Sunday, June 25, 2017

Gustav Mahler - Symphony No. 5 (Frank Shipway)


Composer: Gustav Mahler
  1. Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor: 1. Trauermarsch. In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt
  2. Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor: 2. Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz
  3. Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor: 3. Scherzo. Kräftig, nicht zu schnell
  4. Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor: 4. Adagietto. Sehr langsam
  5. Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor: 5. Rondo-Finale. Allegro - Allegro giocoso. Frisch

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Frank Shipway, conductor
Date: 1996
Label: Royal Philharmonic Masterworks



"... Frank Shipway isn't the first conductor you think of as a Mahler interpreter. In fact he may not be among the first conductors you think of, period. He's British and, at the time of his recording of the Fifth, headed the National Symphony Orchestra of RAI in Italy and the BRNT Orchestra in Belgium. Behind Shipway's recording of the Fifth with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra seems to lie one overriding idea that he uses to hold the huge structure together to superb effect. This is that contrasting of opposites that we have recognised as being at the core of this work but Shipway seems to have decided he will make the illustration of them the absolute "be all and end all" of his performance. So, every contrast that can be brought out is brought out, every opposing idea measured. It's an approach established from the start so it stays in the mind until the end . In the first movement, the funeral march proper has a huge and heavy tread while the quieter, reflective parts seem distanced, veiled, like the faces of the women mourners in the cortege. In fact there's something very 19th century about all this: dark, decaying, a bit gothic. Then, when the music calls for release, Shipway throws caution to the wind and goes for broke. You will remember how we noticed in the Schwarz and Barbirolli recordings a slight unwillingness to surrender to the moment here. Shipway is the total opposite. It's a mood swing that will have you calling your analyst (Freudian, of course. This IS 19th century Vienna !) but it's one you have to get used to in this recording. He doesn't mould the themes in the way Tennstedt does, doesn't "ham" like Morris, there's no "drag" on the secondary theme of the funeral march like Bernstein. It's extremes of dynamics and tempo that stay in the mind and this is carried over to the second movement also. How savagely the lower strings grind out the opening. Then that long, elegiac cello episode that leads back to the recall of the funeral march music is as withdrawn and soft as I have ever heard it and, again, veiled. Then, when Shipway presses forward, we're back on a roller-coaster, hanging on for dear life. We also realise the span from the start of the quiet cello section to the end of the chorale episode is a huge arc which, with the skill of an opera man, Shipway encompasses with ease. He does mould the chorale theme towards the end of the second movement very rhetorically, but by then I was too shell shocked and ready to ring up the white flag to protest.

The contrasts carry on in the Scherzo but their presentation is profoundly different. The main episodes themselves are taken very fast, challenging the orchestra who are a match for any in the world on this showing. But, as soon as the first Trio arrives,

Shipway slows the tempo and dynamic right down to almost private contemplation. He appears to want to show us that polar opposing forces can co-exist when not creating conflict. The horn obbligato sections (with superb playing by John Bimson, also the soloist for Gatti) I think anticipate the Seventh Symphony's Nachtmusik in being dark and dreamy with the darker colours accentuated. With all these contrasts duly brought out to the full Shipway's scherzo is therefore not as sunny as we may be used to. There is a case to be made for the movement being more troubled and that's what Shipway gives us: the undertow is downward. There's certainly less of the Viennese lilt to the waltz episodes too and that may be a problem for some people.

The Adagietto is very slow but when the music calls for intensity Shipway lets the strings have their heads and the way the violins dig into the bows reminds me of the Adagio from the Ninth symphony. The final descent at the end begins with an almost primal scream from the violins with a vast tone from the massed strings following. As I have said, I don't believe this "on the edge of despair" is what Mahler intended, but it's still in keeping with the Shipway approach and has to be accepted. Perhaps this is a good example of the "Mitchell Principle" about not minding the "wrong" tempo in the right hands. It's in the last movement that the opposites at last resolve themselves and, with no contrasts to be marked, conflict ceases. Shipway plays this movement as a carefree, jaunty romp. At 14.30 it's just seconds short of Walter's speed, worlds away from Barbirolli or Morris. When the Adagietto music returns it's especially light and joyous, a fascinating metamorphosis. Likewise the triumphant return of the chorale with no attempt at moulding the theme this time. It's played straight from the heart with ringing trumpets. There seems no doubt in Shipway's mind this work ends in unequivocal triumph. The biggest contrast of all is therefore the end of the symphony when compared with the beginning. I found myself smiling a lot during this last movement under Shipway.

The sound recording is big and bold to cope with his conception and seems to fill out to meet his demands. The acoustic of Watford Coliseum gives a large sound picture with the horns especially caught which is just as well because Shipway seems to be in love with the sound of this symphony, luxuriating in it at times. There is a veiled quality to the softer passages, however, which may trouble some. To me it suits Shipway's conception again. This recording isn't an easy option but, so far as I'm concerned, it's brought me that bit closer to the piece again. Since my earlier version of this survey the recording has jumped record labels and is now on Membran (222845) and has become an SACD hybrid. ..."

-- Tony Duggan, MusicWeb International

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Gustav Mahler (7 July 1860 – 18 May 1911) was an Austrian late-Romantic composer, and one of the leading conductors of his generation. As a composer he acted as a bridge between the 19th century Austro-German tradition and the modernism of the early 20th century. In his lifetime his status as a conductor was established beyond question, but his own music gained wide popularity only after periods of neglect. After 1945, Mahler became one of the most frequently performed and recorded of all composers. Mahler's œuvre is relatively small. Aside from early works, most of his are very large-scale works, designed for large orchestral forces, symphonic choruses and operatic soloists.


Frank Shipway (9 July 1935 – 6 August 2014) was a British conductor. He earned a scholarship to The Royal College of Music to study piano and later switched to conducting. He was further trained in conducting by John Barbirolli and helped by Herbert von Karajan. Shipway contributed to several classical music compilations. He also conducted four significant recorded performances that are highly regarded in the classical music community: Mahler's 5th, Shostakovich's 10th, Strauss' Alpine Symphony and Tchaikovsky's 5th.


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