|Before you read any further, let me state from the very beginning that I am a serious hard-core classical music geek. Oh, I have listened to various rock groups like Deep Purple, The Eagles, Credence Clearwater Revival etc. growing up but my earliest memories of classical music are of me standing in front of my old record player flailing away with a wooden spoon conducting Beethoven's 6th Symphony. I cannot even begin to remember anything other than that it was Beethoven's 6th. My grandmother was probably the one responsible as I also remember going to concerts when I was quite young to hear the Austin Symphony in the old Palmer Auditorium. Other strong influences include many trips to hear the San Antonio Symphony (the infamous kiddie concerts) during my elementary school days. I can only assume that these many events are responsible for my almost total classical music geekdom.
Let's cut right to the chase - Mahler's 5th Symphony. This article started after reading two reports about the new Waterlily Acoustics SACD of Mahler's 5th Symphony. One report was from TAS where one of their writers was crowing about his pre-release copy. The second was from chief 6moons guru Srajan when he was giving us his 9-page run down of HE2005. Because I am seriously passionate about the music of Gustav Mahler, I immediately started lusting after this new Waterlily. I realized that with it, I'd now have 14 recordings of Mahler's 5th Symphony alone. Five are on SACD, the others on RedBook. When the MTT/SFSO Mahler #5 comes out in late 2006, it will be joining the library as well.
When I started ruminating on this article about Mahler's 5th, I suddenly remembered a statement made by one of my music history professors from my grad school days. He said -- and to paraphrase -- "is it not interesting that it seems like many composer's fifth symphony is their most famous?" As I pondered that statement, I realized that he was correct. When we think of famous 5ths, it's easy to think of Beethoven. How about Prokofiev's 5th? I have heard the Prokofiev live several times but to this day, I have never heard any other Prokofiev symphony performed live though he wrote 7 (try and find a complete set of recordings of his symphonies). Bruckner's 5th is usually played more than any other save for his 8th. Carl Nielsen is another composer whose 5th is somehow gaining in prominence. Speaking of Tchaikovsky, of all the times I have heard his symphonies played, the 5th was the dominant one, distantly followed by his 4th.
Who knows why some composers' fifth symphonies seem to dominate their other work? With regards to Mahler, his 5th has always been a likely candidate because of all his symphonies, it is the most approachable, only his 1st being even more so. Maybe that's because it offers a wide variety of styles, mood swings and emotional climaxes? As far as unusual demands for extra orchestral forces go, Mahler's 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 8th either require vocal soloists, choirs or off-stage musicians. The 6th and 7th Symphonies can be arduously long depending on who mans the podium. That leaves No.s 1 and 9. Perhaps it is because there is a balance of demands placed on players and audience that make the 5th universally more palatable to concert goers? When Sir Georg Solti conducted his farewell concert in Chicago, it was with Mahler's 5th. The second time I heard the Chicago Symphony on tour in Austin, it was with Mahler's 5th. (More on this concert later).
|As a former aspiring orchestral trumpet player, I am intimately familiar with this symphony. I cannot tell you how many times I have played that terrifying opening solo at auditions. It did not matter whether I was auditioning for a 1st chair position or a 4th/utility position - I always had to play that opening solo. I have heard it played where the poor player cacked or made the dreaded splatter; not the end of a career but certainly humiliating.
Today, I hope to offer some interesting comparisons of the many recordings of this work in my collection. It won't be a dry dissertational thesis on Mahler nor will I spew musical diarrhea that some people find educational and, gasp, interesting. If you want to learn about Mahler the man, I kindly direct you to any of Donald Mitchell's books on the subject. Then again, only some poor grad student would probably want to dig that deep. We will simply delve into the many recordings of Mahler's titanic 5th symphony.
|My many thoughts and ideas on this symphony are based not only on the many recordings I own but also on the many times I have heard this piece played live. I have|
|heard our own Austin Symphony play it twice; the Cleveland Orchestra; the London Symphony playing it in Columbus/ Ohio on tour; the Columbus Symphony; The Royal Philharmonic on tour; a surprisingly stunning performance with the University of Michigan Symphony. The most stunning of all was with the Chicago Symphony here in Austin way back in the 1980s. The CSO's equipment truck had wrecked out in west Texas. The driver was killed and many valuable old string instruments were damaged or destroyed. The concert was over an hour late getting started but the evening was emotionally highly charged. Needless to say, it was an absolutely stunning sold-out performance and I have never heard another Austin audience roar like they did at the end. It seems Mahler's 5th elicits the biggest ovation of all his works.|
So let's get at the music. Everything mentioned (except the Chandos/Järvi and old Solti/CSO London) is readily available at your favorite music outlet. The Solti/Chicago (an old AAD RedBook) can be found in a boxed set of Mahler's symphonies (all with Solti and the CSO, obviously), and I have spotted a few used listings of the Chandos.
|We will start with the oldest recordings first and then proceed on to the newest. I have become a big fan of SACD and all of my listening for the past year has been on SACD. It is becoming difficult to go back and listen to a number of these older 16-bit recordings and I will comment only briefly on those as I come to them. I have included timing of many movements as well as the total performance times of each recording. The tempi for each movement vary as is to be expected. The biggest and most notable variations occur in the 4th movement marked "Adagietto: Sehr Langsam". It is these variations that can actually alter my impression of the recording. For a number of years there has been a good deal of controversy over how the actual tempo of the Adagietto should be taken. This stems from two conflicting views of what the Adagietto really|
|represents: a love song to Mahler's wife Alma or a funeral dirge. Bruno Walter, a personal disciple of Mahler, played the Adagietto under 8 minutes. Why do some conductors take it so slow then? Leonard Bernstein plays it like a funeral dirge, perhaps forever patterned by his memorial service for Bobby Kennedy. Benjamin Zander clocks in at a much quicker 8:33 while Sir Simon Rattle's pastoral 9:33 is still a minute faster than Bernstein.
|Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti [London 414 321]. Recording location: Medinah Temple/Chicago, March 1970. Total playing time: 66:07. Format: RedBook.
I will start off by saying that this particular commentary could generate some heated debate. There are many who feel that Solti was all fire, angst and no music. I've heard enough Mahler live and on record to know that there are basically two types of Mahler conductors: those who want all the emotion and drama they can stimulate and those who go for the inner beauty and more cerebral passion. If this is indeed true, then Solti falls into the first category. I will say point blank that this is a recording where Solti strives to wring every last drop of energy, passion, fire, angst and drama from every bloody note - and with a vengeance.
|The symphony opens with the trumpet solo played by Adolph 'Bud' Herseth, unarguably one of the world's most famous orchestral players. He played principal trumpet in the Chicago Symphony for a whopping 53|
|seasons. I doubt he could honestly tell you how many times he's played the 5th. In fact, many considered Mahler's 5th a Solti/CSO signature piece. It was Mahler's 5th that the CSO played in Austin the day their equipment truck had wrecked in west Texas. It was Mahler's 5th the orchestra played during Solti's final concert...
The solo opens the same way every time I've ever heard the CSO play it. Bud plays the triplet pattern slightly faster than most. He even plays the same way on an ArtHaus DVD that I have with CSO/Barenboim, recorded in Cologne/Germany on tour. The speed of Bud's triplets is matched by the orchestra, making for some blurring in turn. Right off the bat, Solti kicks the piece into a high-octane gear that never lets up. High emotion, intense drama, sordid passion - you name it, it's here. A first set of kudos belongs to the mighty CSO horns. The 2nd movement opens with a bang similar to the Järvi/Chandos and there is no break in intensity, showcasing the CSO's orchestral excellence. Once again Solti draws the emotion out with such a driven fervor that it makes for a truly spooky ending none of the other recordings can match. The 3rd movement opens with a mighty horn call and gets off to a pleasantly flowing feel. As in the 2nd movement, the intensity is palpable and creates some really memorable changes of mood, with some brilliant lyrical playing in the relaxed and musical middle section. The solo horn plays the first obligato part rather tastefully, saving the bravura for later.
The slower material stays musical and then we arrive at the second obligato. Here, Dale Clevenger lets it rip for serious goose bumps. On a side note, the obligato playing on this recording is nothing compared to what we heard live here in Austin. Mr. Clevenger was filling every square inch of space in the Bass Concert Hall that night. Needless to say, the 3rd movement ends rather spectacularly. The Adagietto mirrors the Rattle/Berlin and Zander/Philharmonia, a perfectly fine tempo that does not die on the beat. Solti even adds a little push though his Adagietto is 17 seconds slower than Rattle's and 1:17 slower than Zander's. String bass is once again fat and proper to allow a fine ending. The 5th movement takes off where the 3rd movement ends, with some stellar playing by the CSO woodwinds and strings. Comments in my notes include "big strings" and "romping". There is a good deal of superb individual playing throughout the last movement and the music starts to build up more and more pressure. We finally get a breather a little after ten minutes in but this respite does not last long and with a final burst of energy, the piece end with a serious finale that usually leaves audiences leaping to their feet and letting a few 50 bravos rip.
You can probably guess that I like this recording since I have heard the CSO play it live. However, there are some recording and sound issues that are a combination of the mighty CSO sound and the recording location. I have been in Medinah Temple -- a Shriner's facility -- and this location does not allow for a large and more desirable amount of space between microphones and stage. I wish that the London team and CSO could have traveled south to the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana. The concert hall in the Krannert Center is superb and offers a superior acoustical venue (listen to Solti's Mahler 6th recorded there). The recording of the 5th is also showing its age. At nearly 35 years old, I hope that the folks at Universal will get wise and do a smokin' DSD remaster.
|Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Eliahu Inbal [Denon, CO-1088]. Recorded in the Alte Oper/Frankfurt January 23 & 25, 1986. Total playing time 72:40. Format: RedBook.
The 1st movement opens with what I consider to be the least pleasing trumpet solo of all of my recordings. There is no dynamic change and worse, the soloist actually changes styles between the start and end of the solo. The massive chords that accompany the trumpet solo are all rather abrupt. However, the second time the trumpet solo enters, there is more dynamic contrast. The normally mournful string melody that follows the trumpet solo is not at all moving and just sort of sits there. Throughout the remainder of the movement, the transitions are strange and abrupt. The 2nd movement opens with a pretty snappy pace though there are some less than clear low strings. However, it is at this point that this recording exhibits an amazing soundstage. This came as a surprise considering that this is a nearly 20-year old recording. Unlike the 1st movement, transitions are more accomplished here to make for interesting mood swings.
|As is to come in later movements, there is some less than clean brass playing, especially in the trumpets and trombones. There are some rather nice climaxes and the movement fades away eerily. The 3rd movement starts off in a definite "in 3" feel and I started wishing for a little increase in pace. At this tempo, the brass gets rather pecky. However, as in the 2nd movement, Inbal makes some nice transitions, once again capturing the mood swings. The middle section is back to a rather slow tempo, but this does not interfere with the orchestra achieving some lovely sounds. However, it is when the horn obbligato gets going that things get strange. Transitions suddenly become clunky. The horn proceeds with stifled dynamics and the overall sense of this whole part is somewhat herky-jerky.
The horn solo sadly elicits no goose bumps. In fact, looking over my notes, I wrote one word - "neurotic". That's what the last part of this movement felt like. The Adagietto is another one of those interpretations that takes forever. At 11:34, it's the most drawn-out of them all and certainly feels like it. I forced myself to listen for a few minutes and got to enjoy some lovely massed strings. However, after three or four minutes, it was off to the 5th movement. At the start of the last movement, we get a nice flowing tempo soon marred again by abrupt and awkward transitions. Also distracting is an undue emphasis on inner details (similar to the Chailly though I do not get the feel of intense micro management as much as an overzealous engineer making full use of the auxiliary microphones). The booklet indicates the use of helper mikes and apparently they were used to full (dis)advantage. Things get worse as the movement progresses, with plainly less than stellar brass playing especially in the trumpet and trombone section. The ending is mediocre.
What we have here is basically a very fine RedBook recording let down by the performance. Had I sat through this during the actual live performance, I'd be a nervous wreck at the end. I am not sure what contributed to these issues: a late night session; too many beers during break; a less than competent orchestra? We may never know.
|Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi [Decca 289 460 625-2]. Penguin Recording Location/Masonic Auditorium, July 1988. Total Playing Time: 65:2.0 Format: RedBook.
The 1st movement opens at a much brisker tempo and as good as some of the following solos are, this is not one of them. The overall style is very inconsistent accompanied by less than first-class sonics. I am not sure who played the solo since Michael Sachs joined the Cleveland Orchestra in 1988. I heard Cleveland play Mahler's 5 in either 1989 or 1990. I suspect that the soloist on the recording was the departing principal trumpet, Bernard Adelstein. The live performance with Mr. Sachs was substantially better than what we have here. The tempo is a touch on the hurried side and could have been a bit more deliberate. The string entrance after the solo is quite accomplished but the second trumpet solo lacks luster and the trombones often sound anemic. The Cleveland French horns are in top form and Dohnányi allows them the chance to shine on their way to some sweet high Cs. Certain massive orchestral triplets are rather abrupt and a bit confused. Overall, it's a rather strange interpretation of the 1st movement, with the famous transitions not terribly effective.
The 2nd opens at a goodly pace, with trumpet playing a bit abrupt and the initial snappy feel somewhat in the way of lyrical expression. The miking is a bit close to sound more like a studio recording than the normal quality hall sound from the Masonic Auditorium we get to later. The changes in mood are not very subtle (something I cannot accuse Solti or Järvi of) and the brass is poorly represented. The trombones are dynamically not even close to the trumpets or horns. In fact, I spotted several instances where I was less than thrilled with the way the brass was asked to play. The overall impression of this movement is one of simple quickness but without the necessary gravitas Solti or Järvi manage to inject. The 3rd movement opens with excellent woodwind and string performances. There is much more emotion in this movement than the second though also a lack of subtlety. I was starting to wonder if the London recording team too had a special helper microphone for the horn section. This recording was made just a few years before I heard the Cleveland Orchestra live and my memories of the horn section from that concert do not agree with what I am hearing here (though it doesn't diminish my thrill at hearing a healthy section). The first horn obligato part is fine but the following string pizzicatos are played at a speed that makes them sound nervous. More praise is due the stellar woodwinds but once again, we encounter more anemic trombone sounds.
The tension arc builds admirably towards the second horn obligato and the soloist delivers plenty of sound. Final comments deal with the very excessive timpani presence throughout the finale. The ending (not terribly exciting by the way) is not a concerto for timpani. The Adagietto proceeds at a nice and moderate tempo on par with the Solti, Zander and Rattle readings although there isn't much by way of musical emotion. If one plays this movement like a love song, then allow it to be lyrical. It's in the movement's center section that we are treated to some music and life which saves it. The 5th movement then is a total shocker. Suddenly passion, vitality and gusto erupt, all the things so sadly missing earlier. The tempo is perfect and allows for some excellent woodwind and strings excursion. My notes read, "as though another orchestra came on stage". Unlike the earlier movements, we finally get a solid feel for the wonderful acoustics of the Masonic Auditorium and at times, there is even a wonderful organic feel to the orchestra though occasional studio sounds do creep in. I hate to keep harping on the poor trombones, but more "anemic" comments run throughout my notes. Once again, I have to question the use of close miking for the horn section because they come on like gangbusters. I do not remember such a huge horn presence during live concert. Throughout this movement, the Cleveland winds are simply amazing and the very fine 5th movement ends with a good deal of excitement.
The staggering difference between the 5th movement and the rest of the symphony makes me wonder how many days it took to make this recording. One gets the impression that the 5th movement was recorded first when orchestra and conductor were fresh. The rest is listless by comparison. Curiously, this recording is a Penguin Classics, the latter a designation that was supposed to indicate a recording of special merit (the Decca Dutoit/Planets is very worthy of the honor). After listening to 14 recordings of Mahler's 5th, I cannot give this reading the same accolade despite the fine 5th movement.