Symphony No. 5

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Mahler
LABELS: San Francisco Symphony
WORKS: Symphony No. 5
PERFORMER: San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
CATALOGUE NO: 60012 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Reviewed with recording by London SO/James DePriest

Bruno Walter once described Mahler’s Fifth Symphony as ‘a work full of power and sane selfconfidence… passionate, wild, heroic, exuberant, fiery, solemn, tender’. In his pioneering 1947 recording from New York (Sony), Mahler’s protégé conveys all these qualities in an impassioned, propulsive interpretation that’s remarkably free from exaggeration. Indeed, Walter’s version stands at the opposite extreme from the stylistic indulgences and emotional hyperbole of Leonard Bernstein’s acclaimed account with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG). James DePriest’s performance is closer in spirit to Walter’s than to Bernstein’s. He charts a relatively clear course through the Symphony, observing the composer’s myriad requests for flexibility in tempo without straining the music’s seams. DePriest also secures superb playing from every section of the LSO. What he lacks is Walter’s zeal. Those recurring, doom-laden fanfares in the funeral march are potent enough, but the phrasing of the lyrical main melody lacks focus and direction. The stormy second movement needs more vehemence, and much of the Scherzo lumbers along, despite some magnificent horn playing. One can’t help feeling there’s disconcerting heaviness in the Adagietto, too, though the warm, glowing tone of the strings provides pleasure. In the finale, DePriest’s relaxed tempo and the LSO’s characterful playing work together to evoke a charmingly rustic atmosphere.

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Tilson Thomas can occasionally be over-generous in his application of rubato, though he’s certainly more discreet than Bernstein. His Adagietto is fussy, for instance. He makes big gasps out of tiny breath marks in the score, so much so that one might think copious rests were peppered throughout the melodic line when actually there are almost none. In general, however, his pacing is more persuasive than DePreist’s, even though the timings of the movements are virtually identical on the two recordings. There’s a simple explanation for this: Tilson Thomas plays the fast music faster and the slow music slower. Happily, he’s able to sustain tension even when the tempo is dangerously slow. Among modern versions, Gielen’s probably comes closest to matching the drive and dramatic coherence of Walter’s classic recording. The San Francisco musicians match their German counterparts in intensity of sound and outclass them in terms of elegance of execution, however, and the spectacular SACD multi-channel recording illuminates the intricacy and brilliance of Mahler’s orchestral writing with breathtaking clarity. Andrew Farach-Colton