A brush with death caused by a violent intestinal haemorrhage, and his marriage to Alma Schindler (‘superhuman love’) a year later: these are often cited as major biographical stimuli for Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 (1901-02), inspiring both the death-haunted turbulence of Part One, the tender, impassioned Adagietto – strikingly used in Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice – and the exuberant Finale. Both events had an influence, as had his immersion in Bachian counterpoint.
But it’s important to note that the Fifth is the first symphony for which Mahler himself provided no detailed programme notes, no extra-musical aids to interpretation. The human voice, so prominent in Symphonies Nos 2-4, is also abandoned (‘There is no need for words – everything is purely musically expressed’).
It’s clear Mahler was aiming in the Fifth at a new beginning. ‘A totally new message demanded a new technique,’ he said. This new enrichment of his style, and the Symphony’s optimistic death-to-life narrative, continues to enthral audiences today.
The best recordings of Mahler's Symphony No. 5
SWR Symphony Orchestra/Michael Gielen (2003)
Hänssler Classic CD 93.101
Gielen is to Mahler what Günter Wand was to Bruckner: a life-long student of the composer’s symphonies, conductor of an orchestra steeped in his interpretations, and wise enough to delay recording them until everyone concerned was ready. Gielen’s Mahler cycle, when it eventually came, was stunning, and this recording of the Fifth is typical of it.
It marries, to an extraordinary extent, intensity of feeling with a total absence of the cheap schmaltz and self-indulgence that too many Mahler performances tip into when they try to be explicitly emotional. The playing of Gielen’s SWR Symphony Orchestra is sure-footed and articulate: no other orchestra on disc has such a wide variety of Mahlerian timbres at its fingertips, nor such a keenly tutored understanding of how to use them.
The range of expression in Gielen’s interpretation is wide. He makes the listener aware of the Fifth’s darker, more uncompromising elements, the tough ground to be negotiated from the stress and turbulence of the opening two movements to the Finale’s triumphs. His Adagietto is, at 8:30, among the fleetest, a sweet but uncloying lyrical interlude amid the grander symphonic questions being debated. A balanced, powerful recording sets the seal on a magnificent Fifth from a definitive cycle.
Three more great recordings of Mahler's Symphony No. 5
Vienna Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein (1987)
Deutsche Grammophon 477 6334
It’ll soon be 25 years since Leonard Bernstein gave the live performance of Mahler’s Fifth captured in this recording. It seemed a great interpretation then, and it still does now: a timeless combination of inspired conducting and magnificent orchestral playing from a palpably fired-up Vienna Philharmonic, which we named one of the best orchestras in the world.
Bernstein’s Mahler was famously impressionable, but here his tendency towards emotionalism is tethered to a rock-solid appreciation of where the work is headed structurally. There are some truly unforgettable moments – who other than Lenny could have conjured the orgasmic ascent to the second movement’s glorious brass-capped climax?
The Adagietto is slow, but underpinned by Bernstein’s pliant sense of phrasing, and ravishing string sonorities. In its expansiveness and spontaneity, this CD complements the Gielen version perfectly.
London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev (2010)
LSO Live LSO0664
Gergiev’s Mahler can be broad-brush in effect, but this Fifth is full of telling local detail, coupled with the conductor’s trademark volatility. The recapitulation of the opening movement’s funeral march, for instance, highlights the influence of Mahler’s Jewish heritage in the woodwind writing, and the Adagietto, though on the slow side, uses bold dynamic contouring to define and accentuate the music’s emotional trajectory.
In what Mahler called ‘Part I’ of the Symphony (the first and second movements) Gergiev catches the dark, glowering sonorities in the underbelly of the orchestra, and is supported by bold, expressive playing from all sections of a fearless LSO. The recording expands in amplitude on the multichannel SACD layer, where it makes a formidably hefty impact.
Philharmonia Orchestra/Benjamin Zander (2000)
For those coming new to Mahler’s Fifth this is an attractive package, for on a bonus disc there is nearly 80 minutes of conductor Benjamin Zander (a Mahler specialist) discussing the Symphony in various categories (motives, structure etc). This is musical commentary of high insight and articulacy, and it enhances the listening experience.
Zander is also an astute, fiery Mahler conductor, and his Fifth is an exciting performance, similar to Gielen’s in general outline, without perhaps his ultimate degree of authority. Zander gets colourful, committed playing from the Philharmonia, especially in the perky woodwind writing of the Scherzo, and the Telarc sound combines clarity with a mighty wallop, especially on the SACD layers. A rare combination of erudition and executive excellence.
And one to avoid...
Gustavo Dudamel has done extraordinary work with his youthful Simón Bolívar Orchestra, and this Mahler Fifth regularly demonstrates how vibrantly the orchestra is capable of playing. But the longer view is missing: there are disjunctions at moments of transition, textures tend to be homogenised, not distinctive, and the total import of the symphony, both sonically and intellectually, has yet to be fully assimilated.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.