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Mahler Symphony No. 5

Tony Duggan, Classical Music Web

What is clear from Benjamin Zander's recording with the Philharmonia on Telarc (2CD-80569) is that he also recognises the importance of stressing contrasts within and across the five movements. The funeral march that opens the first movement is dark-toned with some steel in the grimace of the strict rhythmic pull. However, Zander has also gone back to Mahler's piano roll of the movement made in 1905 to point up the particular way Mahler appears to articulate the dotted funeral rhythm and you can just hear this in the performance where it adds a distinctive aspect. He also projects the first Trio at bar 155 without the hysteria that can disfigure the passage and makes it seem to spring naturally from the march so that when the march comes back we are aware that it never quite went away thus unifying the material. Following the great collapse-climax at bar 357 Zander finally pulls the music down to the depths of despair admirably. But there is a sting in the tail. The final pizzicato note is reproduced with startling force. In the second movement Zander is careful to project the ebb and flow that makes this so involving. This is not one of those recordings where the conductor hasn't thought through the implications of what is going on, hasn't appreciated the need to grade dynamics and tempo changes so you know where you have been, where you are and where you are going. In these cases the result is just a lot of noise punctuated by pauses for breath and that is not the case here. The Philharmonia's woodwind choir are coaxed to chatter and cackle in those extraordinary figurations Mahler keeps throwing in and the reproduction of the pizzicato notes that go with them make for a nervy quality. The delivery of the chorale passage at the climax has secure, liberating brass and forms the organic centre of the movement. Though there is another way to resolve the dark conflicts of this movement, as we will see in my next recording for consideration.

In the 74-minute illustrated talk that comes on a free disc Zander sees the Scherzo as an evocation of Mahler's attitude to Vienna: city of café houses, waltzes, the opera, The Ring. But also of cynicism, anti-Semitism and "straws in the wind" for the end of the vast Empire Vienna represented. The arrival of the movement in this recording also does the most important job of all: mark the emotional shift Mahler had in mind and which is so important to this work as it proceeds. As we have seen, Mahler worried conductors would take this movement too fast. Zander does not do that but maybe his ideas of the "hidden agenda" behind the movement has made him more pro-active andthat little more tense than he need be.

All change emotionally again for the final two movements that make up Part III and Zander certainly delivers change. Like Rudolph Schwarz (and also Rudolph Barshai whose Laurel recording I deal with below) he faces the vexed tempo question of the Adagietto fourth movement and emerges on the side of "the good guys" delivering a flowing performance in line with Mahler's. Indeed Zander outlines the tempo question admirably himself in his talk. He is also keen to stress the rubato possible in this music particularly and especially at the start. The last movement is an unhurried celebration with enough spring in its step to allow the witty twists and turns Mahler gives us to win through and, as I have outlined, form a link between this movement and the one before it stressing structural integrity to the end.


   


 
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