Mahler: Symphony No.5
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Mahler Symphony No. 5
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Following up on his highly acclaimed recordings of Mahler's first, second fourth and sixth symphonies for Channel Classics, Ivan Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra offer a new vision of the Symphony No.5. Its famous Adagietto is one of the most intimate pieces that Mahler ever wrote for orchestra. According to Fischer, the fifth is ''the most Jewish of all Mahler's symphonies. The first movement takes us to the unmistakable mood of Jewish lamentation, the finale to the childlike vision of messianic joy.''
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To begin with, as in Fischer's account of the First Sym., the music-making feels fresh, and the conductor's rapport with his musicians is complete, resulting in a vibrant connection that awakens every bar of the score. There's no dull, routine playing or a display of faked, inflated emotion. Fischer is naturally a lyrical interpreter of Mahler, and in the first movement the Trauermarsch isn't played for tragedy (as it isn't by Boulez, either). Some listeners may consider this a fault, and generally speaking I would, too, but Fischer's more dynamic approach is appealing for its excitement. As in all his Mahler recordings to date, the phrasing is supple without exaggeration, another plus in a symphony where the first three movements are marked by a prevailing sense of push-pull that can easily be overdone.
The tragic first movement gives way, amazingly, to a second that is even more turbulent and all but cataclysmic. Here's an instance where I can understand Mahler's original audiences being baffled and disoriented. Bernstein and Abbado set out on a wild rise, but Fischer is more self-contained. He relies on his strengths at phrasing, balance, and detail to make their effect here, and they do. One is aware of the intricate busyness of Mahler's entangled woodwind writing, for example, and the mood evokes unexpected poignancy. Such complete immersion is rare and very welcome.
In decades past, audiences were stunned by Solti's all-out assault on the Scherzo, with the Chicago brass lifting the roof but at the same time leaving little room for wit and grace. Fischer brings out the dance rhythms and the Viennese sway, almost to the point of schmaltz. He gives the music a swoony, loosey-goosey effect that works. It's also off the beaten track for him to begin the Adagietto at several dynamic markings louder than the score indicates, creating a mood not of hushed romance or mystery but direct, songful emotion. This is in keeping with the directness of the entire reading.
Then we get to the very tricky finale, where many feel a letdown in Mahler's inspiration. Even in the best of hands this movement feels impersonal, cluttered with counterpoint and noodling that has no emotional core. Quite a number of recordings get by on virtuosic woodwind and brass playing Rattle and the Berliners on EMI, for example). Fischer doesn't try very hard to dress up the music but plays it in a straight-ahead fashion that isn't quite enough to convince me - it's the only weak part of an otherwise superb, totally engrossing performance.
The second movement - as pointed out by other reviewers - is completely lacking in intensity and good-old German 'sturm und drang' (storm and stress). It just ain't there. There's lots of beautiful, very together playing and not much more. That's a shame because the more introspective moments of the nearly 20 minute long scherzo are exquisitely done. The last two movements are also really well done, and invite in lots of sunlight along the way. But what's the point of sunshine and a big, victorious sounding chorale if there was so little adversity to begin with?
Fischer's Mahler recordings have all been very good - if not great - up to this point. I agree with another reviewer that the strongest ones are symphonies two and four, with the first symphony trailing close behind. But this fifth is a straggler, I'm afraid to say. There's simply too much really solid competition. Listen to Sinopoli/Philharmonia (DG) if you want to hear just a knock-out second movement, as well as an equally rousing finale. Too bad the sound isn't better on the Sinopoli. If you can afford it, get the Manfred Honeck/Pittsburgh Symphony M5 on the Japanese Exton label. If not, I'd stick to the tried-and-true Karajan and Barbirolli ones.