Mahler: Symphony No. 5; discussion

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COMPOSERS: Mahler
LABELS: Telarc
WORKS: Symphony No. 5; discussion
PERFORMER: Philharmonia Orchestra/Benjamin Zander
CATALOGUE NO: CD-80569
Enlightening details, plain common sense and generalised platitudes intermingle strangely in both Zander’s performance and the lecture-disc which accompanies it. The first movement kicks off with focused rhythms played off against a determined driving-through of the songlines, and culminates in an impressive arch from what Zander later describes as a proto-Dietrich or Lenya vamping towards the most extreme of the climaxes and back down to oblivion. Then there’s the memorable rook-like cawings which mock the procession of the funeral bier through the second movement’s riven landscapes and the fluid metamorphoses of a scherzo which Zander sees as Mahler’s love-hate relationship with Vienna. So far, so good. But in that case, what of the rondo-finale with its mock-academe and its hurly-burly? Nothing more, it seems, than a solemnisation of matrimony between Mahler and Alma, ponderously realised in performance.

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Zander has much to say in his talk about treating the preceding Adagietto as a supple love song without words rather than a dirge-like memorial, offering crucial snippets of Mengelberg’s seven-minute Adagietto – to which his own comes close – and twice-as-long Scherchen. Curiously, though, Zander’s reprise of the Adagietto melody feels uncomfortably sluggish, and this surely has something to do with his failure to light the Philharmonia strings from within, to make them his own (never blame the exemplary recording). His woodwind and brass soloists – including an unusually imposing trombone – all characterise superbly, but the ultimate impact, for all its fresh textures and the space it gives darker emotions to resonate, sorely needs the identification of a Bernstein with Dionysian ecstasy. David Nice