Mahler: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Plus, a second disc with the conductor discussing the work. Benjamin Zander, Philharmonia Orchestra. Telarc 2CD-80569 (2-disc set).

No guts, no glory. Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia Orchestra attack this most passionate of Mahler's big orchestral works with all the extremes of emotion it deserves. Indeed, Zander's performance may come as close to Mahler's intentions as any recording on the market.

Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) wrote his Symphony No. 5 in 1901-02, and it is among his most varied works, beginning in sorrow and solemnity and culminating in joy and happiness. The turning points are the third movement Scherzo, sounding much like Mahler's usual parodies of a traditional Viennese waltz, and the famous Adagietto, really a love letter to the composer's wife, Alma. These lead into the joyous Finale.

Zander takes each movement very slightly quicker than many of his rivals, but never does he lose the lilt or flavor of the more lustrous passages. Interestingly, too, Zander tells us in a booklet note that after he had recorded the piece, he compared his timings for each movement to those of Mahler himself as reported by a listener at a rehearsal of the work, and Zander's timings were no more than a minute different from Mahler's for the entire symphony. Of course, that doesn't prove anything, really, because we don't know for certain what Mahler's tempos were in an actual performance, nor do we know what Mahler's phrasing was like. Nor can we be sure that any composer is the ultimate authority on conducting his own works. Whatever, it makes a fascinating point.

Benjamin Zander
None of this is to suggest that Zander's reading is any better than rival versions, but it surely equals some of the best I've heard. However, I still have a preference for Sir John Barbirolli's rendition (EMI, now Warner Classics) in which Sir John wears his heart more openly on his sleeve, luxuriating ever the more slowly in each movement, especially the Adagietto, which, nonetheless, manages to sound a note of love and beauty rather than being entirely funereal. Getting back to Zander, let's give him an A for effort here and assume his performance is as close to Mahler's designs as any around, a small degree of sentimentality notwithstanding.

In addition to the symphony, the folks at Telarc also include for the cost of the one CD an extra disc, seventy-eight minutes long, of Zander discussing the symphony. He takes us movement by movement through the work, commenting and illustrating points by using not only his own recording but historical recordings as well. It's a welcome bonus disc, even if Zander emerges from it a bit too much the pontifical lecturer in his narration.

The disc's sound is big and bold in the Telarc tradition, a recording exuberant enough to match the interpretation. The dynamic range is wide, and the frequency response reaches the limits of both ends of the sonic spectrum. Yet here's the snag: It doesn't appear to have a lot of presence, and, in fact, when comparing it to Barbirolli's 1969 account, it has less depth and less inner detail. What's more, the Barbirolli disc comes in at mid price, remaining a glorious bargain.

Still and all, this Zander/Telarc disc is one to consider, and for people looking for the least degree of idiosyncrasy in their music, it may top the charts.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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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 more than 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, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
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.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa