Mahler: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

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:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For over 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me--point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, as of right now it comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio High Current preamplifier, AVA FET Valve 550hc or Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa