two movements together as Part I, which is as it should be.

Though this is a very fleet performance of the Scherzo the mood under Kubelik is dead right from the start and it never appears to be rushed. Gone is the tragedy and anguish from the first two movements. Here is the energy and bounce juxtaposed with those lonely contemplative moments when the horn and other solos take the stage. After all, juxtaposition is the meat and drink of this whole symphony across the three parts and this central movement must reflect its own juxtapositions so long as the conductor doesnít appear to rush as the composer feared and, in spite of just 16 minutes, Kubelik doesnít seem to. How he pulls off the trick of appearing to be spacious and yet not be, I have only theories. I suppose it all comes down again to the idiomatic phrasing and the sense of the pieceís special poetry; a match of a master conductor and an orchestra experienced intimately with the music. Note the way the horn theme, always undergoing transformation, is carefully attended to every time. You have the feeling that these players know how to always look for a slightly different way of playing what appears to be the same material. Not an attribute you come across too often in Mahler but you certainly know it when you hear it. In the end it is the energy and love of life that flows out of this movement and it provides the correct keystone to the workís complexity, as we shall see. The horn solo is very soft and mellow, by the way. Antidote to the sharp, penetrating sound we hear so often today and an echo from a bygone age.

Kubelik was never one to indulge the Adagietto fourth movement. He seemed to know that too slow a tempo betrays Mahlerís intention of a "song without words" and here in Amsterdam he delivers just such a song shy of ten minutes. The strings of the Concertgebouw are very warm-hearted and consoling before the last movement enters "attacca". The first aspect I noticed here was the wonderful character of the plangent woodwinds which, even in this mono radio disc recording, are balanced pretty well ideally. Then the strings again show superb discipline and that confidence in their knowledge of the music. Not least in the recalls of the Adagietto theme where the relationship is between the two movements of Part III are made manifest. By now this is clearly one of those performances where everything has gone right. We have gone from bitter tragedy to unalloyed joy and ultimate triumph passing through pastoral contemplation. The final chorale climax does indeed trump the first appearance and so that crucial structural imperative has been attended to which is always a good sign that all was indeed well.

There is a story that Furtwangler once attended a performance of Mahlerís Fifth Symphony conducted by Kubelik and after congratulating him backstage nevertheless wondered if it was all worth the effort. Kubelik certainly believed Mahler was worth the effort as this recording from early in his career and at what must have been near the time when Furtwangler heard him proves. As a performance this is the best of Kubelikís three available recordings. An archive recording all Mahlerites should own for the young Kubelik and for the old Concertgebouw. The fact that it is in mono should be noted but, on this occasion, I am not letting that fact get in the way of including it as a main recommendation.

Among other conductors of a previous generation is Rudolf Schwarz whose 1959 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra for Everest (EVC 9032) remains a leading contender. The solo trumpet fanfare that opens the work and which will haunt the whole first movement is a determined sound and ushers in a steady funeral march with great weight and dignity. I also admire the way the elegiac second theme dovetails out of the funeral march. At the point marked "Suddenly faster. Passionate. Wild", in fact a quasi Trio, Schwarz resists the temptation to hit the accelerator as Tennstedt, Bernstein and others do. What emerges from him is tragic and strong rather than frantic. Then, when the main material returns there is bitterness as the funeral tread strides magnificently and with great character. The second return of the Trio material, this time ghostly and remote, finds Schwarz a master of contrast with a slightly more measured tempo. The conclusion of the movement sees the music rise to a climax marked "Klagend" ("Lamenting") after which it descends and withdraws into some pit of mystery and despair. Schwarz imparts real dread here, punctuated by that emphatic trumpet solo making its last appearance. His second movement is rugged and determined and measured enough for us to hear everything clearly. I like the chattering woodwind when the storm subsides, for example. Too often the desire by the engineers to give us concert hall balance can rob these interpolations of their weird power. The theme that then emerges is from the first movement and Schwarz makes us all too aware of this. After another stormy outburst the music withdraws into what Constantin Floros calls "the monody of the lamenting cellos", a prayer like passage in the eye of the storm. Schwarz conducts this without artifice but not so withdrawn that it sounds detached. Towards the end of the movement the music propels hell-for-leather towards the emergence of what will bring the whole symphony to triumphant conclusion: a huge, chorale-like theme in the brass. Under Schwarz this is delivered emphatically but not overwhelmingly. This should be underplayed slightly so the final appearance at the end of the last movement is not robbed of its resolution.

Mahler once despaired that conductors would take the third movement too fast and it is the case that performances which give the various episodes of this movement the time they need to really breathe are the ones that most convince. They are also the ones that make the best possible contrast with what has gone before. There really should be a complete change of mood at this point. Mahler seems to be telling us there is a completely different way of looking at the world, in spite of what we might have thought. Schwarz seems to agree. There is a lightness and lift to the opening and a dance element to the whole of the movement which, when added to a sense of old-world charm and grace, makes for a really idiomatic performance. The crucially important solo horn part that distinguishes this movement was probably played on this recording by Barry Tuckwell and he gives a lovely account of it, placed within the orchestra rather than too far forward. Later in the movement when Mahler has shuffled his material into the recapitulation, Schwarz makes a really kaleidoscopic picture of colour, rhythm and gayety.

It's in the Adagietto that Schwarz's recording confirms its special nature because, like Walter and also Rudolf Barshai dealt with below (and also Jascha Horenstein in three privately held archive recordings), he treats the Adagietto to the nearest overall timing that coincides with what is believed to be Mahler's. What we hear under Schwarz is a delicate, nostalgically-charged song that fits perfectly with its recapitulation in the final movement which itself receives a spacious, ripe account with the right amount of forward momentum. Others may deliver more energy and virtuosity here but I think Schwarz's kind of approach pays greater dividends since it contrasts better with the first movement which it is surely meant to counterbalance. The conclusion, where the chorale from the end of the second movement returns in triumph, rounds off the performance in as satisfying a way as you could wish. There are drawbacks which I must mention. Firstly, the playing of the 1959 LSO has its few uncertain patches. Don't expect quite the whip-crack response this orchestra might have delivered a few years later in better times, or under a conductor they knew more intimately. The sound recording is clear and well-balanced, employing a recording system unique in its day that has now been restored using the latest technology. It is a well-balanced stereo picture and only the most fanatical of hi-fi enthusiasts would object. I really recommend this recording highly. In terms of character and insight it has so much to tell us.


Another conductor who brings unique character to this work is Sir John Barbirolli with the New Philharmonia on EMI GROC (5669102). This has topped of the list of many recommendations for years. But it has to be said it isn't without its controversial elements which, for some, might rule it out of court altogether. The funeral march has great tragic weight with an element of national mourning not far away. However, this is a dignified grieving rather than an over-dramatised one, as it is under Wyn Morris, for example. Like with Schwarz, the jump-off point at the first Trio finds Sir John ever the expansive Mahlerian, refusing to rush and taking the opportunity to let his horns really whoop. The return of the march is superb too with real iron in the soul and even more dread to the funeral steps. The second movement opens with the cellos and basses grinding their bows into the strings superbly. Some may find Barbirolli's overall expansiveness just over the edge in this movement. If it comes off, which I believe it does, it's because he remembers Mahler's marking of "Vehement" for the stormy episodes. The punching brass at the start of the development are especially memorable and so too is the central cello lament which Barbirolli gets his players to deliver with all the eloquence you would expect from him. Listen also to the great whoops from the massed horns at the recapitulation. In fact, right the way through this movement the brass deliver all the power you could want, especially in the passage marked "Wuchtig" prior to the chorale climax which is really built up with unerring power.

Barbirolli also manages the mood switch in the third movement and here his expansive approach pays unquestioned dividends in one of the finest performances of this movement on record. This is all helped by the open quality to the sound picture with brass and woodwind balanced forward and the woodwind especially showing this was still Klemperer's orchestra. (No recording by Klemperer, of course. The old man had a very low opinion of this symphony which might have been why he allowed Barbirolli to record it.) To an even greater extent than Schwarz, Barbirolli recognises the old-world elements in this movement, the charm, the nostalgia, all deeply etched in music that he makes breathe humanity from every pore and explode into joy when the need arises.

Though he's more expansive than Schwarz in the Adagietto it's interesting to note that even Barbiroilli recognises the need to keep the tempo under some control. At under ten minutes he is certainly at the quicker end of the scale when compared with some. But his phrasing of this wonderful music is so warm and full of heart that you would have to be made of stone not to respond to it. I find his account of this movement perfectly acceptable, especially when heard in context of his performance of the last movement which is slower overall than anyone, apart from Morris. Those who think this really does need dash and virtuosity will not be able to take the movement as conducted by Sir John. But those who respond to his rather mordant wit will find that it carries all before it. At such a grand tempo, the delivery of the final pages ought to leave you with the warm glow Mahler surely intended and with a real feeling of an immense distance travelled since the opening of the work.

Whilst we are dealing with Mahler conductors of a previous generation let me warn you to beware of Hermann Scherchenís "live" French Radio Orchestra recording on Harmonia Mundi as it is savagely cut in the Scherzo and so ruled out. Admirers of Scherchenís quixotic, illuminating, often eccentric view of Mahler in this work could try to find his 1953 mono recording on Universal/Millennium (MCD 80081) which is the o only one he made that is complete in every note and carries many of the virtues, and the vices, apparent in those parts of the work that get heard in this issue.


Frank Shipway isn't the first conductor you think of as a Mahler interpreter. In fact he may not be among the first conductors you think of, period. He's British and, at the time of his recording of the Fifth, headed the National Symphony Orchestra of RAI in Italy and the BRNT Orchestra in Belgium. Behind Shipway's recording of the Fifth with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra seems to lie one overriding idea that he uses to hold the huge structure together to superb effect. This is that contrasting of opposites that we have recognised as being at the core of this work but Shipway seems to have decided he will make the illustration of them the absolute "be all and end all" of his performance. So, every contrast that can be brought out is brought out, every opposing idea measured. It's an approach established from the start so it stays in the mind until the end . In the first movement, the funeral march proper has a huge and heavy tread while the quieter, reflective parts seem distanced, veiled, like the faces of the women mourners in the cortege. In fact there's something very 19th century about all this: dark, decaying, a bit gothic. Then, when the music calls for release, Shipway throws caution to the wind and goes for broke. You will remember how we noticed in the Schwarz and Barbirolli recordings a slight unwillingness to surrender to the moment here. Shipway is the total opposite. It's a mood swing that will have you calling your analyst (Freudian, of course. This IS 19th century Vienna !) but it's one you have to get used to in this recording. He doesn't mould the themes in the way Tennstedt does, doesn't "ham" like Morris, there's no "drag" on the secondary theme of the funeral march like Bernstein. It's extremes of dynamics and tempo that stay in the mind and this is carried over to the second movement also. How savagely the lower strings grind out the opening. Then that long, elegiac cello episode that leads back to the recall of the funeral march music is as withdrawn and soft as I have ever heard it and, again, veiled. Then, when Shipway presses forward, we're back on a roller-coaster, hanging on for dear life. We also realise the span from the start of the quiet cello section to the end of the chorale episode is a huge arc which, with the skill of an opera man, Shipway encompasses with ease. He does mould the chorale theme towards the end of the second movement very rhetorically, but by then I was too shell shocked and ready to ring up the white flag to protest.

The contrasts carry on in the Scherzo but their presentation is profoundly different. The main episodes themselves are taken very fast, challenging the orchestra who are a match for any in the world on this showing. But, as soon as the first Trio arrives,

Shipway slows the tempo and dynamic right down to almost private contemplation. He appears to want to show us that polar opposing forces can co-exist when not creating conflict. The horn obbligato sections (with superb playing by John Bimson, also the soloist for Gatti) I think anticipate the Seventh Symphony's Nachtmusik in being dark and dreamy with the darker colours accentuated. With all these contrasts duly brought out to the full Shipway's scherzo is therefore not as sunny as we may be used to. There is a case to be made for the movement being more troubled and that's what Shipway gives us: the undertow is downward. There's certainly less of the Viennese lilt to the waltz episodes too and that may be a problem for some people.

The Adagietto is very slow but when the music calls for intensity Shipway lets the strings have their heads and the way the violins dig into the bows reminds me of the Adagio from the Ninth symphony. The final descent at the end begins with an almost primal scream from the violins with a vast tone from the massed strings following. As I have said, I don't believe this "on the edge of despair" is what Mahler intended, but it's still in keeping with the Shipway approach and has to be accepted. Perhaps this is a good example of the "Mitchell Principle" about not minding the "wrong" tempo in the right hands. It's in the last movement that the opposites at last resolve themselves and, with no contrasts to be marked, conflict ceases. Shipway plays this movement as a carefree, jaunty romp. At 14.30 it's just seconds short of Walter's speed, worlds away from Barbirolli or Morris. When the Adagietto music returns it's especially light and joyous, a fascinating metamorphosis. Likewise the triumphant return of the chorale with no attempt at moulding the theme this time. It's played straight from the heart with ringing trumpets. There seems no doubt in Shipway's mind this work ends in unequivocal triumph. The biggest contrast of all is therefore the end of the symphony when compared with the beginning. I found myself smiling a lot during this last movement under Shipway.

The sound recording is big and bold to cope with his conception and seems to fill out to meet his demands. The acoustic of Watford Coliseum gives a large sound picture with the horns especially caught which is just as well because Shipway seems to be in love with the sound of this symphony, luxuriating in it at times. There is a veiled quality to the softer passages, however, which may trouble some. To me it suits Shipway's conception again. This recording isn't an easy option but, so far as I'm concerned, it's brought me that bit closer to the piece again. Since my earlier version of this survey the recording has jumped record labels and is now on Membran (222845) and has become an SACD hybrid.


In terms of sound, Daniele Gatti's recording of the Fifth with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on Conifer (75605 51318 2) is one of the best before us. It's a close-in balance with every detail sharp and clear, almost like having the score in front of you. It was made in Henry Wood Hall which is where the London orchestras rehearse, so there wouldn't have been much room for vast reverb which I don't think is suited to this work anyway. It is also, as we shall see, a sound picture well-suited to Gatti's interpretation. The playing is exemplary. There isn't a department unprepared for the demands placed on them with brass especially virtuoso in passages when they are going all out. It's a reading that stresses symphonic structure, eschewing overt expression or emotion, clear-sighted, clear-headed, pure-minded, an almost calculated realisation of the score but saved by a crucial sense of drama and travail that convinces brilliantly. So the opening trumpet fanfare is meticulously spaced to an extent you don't often hear. Arresting when done like this because it has the effect of lingering in your mind right through the movement, as it should. The clear-sightedness is maintained when the funeral march gets under way as the "dragging" many conductors adopt here is not in Gatti's imagination. When he reaches the marking "Suddenly faster. Passionate. Wild" the sharp, bold lines of the reading accentuates a feeling of energy. This is Mahler decisively for the head rather than the heart - not on the sleeve, at least. With the return of the main funeral material Gatti shows he wants to compartmentalise Mahler's material in an almost manic sense of organisation. As if his firm hand on the material is all that's keeping us from chaos and, for me, this soon sets up a special kind of tension missing from similar kinds of readings. The end of the second Trio, right at the end of the movement, marked "Klagend" is delivered like a guillotine followed by an impressive, snarling descent into oblivion.

The second movement is fast, furiously so in parts. At the beginning I liked the sound of the basses digging into the strings and then, soon after, the precise chattering of the woodwinds whose presence here will never flag. Gatti's insistence on a tempo just a little faster than we are used to in the really fast sections keeps the sonata form structure of this movement in our minds. The cello's lament at 188, the eye of peace in the hurricane, is likewise that little bit more flowing than usual. None of the heavier emotional pull of Shipway or Bernstein or Morris, for example. But the passage is not so fast it fails to make its effect. Here is a conductor careful to want each episode to slip into the next without having to take any kind of evasive or dramatic action. The section leading to the great chorale cross-beam also refuses to yield to the moment. Unkind souls might say Gatti is too anxious to get us to it, and there's no doubt that, compared with others, some power is lost in exchange for movement and the clear head. But the arrival of the chorale is all you wish for in terms of reaching a "way point" in the symphony.

Purity is the word that springs to mind for the Scherzo: purity of sound and expression. The opening is characterised by more sharp lines and vital rhythms, but even Gatti can't help himself relaxing his guard for moments of repose. There is an air of "Forgive me a moment but I can't help myself" about it. The impression in Daniele Gatti is of a serious young man anxious not to offend, careful not to appear too gauche or on anything other than his best behaviour. As I said earlier, that can set up its own tension but can also undermine music that actually needs more "heft" and abandon. But there is much to admire and enjoy here. As the movement progresses, the unwillingness of Gatti to yield to the greater lyricism of this movement, the place where the two violently contrasting and opposing worlds of feeling in the symphony pivot, fails to win the movement deep place in the emotional structure in anything but a superficial way but succeeds well in the story of the symphonyĎs journey from dark to light. Other conductors - Shipway, Barbirolli, Bernstein, Schwarz, Tennstedt - take us deeper into the nooks and crannies but itís a near thing.

The Adagietto flows well and the central section with its faster tempo is more muscular. When the slower tempo is asked for towards the end, because the initial tempo was faster than we are often used to, the singing line is maintained well. The Finale is a great virtuoso display and goes along with real bounce and wining verve. Other conductors can bring more warmth and humour to this movement where Gatti seems to want to maintain his sharp concentration to the end. He does raise the orchestra to a fine peroration at the close, though, and is more than satisfying as a conclusion to this great work. I don't want to seem harsher in my judgement of this recording than I am. It is a worthy contender and I recommend it.


Pierre Boulez's recording with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon (458 416-2) isn't what you might be expecting from this conductor in that he gives quite a traditional reading. Yet he does have some new things to say which, in that context, prove illuminating. Take the first movement as an example. The overall timing is 12:50, pretty much Mahler's own, and at the outset all appears as normal. Then, at the first Trio's great jump-off point where conductors like Shipway, Bernstein and Tennstedt take Mahler at his word and hit the accelerator, Boulez deliberately keeps the tempo under very tight control, tighter than anyone. The result is that you hear more detail while still being aware of the pent-up energy that has been released, made even more emphatic in the memory for not being rushed. Then, soon after, at the marking "a tempo", there is less of a feeling of deflation because less slowing down has been necessary. The Vienna woodwinds have almost the same quality Barbirolli conjures out of the NPO, by the way. Then, near the end, where the marking is "Klagend", that key moment in the movement is superbly "placed" with almost the vividness it gets from Mackerras in his Liverpool recording on Classics For Pleasure. The tempo for the second movement is, like the outburst in the first, held back a little. That isn't to say Boulez is slow but he certainly doesn't appear to rush the approach to the chorale entry - a part of the piece that can see a conductor at sea and be the moment when the attention starts to wonder. Unless this passage is sifted, sorted, understood by the conductor, it can appear as just a procession of noisy outbursts. But Boulez has clearly weighed and balanced it. This passage also illustrates how careful he is with letting the Vienna Philharmonic's brass only have their heads at certain key moments. When they really let rip the moment is remembered - as in the appearance of the chorale. The lower brass at "Wuchtig" are magnificent.

The third movement is quite restrained, elegant even. I like the way the solo horn is balanced more to the back of orchestra too and I love also the string portamenti in the metropolitan waltzes. Again, not what you expect from Boulez. If I have a major criticism it is that Boulez polishes the surfaces too much, both here and elsewhere. The Adagietto is, for me, a letdown. It's superbly played and sounds beautiful, but it's slow (10.59) which surprised me as I would have expected something more radical from Boulez, rather more like his treatment of the Ninth Symphony's last movement. This Adagietto is quite emotionally detached as well - cool and remote. The Rondo-Finale is again well paced in tempo, not too fast but with enough spring in the step.

The sound recording won't be liked by everyone and I must confess to finding it a problem at times. It's very bright and smooth, multi-miked with a good deal of reverberation from the Musikverein in Vienna which tends to give a polish to the sound which borders on the glaring. In addition to Henry-Louis de La Grange's musical notes there's a short article by Pierre Boulez in which he talks of the VPO's tradition in playing Mahler and playing him in that hall. I have already said how much I was struck at the traditional elements. Boulez also writes of how conducting Wagner helped him conduct Mahler, instilling in him the necessity of knowing exactly where you are at any point. "I think that this kind of continuity, the flow of the music, is for me the most important thing," he writes. That says a lot about his overall approach in this work. The great moments are never allowed to swamp the incidental details. In spite of any reservations I recommend this recording but more as an alternative.

Klaus Tennstedt has recorded the Fifth Symphony twice with the London Philharmonic on EMI, once in the studio and once "live" at the Royal Festival Hall. The later "live" recording (7 49888-2) is the easiest to obtain and is the finer of the two, though it is broadly the same conception. The delivery of the opening funeral march is vivid and dramatic, but with less of the dread you find with Barbirolli, for example. Likewise in his despatch of the first Trio. Tennstedt is of the school who believes in taking Mahler at his word with a great forward thrust in the leap into the maelstrom. The return of the funeral music brings some superb brass playing but I wish there could have been some more power at "Klagend" towards the end, even though the descent to the conclusion of the movement is impressive. The feeling that Tennstedt's stress is on drama is confirmed by his faster speed for the second movement too. This leads to less impact from the lower strings at the start. Things pick up, though. Following the cello lament, a seamless transition under Tennstedt here, the music begins its inexorable climb out of the pit with some wonderful sifting of the many sounds and colours in this extraordinary movement. I do wonder if the return of the death march is rendered a little too lovingly by Tennstedt with the excellent momentum he has set up faltering somewhat here but that's a small "fly in the ointment" as he drives on towards the movement's high point with care for the inner details which the analytical recording and the clinical acoustic help to bring out. Also note the passage "Wuchtig" where Tennstedt really gives what Mahler asks for. Maybe he elongates the chorale a little too much, giving away what really should be saved for the end of the work but, again, with music making of this quality it's a small quibble. This is a "live" performance, after all, and the grabbing of a moment in the "muck and bullets" of the night is always to be welcomed. All in all, a superb performance of the second movement. Tennstedt understands the need to organise the material so that the ear of the listener is not tired at any point.

The Scherzo receives a tight, controlled performance. Perhaps too unsmiling to really be the total contrast to what has gone. That isn't to say Tennstedt doesn't vary the material. It's just that, to me, there isn't enough spontaneity about it. Everything is rather Teutonically shaped, efficient and organised. Though the actual pacing of each episode is exemplary. Tennstedt is good at the darker, dramatic episodes of this symphony but this is at the expense of the lighter elements. So, in the Adagietto, Tennstedt is conventionally slow. In fact there are times when he seems to be trying to approach the kind of Zen-like stasis more suited to the end of the Ninth Symphony and that surely cannot be right. It's just inappropriate, especially when compared with others before us. This approach to the Adagietto doesn't fit with the last movement as conducted by Tennstedt either. This does receive a thrilling, though rather too calculatedly thrilling, reading that lacks a lot of the rubicund glow that distinguishes other accounts and means the recall of the Adagietto material fails to really tell as it can when that movement has been delivered in a more appropriate way. Tennstedt's finale is a great virtuoso display, a real roller-coaster, but I'm afraid it put me in mind of the finale of Bartok's Concerto For Orchestra with the coda despatched with what sounds like too ruthless efficiency. Be very sure this is a superb recording with a lot to admire but also a good deal to disagree with. Fans of Tennstedt need not hesitate. The rest of us will look elsewhere.


If close personal involvement from the conductor is what you're looking for but one that sees things more "in the round" Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon (452 416-2) is a much better prospect. I'm no knee-jerk admirer of Bernstein in Mahler, but even I have to admit his Vienna Fifth is a performance of thrilling power and eloquence. The huge dynamic range of the recording in the opening pages is indicative of what is to come. This is a performance that storms the heights and depths of this work like no other. The elegiac passages of the funeral march are filled with the deepest emotion, dragging themselves along. Then the jump-off point at the first Trio is big, eloquent and wild, with the brass especially resplendent and the strings at full stretch. Bernstein seems to be in superb control of the intensity, however, not letting too much emotion cloud the issue. At the conclusion of the movement, at the "Klagend" marking which sees the music spiral down to silence, notice his care for the lower strings. The second movement sees Bernstein and the orchestra throwing caution to the wind by tearing into the maelstrom with lower strings again really biting and the big bass response of the recording balance letting us hear everything. After the first storm has subsided, the woodwind seem a little distanced from everything else which is a pity but is in keeping with the larger-than-life sound picture the engineers seem to be aiming for. This is one of the best readings of this movement you are likely to hear with every twist and turn of this extraordinary music catered for. For example, the "monody of the lamenting cellos" is so wonderfully withdrawn you almost want to hold your breath. In fact Bernstein makes the whole of this incident-packed movement into a seamless cloth with the Vienna Philharmonic at times playing like things possessed. The chorale climax is immense and so too is the final collapse with trumpets blazing followed by a really spooky rendition of the strange closing pages. An extraordinary performance.

Bernstein's approach in the Scherzo is similar to Barbirolli's in that he is prepared to give every episode the space to breath, but Bernstein is blessed with the better orchestra. There is a fine lift to the rhythmic life of the movement also and Bernstein is a master at pointing-up of all those little "moments" others can miss. The ending finds him as exuberant and joyful as you could wish with the Vienna Philharmonic playing at the top of their form. This is followed, as you might have expected, by a very intense Adagietto filled with rare tenderness. Bernstein is slower than Schwarz, Walter and Barbirolli here, but not so slow he distorts the piece out of shape. Then in the finale he and the orchestra carry all before them. Again, the depth of the recording's dynamic range might bother some. But especially memorable is the warmth of heart in the climactic passages and the conclusion itself where Bernstein pulls out all the stops, capping the earlier appearance of the chorale with a no-holds-barred broadening of the tempo at the moment of release. This is, therefore, a superb realisation of the Fifth Symphony. A roller-coaster of a performance that will give you all you could possibly want from it, and some more. Maybe Bernstein goes to excess a few times, but that was the character of the man and captured here "live" he is irresistible.

You cannot stress too strongly the spell that Vienna cast over Mahler from the earliest age. You can almost imagine him as a child like a Bohemian Jude Fawley metaphorically stopping his wagon to look at the sun glinting on Viennaís, rather than Oxfordís, windows in the distance and dreaming of greatness. The difference between Hardyís fictional doomed hero from Wessex and our real-life doomed hero from the backwoods of Austria-Hungary is that "Gustav The Obscure" would achieve everything "Jude The Obscure" did not. Not only did he get to the city of his dreams but also for ten tempestuous years he was the most famous man in town after the Emperor. Only then did the city throw him out. In Judeís case it was the curse of class prejudice that excluded him. In Mahlerís case it was race prejudice, laced with the bitter poison of envy, that was his downfall. But the spell never broke. In spite of it all Mahler returned to die in Vienna and his bones lie there now. This is all relevant to Benjamin Zanderís conception of the Fifth Symphony with the Philharmonia on Telarc (2CD80569) because, in the accompanying talk, he sees the Scherzo at the centre of the workís tripartite structure as musical evocation of Mahlerís attitude to the city at the time of composition. The city of café houses, waltzes, the opera, The Ring. All of these Mahler loved and celebrates, Zander tells us. Behind all this, however, he wants us to remember the pressure of cynicism, anti-Semitism and the "straws in the wind" for the end of the vast Empire that Vienna represented and which Mahler must have sensed.

What is clear from Zanderís performance is that he recognises the crucial importance of stressing those contrasts within and across the five movements. It is very strong indeed on the inner detail - the "cogs and pulleys" of the work. Both the performance and the sound recording work hand in glove with the concept of illuminating what makes the Fifth tick with Zander almost bringing a lawyerís eye to the small print in Mahlerís contracts. However, rest assured this ear for detail is never at the expense of the overarching structure, never at the expense of feeling either, a fault which, as you will see later, leads me to leave out Simon RattleĎs recording from this survey which Zander avoids. Zander never imposes himself on the music in any way. He is a conductor who lets the music speak for itself and with an orchestra prepared to follow his every request we are the beneficiaries.

The funeral march that opens the first movement is dark-toned and leonine, ready to spring, quite threatening. There is steel in the grimace of the strict rhythmic pull too. However, in his talk and notes Zander shows he has gone back to Mahlerís own piano roll of this movement made in 1905. He points out the very particular way Mahler appears to articulate the dotted funeral rhythm and you can just hear this in the performance where it adds a distinctive aspect. He projects the first Trio at bar 155 without the hysteria that can disfigure the passage under other hands and so make it seem to spring naturally from the march so that when the march comes back we are aware that it never really went away thus unifying the material. Praise here for principal trumpet Mark David who drags us back to earth with his instrument acting like a hypodermic full of strychnine into the symphonyís body. Indeed in this whole movement the solo trumpet must both initiate and react to drama and knowing the difference distinguishes this particular account of the solo part running through the movement. Following the great collapse climax at bar 357 Zander finally pulls the music down to the depths of despair admirably. But there is a sting in the tail. The final pizzicato note is reproduced here with startling force, like something out of Bartók. As I said above, there is now doubt as to whether Mahler meant it to be heard like this, but full marks to Zander for reading it like we all believed it should have been read.

In the second movement Zander is careful to project the ebb and flow that makes this movement so involving. I have heard recordings where the conductor hasnít thought through the implications of what is going on, doesnít appreciate the need to carefully grade dynamics and tempo changes so you know where you have been, where you are and where you are going. In these cases the result is just a lot of noise punctuated by pauses for breath. Zander certainly coaxes the Philharmoniaís woodwind choir to chatter and cackle in those extraordinary figurations Mahler keeps throwing in. Also the reproduction of the pizzicato notes that go with them make for a nervy quality. The delivery of the chorale passage at the climax has secure, liberating brass and forms the organic centre of the movement. But it is interesting that, for me, Rudolf Barshai in his version shifts the emphasis of this movement over to the collapse that comes a little later and that outclasses everyone as we shall see.

I have already mentioned Zanderís view of the Scherzo as Mahlerís complex interaction with Vienna. You need to hear his talk to get to grips with what he means and hear his performance too. All I will say is that the arrival of the movement in the recording does the most important job of all and that is mark the emotional shift Mahler clearly had in mind and which is so important to this work as it proceeds. The mood is certainly transformed and "Jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain top," as Romeo might have put it had he been a Mahlerite. In this movement there is also that important solo for the principal horn. As with his trumpet colleague in the first movement, he must be initiator and reactor, but he must also be storyteller in those quiet, reflective passages and must know when each role is relevant. Laurence Davies certainly does. Overall Barshai is one and half minutes slower in the Scherzo in his recording than Zander and in so doing makes the music breathe even more. Mahler, after all, worried that conductors would take it too fast. Zander certainly does not do that, but maybe his ideas of the "hidden agenda" behind the movement has made him more pro-active and to the musicís benefit because he does no where to stop.

All change emotionally again for the final two movements and Zander certainly delivers change again. He also recognises the importance of the vexed tempo question in the Adagietto fourth movement and keeps the tempo up. Zander is keen to stress the rubato possible in this music particularly and especially at the start. More than you might expect, in fact. By so doing he can also slow down more at the end. The last movement is an unhurried celebration with enough spring in its step to allow the witty twists and turns Mahler gives us to win through and, as I have outlined, form a link between this movement and the one before it stressing structural integrity to the end.

In his absorption of every detail of the score, allied to zeal to bring them out, Zander's is a recording of Mahlerís most wide-ranging work that should be on every Mahler collectorís shelf. Conductor and orchestra are served by a recorded sound that is superbly balanced and dynamic enough to encompass every aspect of the score. So Zanderís recording of this symphony goes into a very select list. Not the killer version, but an impressive one worthy of inclusion here.

In fact I have left the "killer version" until last, as I did last time. To recap, Mahlerís Fifth dramatises in music the whole concept of change and contrast in sympathy with his development as composer and man at that point in his life. It is such a supreme test for conductor and orchestra because it challenges them to explore extremes of expression whilst maintaining a unity of purpose that ultimately leads to satisfaction. Do anything else and it doesnít cohere since it travels the greatest emotional distance of all his works. This is Mahlerís "Eroica", his "A Winterís Tale", or as Herbert Von Karajan once observed: "When you get to the end you find you have forgotten what age you were when you started." So, as we have seen, itís a tall order to cover all bases and some conductors donít even come close, as you will see below. Most are good at the dramatic/tragic/dark end of the work but fewer appreciate the need to bring out the fantastic/joyful/light end that balances the piece across the whole range. Even less can balance the two perfectly. But Rudolf Barshai with the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie on Laurel and Brilliant Classics does and it is that which makes his recording so special. This is not a studio production put together from many takes. This is a one-off performance where what the audience heard is what we hear. This may go some way towards making it the exceptional recording it is because the challenges of "live" performance often bring a sense of drama that no studio production can match, even though the price might sometimes be lapses in playing. However, I cannot hear any part of this performance where the playing is never less than inspired. All in all a remarkable feat when you remember this is an orchestra of students. Has the clean slate of inexperience been put to best use by a first class orchestral trainer making his mark? They do play as though their lives depended on giving Barshai every drop of attention and skill and the results are stunning. This would be considered great playing from one of the worldís top professional orchestras. The recorded sound is big and bold also, with plenty of air around the instruments and a good generalised picture. Once or twice you feel the engineers have had to compromise dynamic levels, but this is a small quibble and should not bother you very much.

The opening funeral march is deceptive. There are recordings that launch us into an even blacker tragedy than this but it soon becomes clear that Barshai has a bigger agenda. By holding back just a little on tragic weight he seems to be more aware than most that this movement is part of two greater wholes: as first movement in both the two-movement Part I and in the five-movement symphony. It was only after repeated listening that this aspect became clear to me, but it soon came to assume greater relevance. Indeed it provided the key to what makes this performance tick. I think it vindicates an approach to the first movement that may well not knock you out on first hearing like some recordings do. Ones that, in the end, do not do the whole work as much justice as this o one does. Having noted all of that, there is still no feeling of being unmoved by the first movementís implications under Barshai. Itís just that he integrates the emotional foundations Mahler is laying into the workís nervous system far better. He is not the kind of conductor who wears his heart on his sleeve, and Mahler is not the kind of composer who ultimately benefits from that approach. The greatest Mahler conductors listen first to what Mahler is saying and then help the rest of us to hear it. The lesser talents listen to what Mahler is saying and join in. Barshai is clearly of the former category along with Jascha Horenstein whose spirit seems to be evoked here. So, like Horenstein (one of whose three off-air recordings languishes in an archive in London and demands release), Barshai takes the longer view. The opening trumpet fanfare is challenging and the funeral march tough and dignified. Then, at the point in the movement marked "Suddenly faster. Passionate. Wild", there is release and power but no pointless hysteria. In fact Barshai just projects the music forward with great thrust and leaves it to make its own effect. We are then dragged back to reality by an especially poisonous return of the trumpet fanfare only to be then ushered into the long winding down to the end in an unbroken strand. At the point just before the end where a kind of black hole opens up and swallows us, marked by Mahler "Klagend", Barshai doesnít deliver this in quite the usual way. Most times the moment is rendered suddenly, like a great door slamming in our faces. Here it arrives like a bow wave seeming, like so much else in this performance, to come from within the cortex of the music.

I have known recordings where too dramatic a delivery of the first movement can then deaden the effect of the opening of the second. Barshaiís view of the first movement and the way he gets his young players to unleash the second means this is certainly not the case here. Once again there is the feeling of integration between the two movements of Part I. The way the young German string players explode in the opening of the second movement also truly gives us Mahlerís marking "Turbulently rough. With the greatest vehemence" marking. They are assisted by magnificent unanimity in the brass and by the woodwinds chattering malevolently when the storm dies down to bring in the reprise of the funeral march from the first movement. Here Barshai relates this reference back to the remarkable degree that is becoming so much a feature of this recording. So too is his feeling for the special colour of this movement as it progresses. This is especially evident in the build-up to the climax that is also superbly paced and full of great playing, especially at the climax itself where strings and brass are pitted thrillingly against each other. The coda then really snatches apparent hard-won triumph away. This passage is terrifying with brass as black as doom and crowned by a massive smash from the tam-tam that sends the movement to hell like a great mad animal felled by a juggernaut that in the closing pages lies twitching and wounded on the floor. By shifting the climax of the movement to this point Barshai opens up a completely new perspective on the work.

The third movement is the point at which you know if the conductor has succeeded in catching the protean nature of the work by switching the mood to reflect the breadth of Mahlerís conception. Mahler himself always feared conductors would take the third movement too fast but Barshai doesnít fall into that trap. At over eighteen minutes this is one of the longest versions you will hear and yet it doesnít seem like it. He also shows awareness of various rhythmic snaps that seem to invest every bar, especially the dance-like sections. As well as this he can pare the music down for the intimate sections Ė notice the lovely cello phrasing - then switch to the landscape-storming passages with the skill of a conjurer. Here the solo horn is especially fine and the spacious recording balance gives the impression of distance. We are a million miles from the trials of the first two movements and that is all a conductor needs to convey. But it needs intimate knowledge and a rare confidence that Barshai seems to possess in spades.

The last two movements together make up Part III, reflecting and balancing the structural imperative of the first two movements that make Part I. Since Barshai seemed very aware of that itís no surprise he is aware of it here also. However, the degree to which he is aware of it is still surprising and goes a long way to distinguishing this performance further. The Adagietto receives a unique performance. Barshai takes just over eight minutes for the and that seems just right for investing it with the right amount of charged nostalgia and giving that crucial binding effect with the last movement when the reprise arrives. The string playing is also exceptional with matchless phrasing from all the desks. Further than that I can only add that this is the first time I have really been made to think of this wonderful movement as one among five rather than as a piece all to itself. I mentioned feeling the same way with his first movement so this is another example of Barshaiís remarkable identification of the deep structures in this work.

Taken together as Part III the final two movements are here different again from the third movement, but the structural integrity that is again stressed helps bind the elements together. The last movement itself is spaciously drawn and Barshai pulls off the trick of not letting the tension dip as Barbirolli does a little. By also paying attention to the rhythmic gait, as well as to the Adagietto reprises, Barshai conveys an honest, earthy humour that is ripe and exuberant but never forced. Another example of giving Mahler the last word. The end of the work in this recording is winning and enhancing and with the feeling that a vast journey has been completed, but one when you can remember every detail. That, in the last analysis, is the clincher for this recording as the best this work has received. It first appeared singly on Laurel Record (905) and you may still be able to buy it that way. Alternatively it has been re-issued on the super-bargain Brilliant Classics label (92205) where it is coupled with Barshaiís recording of his own realization of Mahlerís Tenth with the same orchestra. Rest assured that this is more than the equal of the performance of the Fifth and so represents a tremendous bargain.

There are many other recordings of this symphony but none I have heard which I would recommend above any of the above. Those by Inbal and Neumann I will deal with in detail in my review of boxed sets, but there are single recordings by Ricardo Chailly (Decca) and Claudio Abbado (DG) that offer superb playing and recording for starters. It remains the case that I find Chailly's Mahler too much on the calculatedly side and Abbado, fine Mahlerian though he is, fails to convince me that in this work he has penetrated to the core even in his Berlin Philharmonic recording that has now superseded his strangely disconnected earlier one from Chicago. I have already mentioned a number of times a recording by Wyn Morris and his Symphonica of London on IMP. This is a very personal interpretation indeed that should only be investigated by those who like their Mahler rich, ripe (maybe overripe) and heavily romantic. Morris is the most expansive conductor in every movement except the one you expect. Ever the individual, he delivers a beautifully phrased Adagietto of just eight minutes which sounds curiously out of place with the longer span of his other movements. But if you relish the dark 19th century drama in this work then look out for Morris. There is next a fine super-bargain version conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra that I want to mention in passing on Classics For Pleasure (5856222). The recording is a little unatmospheric with the brass a bit shrill, but for those on a very tight budget it too should not be overlooked.

Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra must be passed over for a number of reasons. Much as I admire Barenboim in other repertoire I have never felt Mahlerís particular mix to be is metier. Some musicians are just not emotionally suited to some music. The Chicago orchestra seldom produces an appropriate Mahler sound either and this recording bears that out again. The brass are too strident, the strings too inflexible and add to this Barenboimís "top-loading" of what he perceives to be Mahlerian qualities brings a fundamental falseness to what we hear. You can forget Andrew Littonís early recording of this work with the Dallas Symphony on Dorian too. Either this is a work which, like it does other conductors, eludes Litton or this caught him on a bad day or too early in his career. Any attempt at the subtle interplay of darkness and light, positive and negative emotions in opposition, all so important in this work, are missing. This is a lacklustre, dull and pedestrian recording that should have been quietly forgotten about and from which no one emerges with any distinction. Christoph Von Dohnanyiís agenda in Cleveland for Decca seems to be for clarity and sharpness of focus. He delivers all that to us but in the process delivers very little else. Excellent sound and playing, though, but we need more than that as I have tried to show and Gatti seems to bring off a much more convincing reading of the sharp variety. Yoel Levi with the Atlanta Symphony on Telarc is just plain boring and even the famed Telarc sound is a little below par. There has to be some level of personal involvement to make us care and Levi just doesnít have it. When the music is meant to explode it merely shouts, when it is meant to beguile it merely insinuates. At least Levi seems to know where he is at each moment where Lorin Maazel is just at sea too many times in the complexities of this work for his version on Sony to need detain us. The same applies to Seiji Ozawa on Philips whose Mahler I have always found shallow and he doesnít let me down here.

How well this symphony sorts out the really great Mahler conductors from the second-raters never fails to astound me. Likewise how this work can seem beyond even some of the first-raters. The latter case might well be illustrated by Günther Herbig on Berlin Classics. Having heard and greatly admired Herbigís Sixth from just three years ago I would love to hear how he conducts the Fifth today as my final conclusion on his recording from twenty years ago must surely be one of "interpretation in progress" from this fine conductor. Things do start well. It is in the final two movements where I felt a curious but very palpable falling away of what was promising to be something quite special. Into the studio again for Herbig then, I think. Also from Berlin Classics we have Hans Swarowsky. For many years Swarowsky headed the conductors class at Vienna Conservatory and he was responsible for nurturing Zubin Mehta, Claudio Abbado, Giuseppe Sinopoli and Mariss Jansons, so you can perhaps see why he may go down to history better regarded as a teacher rather than a conductor in his own right. He is served by a well-balanced recording and some fine playing, but his Fifth is far too grave and far too dark and so it short-changes us because there is so much more here. At polar opposite Sakari Oramo and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on Warner Classics are too lightweight in too many passages to make us feel that the music matters so much. The first movement doesnít really sound like the funeral march it is meant to be and the storms of the second movement are tame when compared with other versions. The Adagietto seems to lack the nostalgic turn but the last movement does convince. A performance of this symphony must convince from first bar to last, though. Released around the same time and worth looking out for is Jonathan Nott and the Bamberg Symphony on Tudor. In the final analysis this, for me, borderline case for inclusion is left out of prime recommendation because of some disappointment in the third movement. Nott micromanages the movement rather too much, takes it a tad too slowly for his own conception as well, and in all robs it of its unique poetry and character by constantly interrupting the essential flow to mark a phrase. He is served by a superb recording balance and fine playing and his first two movements are top notch, but the whole must convince and a slower than preferred Adagietto comes as quite a surprise as well.


Mentioning micromanagement brings me to Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic on EMI. For me Rattle conducts Mahler like the young Oliver played Shakespeare: with every word considered and interpreted; every glance, every gesture, every movement and resonance calculated Ė micro-managed to an almost obsessive degree. Of course, like Olivierís Shakespeare, Rattleís Mahler can be (and in the case of his Second, Sixth, and Tenth certainly is) deeply impressive and illuminating, an antidote to so many routine and lacklustre Mahler recordings and performances that come by down the years. However, especially over time - the acid test in recordings - I think this is the kind of approach to Mahler that can, when at its most inappropriate as it is here, take attention away from the work itself, placing it on the interpretation itself and how that interpretation is achieved. I suppose what Rattle lacks here is what I can best describe as "the art that conceals the art". The third movement is the point at which you know if the conductor has succeeded in catching the protean nature of the work by switching completely the mood of the first two movements to reflect the breadth of Mahlerís conception and then let the movement simply be itself. Though he certainly goes some of the distance I donít think Rattle does that sufficiently for his performance to be complete in the way that others are. The problem lies in this "micro management" of every moment in the score I referred to earlier. It has the effect on repeated listening of "straitjacketing" music that must be allowed to breathe and develop unaided. Rattle really does need to learn that sometimes "less is more" both in this movement and in the rest and that he doesnít have to be heard to be doing something, anything, to every moment of the music. He has come a long way from his dreadful London Proms performance of this work in 2000 when he barely skated over the surface in the quickest performance I have ever heard, as well as the most superficial and unfeeling. But I think he still has some way to go yet. Mentioning Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic reminds me that I am sure I will again receive e-mails pointing out that I have not mentioned the DG recording of this work by Herbert Von Karajan. Well now I have mentioned it and so I will pass on to Giuseppe Sinopoliís version also on DG. This is not far short of greatness but that falling short is all it takes to rule out a recording of this work. He can bring out the contrasts well but this is at the expense of being too languid in too many of the intimate passages which I think interrupts the symphonic flow too much. James Levineís recording, which appears mainly on RCA labels, is similarly near to the best. The Philadelphia Orchestra are superb in all departments but his very slow Adagietto is just too much for me. Zubin Mehtaís version on Belart is a virtuoso display with some fine speeds in the fast sections but he misses the humanity of the work. Maybe a newer recording would find him more responsive.

At the last count there were three official recordings of this work by Bernard Haitink and four if you count the one in the Amsterdam Christmas Day recordings box. His most recent recording is surprisingly with the French National Radio Orchestra "live" in Paris on Naïve. Though a touch quicker overall than his previous recording with the Berlin Philharmonic on Philips which suffered from an interminable Adagietto, this is still too dogged and too stately to present a case for major recommendation. Also here is a case of a performance where you can tell that the musicians neither know nor care very much about the music they are playing, even leaving aside Haitinkís shortcomings and their own in some lapses of ensemble. Haitink did this work best the first time with the Concertgebouw on Philips, but even that performance falls short of the elect detailed above.

The flow of new recordings and re-issues of Mahlerís Fifth seem never ending. Any survey of them is always going to be incomplete, always soon out of date. Even as I write I can report that a new version by Michael Tilson Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony on the orchestraís own label is scheduled for release later in 2006. Having heard a pre-release copy I think I can say that those collecting the SFSO cycle will not be disappointed and I will deal with the recording in proper detail at the time of release. By then there may well be others as this work also seems the Mahler debut work of choice for the ambitious young conductor, as Oramo and Nott have proved so recently. But I do believe I have given you a comprehensive enough guide to what I think are the very best recordings available, the crème de la crème, and why I consider them so when held alongside those which, for me, do not quite do this amazing work its fullest justice.

I would not wish to be without any of the main recommendations detailed above in a complex and difficult to bring off piece capable of such a huge range of interpretation but with so many dividends when it all works. So Bernstein, Boulez, Gatti, Zander, Tennstedt and Shipway are certainly head and shoulders among the crowd. But in the end I maintain my personal admiration most for Rudolf Schwarz on Everest, John Barbirolli on EMI and, added to this survey for the first time, Rafael Kubelik on Tahra. In fact the Kubelik Tahra recording is the single addition that I have made in this survey to the main recommendations. However, it is still Rudolf Barshaiís version that remains for me the finest of all recordings of the Fifth currently available and I recommend it to you without any reservation at all.

Tony Duggan

Selected discography

Rudolf Barshai: Now on Brilliant Classics label (92205) Purchase Please read the full reviews. and review coupled to the 10th
Bruno Walter: New York Philharmonic Sony SMK 64451 Amazon UK (mid-price)
Rudolf Schwarz: London Symphony Orchestra Everest EVC9032 Amazon UK (full price)
Sir John Barbirolli: New Philharmonia on EMI Great Recordings of the Century CDM5 669102 AmazonUK (mid-price)
Frank Shipway :Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Tring TRP 096 Amazon UK (bargain price)
Daniele Gatti :Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Conifer 75605 51318 2 Amazon UK (mid-price)
Pierre Boulez
: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra Deutsche Gramophon 458 416-2 Amazon UK (Full price)
Leonard Bernstein: Vienna Philharmonic Deutsche Gramophon 452 416-2 Amazon UK
Sir Charles Mackerras: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra EMI CDEMX 2164 Amazon UK (Bargain price)
Benjamin Zander Philharmonia on Telarc 2CD-80569 Amazon UK
Simon Rattle Berlin Philharmoniker EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 57385 2 Amazon UK

 



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