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Mahler: Symphony No. 5 (Montreal/Payare)

Orchestre symphonique de Montréal/Rafael Payare (Pentatone)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

Symphony No. 5
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal/Rafael Payare
Pentatone PTC 5187 067   68:01 mins

Hand on heart, it’s a long while since I’ve enjoyed a new Mahler Five as much as this. For a start, Rafael Payare clearly sees this teeming, almost over-rich score as a vibrant, purposeful whole. Yes, Mahler can perform the emotional equivalent of a handbrake turn, even a quantum jump, at times, but a really good performance can show how potentially baffling switches of texture and expression are all part of an evolving story, told with searing honesty – no smoothing out the cracks and wrinkles in the name of aesthetic propriety. The sudden switch from tragic collapse at the end of the second movement to oddly upbeat waltzing at the start of the Scherzo has rarely felt so natural: life goes on, however bizarrely.

Yet this isn’t a case of sacrificing vivid detail to the long line. Time and again things stand out – a seductive or arresting solo phrase, a contrapuntal strand one may have missed before – and it all feels so vital and urgent, like listening to someone who has so much to tell you that he can’t help flying off at tangents and tying himself up in his desperate need to keep to the subject. It’s easy to believe that this is the narration of a man passionately in love who has just survived a terrifying encounter with death. In the midst of this is a reading of the famous Adagietto that ought to pierce the most resolute defences, especially if heard in context. Lithe, supple and ardent, it’s a love song without words, but it’s also the emotional turning point of the whole work: the encounter with love in all its radiant fullness, but with that painful underlying awareness of fragility, of the possibility of loss. As for the ending: Alma Mahler was wrong, it can be purely, simply uplifting. The recording is both clear and beautiful in tone.

Stephen Johnson

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