Sir Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 57385 2.
"Wouldn't you just die without Mahler?" --Educating Rita, 1983.
Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven may still reign supreme over the classical concert hall, but I doubt that anyone has sold more high-end audio systems than Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). His music is so dynamic, so diverse, so melodic, and so instantly recognizable that it has been the darling of the home listener for over fifty years, ever since the days when Bruno Walter, Leonard Bernstein, Georg Solti, Otto Klemperer, and others reintroduced Mahler to the musical world. It is appropriate, then, if maybe a trifle redundant, to have an additional solid entry in the field, this one from Sir Simon Rattle and his then newly acquired Berlin Philharmonic (a recording originally on EMI, now on Warner Classics).
The Fifth Symphony is another of those massive Mahler works that displays the composer's extensive imagination, and conductors can and do interpret it in an extended variety of ways. My own favorite recording has long been the heart-on-its-sleeve approach of another "Sir," Sir John Barbirolli, from 1969, also on EMI, but I suppose I'm just sentimental. Still, it's good to hear the contrasts another conductor like Simon Rattle brings to the work.
Perhaps it's just me, too, but I've never been fully able to reconcile all the disparate elements of the Fifth Symphony, and it's only been Barbirolli who has made the piece seem of a whole. The work begins with two serious, heavy-duty movements that Mahler considered one long, boisterous funeral march. For all the world they sound to me more like an Irish wake than a funeral. These are followed by a typically bizarre Mahlerian Scherzo that changes the tone entirely to the lighter side; succeeded by the well-known Adagietto, which the composer wrote as a love letter to his wife and acts as an isle of tranquility; and concludes with a huge Rondo-Finale that returns us to the clamorous mood of the beginning but without a hint of the earlier portentousness.
Rattle does a sensible job keeping everything moving apace, but even he has a hard time making all of these elements conform. His sensible and well-considered tempos place emphases on most of the work's kinetic energy, finding perhaps a tad more joy in the piece than some of his rivals, while the Adagietto provides the dreamy interlude it implies. I might add that Rattle does not do anything unusual with the Adagietto, either; that is, he does not appear to subscribe to the relatively recent notion that Mahler intended the movement be taken at a much faster pace than most conductors have given it in the past. Rattle's timing is almost as slow as Barbirolli's, although I must admit it seems quicker.
Like most of Rattle's Berlin records, he made this 2002 recording of the Fifth live over a period of several performances, a wont of Sir Simon's I suppose to capture the spirit of the moment (and a wont of many record companies to save money). The sound will not appeal to everyone, however, for while it is certainly realistic in its moderately distanced miking, it is somewhat bright and hard at the top end and a bit thin at the bottom. There is a good sense of the concert hall environment about it, too, although there is also the sense that the listener is not quite close enough to the orchestra to receive the full impact of the music. Audience noise is almost nonexistent, for which I am grateful, nor is there any applause included; but I was aware from the outset that the engineers had recorded it live without ever looking at the booklet information. A quick comparison of the sound to the many decades old, EMI analogue Barbirolli disc made me appreciate all the more the merits of the older recording--it's warmer, fuller, deeper, and generally more listenable. Considering that the older recording is available at mid price, I'd still have to recommend it over Rattle's issue, at least sonically.
Of course, if you're a Mahler fan, there's nothing wrong with any additional recording. And Rattle is among our current foremost Mahler interpreters, his recordings almost always a pleasure to hear.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:
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.
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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