Mahler: Symphony No. 5

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Mahler
LABELS: Oehms
WORKS: Symphony No. 5
PERFORMER: Gürzenich Orchestra, Cologne/ Markus Stenz
CATALOGUE NO: OC 650 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Whatever else it might miss, this Mahler Five is splendidly alive – a tree in full leaf indeed. Markus Stenz, conducting respectable Cologne players whose forbears gave the 1904 premiere, has a way of balancing perfectly and at the same time driving onward the points at which the opening state funeral totters  and crashes, the coarse march in the middle of the second-movement chaos, the emphatic plunges of the scherzo and the fugal frolics of a very cheerful finale.
 
Even the outer portions of the Adagietto show signs of a proud and earthy love, which is fine (this is, predictably, the kind of swiftish reading which Mahler himself seems to have preferred). 
 
Yet as the heart of this song-without-words to Mahler’s new love Alma reaches out to metaphysical dimensions, Stenz still presses onward, ignoring the more rarified dynamics. This he does throughout, with rather formal consequences for the private march-elegies at the start, for the graveyard chill they breathe into their embattled successor and for the panic horns which bring the giddying dance at the core of the symphony to a standstill.
 
This is an urgent reading with its feet so firmly planted on the ground that it never seems to notice the supernatural world beyond. That, and Stenz’s slightly inorganic if always lively co-ordination between fast and slow, rule this out of the current rankings, still led by Bernstein in Vienna and (on DVD) Abbado in Lucerne.

Even so, Mahler lovers should investigate the singular vigour of the performance, captured in clear and vivid sound. David Nice