WORKS: Symphony No. 5
PERFORMER: New Philharmonia Orchestra/John Barbirolli
CATALOGUE NO: CDM 5 66910 2 ADD Reissue (1970)
At the time Barbirolli made his now-celebrated recording of Mahler’s Fifth in 1969, no one could have believed that the work would become a calling-card for every orchestra in the world – or that the rough edges of Barbirolli’s exciting quest would be more or less ironed out in the process. If in some cases the sense of discovery has disappeared too, that’s certainly not the case with the Barenboim/Chicago partnership. This is progress indeed in the cut and thrust of the turbulent second and fifth movements. Barbirolli’s heavily thunderous approach to the funeral march’s stormy successor wears out his players by the two-thirds mark, while Barenboim’s equally vocal energy has a lightning force to which the Chicago team’s virtuosity is more than equal. Barbirolli does make a shining case for broad, Olympian laughter in the finale, but Barenboim’s rough, keenly articulated humour is closer to the movement’s origins in Mahler’s earthy imitation of a folksong.
If Barenboim has a fault, it’s an unwillingness to loosen the reins. His Adagietto emerges more as a masterful demonstration of what the Chicago strings can achieve than as a love-song with wings. Bernstein’s even livelier Vienna Philharmonic performance weaves it less self-consciously into the argument, and proves that Barbirolli’s brand of excitement – if not his idiosyncrasies – can be wedded to today’s orchestral sophistication. Incidentally, the missing horn part of Barbirolli’s recording (starting at 12:18 minutes of track 3), surgically reinstated many years later for the last reissue, is now missing again – presumably in tribute to the nostalgic repackaging. David Nice