Mahler: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

James DePreist, London Symphony Orchestra.  Naxos 8.557990.

A friend of mine was commenting recently on how the cost of the formerly budget-priced Naxos releases has inched to within a few dollars of what we normally regard as the mid-price range.  It's true; as of this writing Naxos discs were selling at a list price of $8.99, which means their competition is a lot tougher.

In fairness, Naxos have been attracting some big names of late.  This Mahler disc, for example, boasts one of America's finest conductors, James DePreist, and one of the world's finest orchestras, the London Symphony.  Still, while it's a good performance and a good recording, you have to consider that for just a few dollars more, $11.98, you can buy an acknowledged classic like Sir John Barbirolli's 1970 account from EMI in their "Great Recordings of the Century" series.  It makes you stop and think for a moment.

Anyway, DePreist's recording is a decent alternative at any price.  Given that Mahler symphonies, and especially the Fifth, provide enough varied material--from grave and gloomy to joyful and triumphant, from lush and lovely to grand and imposing--for any conductor to make his mark, it's a wonder there is any consensus at all about who might be "best."

DePreist takes a kind of middle-of-the-road approach.  The performance does not carry the weight of a Solti, the exuberance of a Rattle, or the intense personal emotion of a Barbirolli, but it does have a little of each of these elements.  The Scherzo, which is at the heart of this big, purely orchestral work, is appropriately zippy and happy after the relatively dark (albeit sometimes resounding) opening movement, followed by the famous Adagietto (the composer's so-called love letter to his wife-to-be), taken slowly and comfortably.  After that, I'm not sure it was even necessary for Mahler to write a Finale, but it brings the work to a delicious close, although DePreist seems a little hesitant about it.

The Naxos sound is better than average (recorded in Abbey Road Studios in 2005), being highly dimensional and very dynamic.  Bass is impressive on occasion, and a few glistening highs ring out as well.  The midrange, however, is not as transparent as on Barbirolli's older recording, another reason for giving the EMI disc a second thought.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa