Mahler: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Sakari Oramo, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Warner Classics 2564 62055-2.

What is with this sudden proliferation of live recordings over the past decade or two? It seems as though every other classical album I audition from a record company was recorded live. Is it just that all the conductors in the world suddenly feel they can only do their best work in long, live takes, their spontaneity only ignited by the presence of a live audience? Or is it a financial thing? Are live recordings so much less expensive to produce than those in studios or empty concert halls that it's all companies can afford to do anymore? Are audiences in effect subsidizing the cost of producing records?

In any case, with Sakari Oramo and his City of Birmingham players doing the Mahler Fifth in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 2004, the sound is typically "live," meaning it has plenty of air but doesn't have the definition or focus one would normally hear in a good studio production. Indeed, here the sound is slightly "off," appearing at times harsh, at times murky, at times strident, but never seeming absolutely right. Then, there's the audience, who are very quiet yet whose presence is always felt through subtle wheezes and paper rattlings. And, really, when any music ends, I like to take a breath and relax and think about it for a moment; I do not need 800 people clapping in my ears. It reminds me of the canned laughter in a television sitcom.

Insofar as the interpretation is concerned, Mahler's scores are so diverse and often so bizarre, they admit practically any reading. So Oramo's performance is no better and no worse than most of those I've heard, although it is perhaps a little less cohesive than some others. The conductor, displaying a youthful freshness and bounce, comes into his own in the big, central Scherzo, and he follows it with a traditionally sweet-toned if long-winded Adagietto. But then he's back to a more divergent playing style in the Finale. Oh, well....

In this last analysis, this is not a recording I would recommend as a first choice in the repertoire, not with conductors like Barbirolli, Haitink, Solti, Rattle, Karajan, Abbado, Bernstein, and Mackerras so readily available on disc.


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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