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7.8.13

Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.5 (Part 2)



This continues "Gustav Mahler — Symphony No.5 (Part 1)"


In early 1901, Mahler last conducted the Philharmonic concerts with Bruckner’s Fifth, vigorously cut down to Mahler’s preferred size. The Mahler-groupie Alma Schindler followed his movements breathlessly as he conducted Die Zauberflöte at the opera. He then suffered a massive, life-threatening hemorrhoid-caused hemorrhage that necessitated an operation and prolonged stay at the Löw Sanatorium. There, condemned to tortuous idleness, he threw himself into the new editions of Bach’s work that the Bachgesellschaft was producing at the time. He came away from his Bach-study with a invigorated interest in ‘true’ polyphony to the point of calling his own method of composition “Bachian”. He spent much time brushing up his Fourth Symphony, before returning to the grind at the Imperial Opera.

Alma Schindler, ca. 1900, detail. Click for entire picture


In June of 1901 he was able to finally move into his newly built villa at the Wörthersee. After composing several songs—including sketching out “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”—he set out to compose his Fifth Symphony in August, “now in full command of my (composition) powers and my technique”. At least the Scherzo, perhaps all first three movements, was composed then. With vigorous confidence and apparent ease, he reveled in the challenges this most daring of his symphonies yet posed to him. This summer, the first in his new house and the last unmarried one, would remain the most productive in his career. In November of 1901, he was formally introduced to that girl he had first struck up a conversation whilst on a bike tour in 1899, and must have remembered her asking for his autograph yet a few years earlier: Alma Schindler, who adored being drawn to that mysteriously attractive, intellectual, and most importantly: famous man.

He finished his Fifth Symphony at the Maiernegg Komponierhäusschen amid the early storms of his young marriage. Even so, the emotional inconsistency of his wife seems not to have affected the work greatly; the Scherzo in any case being the product of his recovery from illness the year before, and a statement of creative virility. A work expressing “man in the full light of day, having reached the peak of his existence.” The confidence gained through his music must have been helpful, if not instrumental, in Mahler’s wooing the “prettiest girl in Vienna” 19 years his junior and already with a respectable list of wooers and suitors attached to her love-record. Mahler’s fair copy, presumably finished in1903, bears the inscription to her. Unsatisfied with the orchestration of this milestone among his symphonies, Mahler doctored on it in several revisions until 1911. The result was a mess of variously ‘authoritative’ editions corrected by Mahler used by Bruno Walter, Willem Mengelberg, and Egon Wellesz. The ‘definitive’ version, including all of Mahler’s last changes, was not available until the Second critical edition of the International Gustav Mahler Society (IGMG) was published in 1989 (!).


available at Amazon
Symphony No.5,
R.Barshai / JDP
Brilliant

UK | DE | FR
Barshai’s 1999 recording with the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie only makes one yearn for more Mahler from this composer-conductor. Taut, aggressive, fervent: it is no wonder it was well received—even hyped—on the internet when it was originally released on a small German label. Re-issued on the budget label Brilliant, together with one of the best performing versions of the Tenth, it is one of the best buys in the Mahler discography. [Edit: the set has come and gone and come again, but now split into two separate CDs.]

available at Amazon
Symphony No.5,
J.Barbirolli / Philharmonia
EMI

UK | DE | FR
Barbirolli’s popular recording (EMI) has a reasonably swift Adagietto of under ten minutes and still manages to be sweet. This is far from his growling and raw recording of the Sixth, even in the dramatic sections of this Symphony. His strings (though not his brass or percussion) are un-aggressive, compared to Boulez, and less ripping, this is a Fifth to be leisurely enjoyed. Comparison to Boulez, for example, does not suit this recording at all. (Boulez takes only two minutes less than the 74 ½ minute Barbirolli but sounds tighter, tauter, more aggressive throughout.) But that’s not to say it is not good... just that its style is not suitable for comparison. Boulez goes for the jugular in super-high definition... Barbirolli stands more for grainy quaintness here. It served well as my introduction to this symphony and enjoys that emotional-imprint bonus in my estimation, but it is no longer a favorite.

available at Amazon
Symphony No.5,
V.Neumann / Leipzig GwhO
Brilliant & Berlin Classics

UK | DE | FR
Solti’s last recording—with the Zürich Tonhalle Orchestra (Decca)—is a fine piece of audio-memorabilia but not much more recommendable than the aforementioned Kondrashin First, nor better than the preceding Solti Fifths that I don’t much care for, either. It’s instantly unmemorable and uninvolving, despite a lack of any obvious flaws. In any good performance, no matter the sound quality, there should be moments where the symphony takes you by the lapels and forces your concentration for at least moments, if not the duration of the entire work. You’ll find plenty of those in Václav Neumann’s 1967 recording with the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, for example (Berlin Classics). At a wonderfully unsentimental clip Neumann finishes in under 66 minutes and the recording is exemplary for its natural style, colorful woodwinds, and driven passion. The Adagietto (9:40) is uncommonly beautiful and not cloying in the least. A dark horse Fifth-of-Choice. And, if by personal whim, my top choice.

available at Amazon
Symphony No.5,
G.Dudamel / Simon Bolivar Orchestra
DG

UK | DE | FR
Gustavo Dudamel’s DG recording, which also takes the Adagietto swiftly, is a very recent addition. His Venezuelan "Youth" Orchestra certainly likes digging into the score; has audible fun with it. This account is riveting and always good for glory—but not as coherent or compellingly, necessarily cogent as Boulez, for example. (And the sound is a bit fuzzier, too.) This is Mahler-emotico not unlike Bernstein, except at very different tempos (Dudamel is on the fast side with under 70 minutes; his Adagietto manages to drag a little but is fairly swift at 10:46) and minus the Klezmerish tones. Perhaps this release testifies to the Dudamel phenomenon that best (or only?) translates in live performance when the energy and the enthusiasm of his players—especially the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela—can be transmitted to the audience. On disc it is a little more difficult to be infected with his urgent, high spirit.

available at Amazon
Symphony No.5,
J.v.Zweden / LPO
LPO Live

UK | DE | FR
Jaap van Zweden and the London Philharmonic have added to the catalog on their LPO live label. Another new recording of an orchestra that isn’t in the highest tier under a conductor who isn’t widely (though apparently locally) known for his Mahler. (As concertmaster of the RCO, Zweden participated in many Mahler recordings, including those of Bernstein.) What a happy surprise then, to find it such a solid performance, bordering excellence. Nothing outrageous or exotic in this interpretation; it’s simply well and passionately played, with tasteful choices and measured tempos exhibited throughout and more even than Simon Rattle’s fine, but occasionally dawdling, Berlin recording (EMI).

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.5,
M.Stenz / Gürzenich Orch.
Oehms



Markus Stenz (Oehms,SACDLogo_Klein2) is the latest conductor to have thrown his hat into the Mahler-cycle ring. Acknowledging the currently ongoing Mahler cycles in the booklet, Oehms does everything to avoid competitive disadvantage and provides SACD surround sound and fine liner notes. Still, there is a problem of conductors taking up the cause of Mahler nowadays, only because it is expected of them; because it is en vogue. What is Stenz’ case? Well, he is the new Kapellmeister (that’s the title, not a judgement) of the Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne, an orchestra shaped by Hermann Abendroth (1915-1934), Günter Wand (1945-1974), and James Conlon (1990-2002). He opens his cycle with the 5th presumably because it was the Gürzenich Orchestra that premiered the symphony in 1904. (Conlon has a fine Fifth with the same band on EMI.) Together with the Krefeld players, the orchestra also premiered the Third Symphony barely two years prior, and made Mahler’s premieres enjoyable experiences for the composer, both times.

available at Amazon
Symphony No.5,
D.Zinman / ZTO
RCA


UK | DE | FR
When I don’t (tediously) compare Mahler symphonies side-by-side, I run through them ‘in the background’, to see if the interpretation can gain, and then keep, my attention and interest. Here David Zinman (RCA,SACDLogo_Klein2), who, movement for movement, delivers one of the finest new accounts of the Fifth, doesn’t grab me in the same way Stenz immediately does. Stenz generates brawny excitement without falling off on the side crudeness. The sound is clear, present, every bit as good and more direct than Zinman’s, which ads to the in-your-face quality especially of Stenz’ second movement. The Adagietto with Stenz is wonderfully unsentimental; eight minutes and 42 seconds of bliss, and none of that carefully crafted lullaby feeling that, for better or worse, Zinman achieves. But like so many other good recordings of this symphony—Rattle, Gielen, Nott et al.—Zinman leaves no particular impression. And Stenz does. Which makes his, along with the recent Gergiev release (by far the best in that cycle), the SACD-recording choice for the Fifth.

available at Amazon
Symphony No.5,
M.Jansons / RCO
RCO Live


UK | DE | FR
Mariss Jansons’ RCO (RCO Live,SACDLogo_Klein2) recording is the one I like best with him (beautiful Adagietto, for one)—but his Mahler on disc still strikes me as non-committal next to the likes of Stenz and Zinman, and not outright impressive enough next to a recording like Chailly’s. A blandness-syndrome also shared—on and off—by the likes of Haitink, Abbado, and even Chailly. Tilson Thomas (SFS Media, SACDLogo_Klein2) is not usually part of that lot, being more a neutralized Bernstein-type (heart on the sleeve, but with cuff-links), but his Fifth would qualify. At their best, they can deliver fantastic Mahler; at their worst they come with faultless, pristine comity. I quite prefer the kind of personal Mahler recordings that Benjamin Zander (Telarc, SACDLogo_Klein2) makes, which rank higher in my estimation than my scant mention of him so far might suggest.

available at Amazon
Symphony No.5,
H.Scherchen / VStOpO
Urania et al.

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon
Symphony No.5,
B.Walter / NYP
SonyLive

UK | DE | FR
Hermann Scherchen is one of the conductors that are often touted as contributing very special insights to the works they conducted. From the Scherchen recordings I have that are listenable, he certainly does prove himself a uniquely interesting bandleader with interpretations that always stick out from those of his contemporary conductor colleagues. (His Haydn, particularly.) But in Mahler’s Fifth he has, sadly, nothing to add. The recording with the National ORTF Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi) has the central Scherzo so cut down that even I am bothered by it. And the (complete) 1953 Westminster-label recording (now available on Urania) is a scrappy mess. It sounds like the percussionists bang on pots and pans, the trumpeter plays on his kid’s training instrument, and whatever ‘character’ could be attributed to the performance is actually distortion. The strings sound like one solid, resinified glob in war-broadcast quality, spiced up with pops and crackles . On the positive side: the players often hit the right notes.

And to speak of a great interpretation that excuses these flaws is absurd: There is no more a proper way of discerning what the interpretation could possibly have been, under such circumstances, than it is possible to judge the quality of a Vermeer from a battered postcard picture. One reviewer raved of “the timbral dislocations, the weird phrasing, the rhythmic lurches, [the] unexpected dead ends.” I feel like finishing the sentence with faux-excitement: “...and that’s just the sound quality!” There remains the mystique of ‘what might have been’, but little else. (The majority of old recordings, including Furtwängler’s, benefits from the same effect.) The only thing that remains of Scherchen’s interpretation are the crisp tempi (assuming they’ve not been distorted, too) which are admittedly fierce and awesome, and the contrasting, stretched-out Adagietto. And the former can be had in better sound, similar seat-of-their-pants orchestral playing, and ‘character-enriched’ brass with a recording like Kyrill Kondrashin’s (Melodiya) or Bruno Walter’s (1947, New York Philharmonic, Sony), and the latter with Haitink (Berlin).



The font used in the title is "Victorian Plain"

Mahler 5 Choices


1. Vaclav Neumann, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Berlin Classics / Brilliant

2. Riccardo Chailly, RCO, Decca

3. Rudolf Barshai, Junge Deutsche Philharmonie, Brilliant

4. Pierre Boulez, WPh, DG

5. Markus Stenz, Gürzenich, Oehms

Mahler 5 SACD Choice

Markus Stenz, Gürzenich, Oehms

Wilfull exuberance awards:

Leonard Bernstein, WPh, DG and David Briggs, organ transcription, Priory

Find a list of the ex-WETA Mahler Posts here: http://ionarts.blogspot.com/2009/12/mahler-survey.html

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