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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Gustav Mahler - Symphony No. 5 (Rudolf Barshai)


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

Junge Deutsche Philharmonie
Rudolf Barshai, conductor
Date: 1999
Label: Brilliant Classics (original on Laurel Record)



Mahler's Fifth Symphony dramatises in music the whole concept of change and contrast in sympathy with his development as composer and man at that point in his life. It is also a supreme test for conductor and orchestra simply because it challenges them to explore extremes of expression whilst maintaining a unity of purpose that ultimately leads to satisfaction. Do anything else and it doesn't cohere since it travels the greatest emotional distance of all his works. This is Mahler's "Eroica", his "A Winter's Tale", or as Von Karajan once observed: "When you get to the end you find you have forgotten what age you were when you started." So it's a tall order to cover all bases and some conductors don't even come close. Most are good at the dramatic/tragic/dark end of the work but fewer appreciate the need to bring out the fantastic/joyful/light end that balances the piece across the whole range - even less can balance the two perfectly. But Rudolf Barshai does and it is that which makes this recording so special.

This is not a studio production put together from many takes. But neither is it one of those concert hall recordings that claims to be "live" but which is the product of two or more public performances assembled into one. This is a one-off performance where what the audience heard is what we hear. This may go some way towards making it the exceptional recording it is because the challenges of "live" performance often bring a sense of drama that no studio production can match, even though the price might sometimes be lapses in playing. However, I cannot hear any part of this performance where the playing is never less than inspired. All in all a remarkable feat when you remember this is an orchestra of students. Has the clean slate of inexperience been put to best use by a first class orchestral trainer making his mark? They do play as though their lives depended on giving Barshai every drop of attention and skill and the results are stunning. This would be considered great playing from one of the world's top professional orchestras. The recorded sound is big and bold also, with plenty of air around the instruments and a good generalised picture. Once or twice you feel the engineers have had to compromise dynamic levels, but this is a small quibble and should not bother you very much.

The opening funeral march is deceptive. There are recordings that launch us into an even blacker tragedy than this but it soon becomes clear that Barshai has a bigger agenda. By holding back just a little on tragic weight he seems to be more aware than most that this movement is part of two greater wholes: as first movement in both the two-movement Part I and in the five-movement symphony. It was only after repeated listening that this aspect became clear to me, but it soon came to assume greater relevance. Indeed it provided the key to what makes this performance tick. I think it vindicates an approach to the first movement that may well not knock you out on first hearing like some recordings do. Ones that, in the end, do not do the whole work as much justice as this. Having noted all of that, there is still no feeling of being unmoved by the first movement's implications under Barshai. It's just that he integrates the emotional foundations Mahler is laying into the work's nervous system far better. He is not the kind of conductor who wears his heart on his sleeve, and Mahler is not the kind of composer who ultimately benefits from that approach. The greatest Mahler conductors listen first to what Mahler is saying and then help the rest of us to hear it. The lesser talents listen to what Mahler is saying and join in. Barshai is clearly of the former category along with Jascha Horenstein whose spirit seems to be evoked here. So, like Horenstein, Barshai takes the longer view. The opening trumpet fanfare is challenging and the funeral march tough and dignified. Then, at the point in the movement marked "Suddenly faster. Passionate. Wild", there is release and power but no pointless hysteria. In fact Barshai just projects the music forward with great thrust and leaves it to make its own effect. We are then dragged back to reality by an especially rebarbative return of the trumpet fanfare only to be then ushered into the long winding down to the end in an unbroken strand. At the point just before the end where a kind of black hole opens up and swallows us, marked by Mahler "Lamenting", Barshai doesn't deliver this in quite the usual way. Most times the moment is rendered suddenly, like a great door slamming in our faces. Here it arrives like a bow wave seeming, like so much else in this performance, to come from within the cortex of the music.

I have known recordings where too dramatic a delivery of the first movement can then deaden the effect of the opening of the second. Barshai's view of the first movement and the way he gets his young players to unleash the second means this is certainly not the case here. Once again there is the feeling of integration between the two movements of Part I. The way the young German string players explode in the opening of the second movement also truly gives us Mahler's marking "Turbulently rough. With the greatest vehemence" marking. They are assisted by magnificent unanimity in the brass and by the woodwinds chattering malevolently when the storm dies down to bring in the reprise of the funeral march from the first movement. Here Barshai relates this reference back to the remarkable degree that is becoming so much a feature of this recording. So too is his feeling for the special colour of this movement as it progresses. This is especially evident in the build-up to the climax that is also superbly paced and full of great playing, especially at the climax itself where strings and brass are pitted thrillingly against each other. The coda then really snatches apparent hard-won triumph away. This passage is terrifying with brass as black as doom and crowned by a massive smash from the tam-tam that sends the movement to hell like a great mad animal felled by a juggernaut that in the closing pages lies twitching and wounded on the floor.

The third movement (Part II of the Symphony) is the point at which you know if the conductor has succeeded in catching the protean nature of the work by switching the mood to reflect the breadth of Mahler's conception. Mahler himself always feared conductors would take the third movement too fast but Barshai doesn't fall into that trap. At over eighteen minutes this is one of the longest versions you will hear and yet it doesn't seem like it. He also shows awareness of various rhythmic snaps that seem to invest every bar, especially the dance-like sections. As well as this he can pare the music down for the intimate sections - notice the lovely cello phrasing - then switch to the landscape-storming passages with the skill of a conjurer. Here the solo horn is especially fine and the spacious recording balance gives the impression of distance. We are a million miles from the trials of the first two movements and that is all a conductor needs to convey. But it needs intimate knowledge and a rare confidence that Barshai seems to possess in spades.

The last two movements together make up Part III, reflecting and balancing the structural imperative of the first two movements that make Part I. Since Barshai seemed very aware of that it's no surprise he is aware of it here also. However, the degree to which he is aware of it is still surprising and goes a long way to distinguishing this performance further. The first movement's Part III counterpart, the famous Adagietto for strings and harp, receives a unique performance. The vexed question is always the speed at which this is played. Even leaving aside the evidence of contemporaries whose notes confirm a more animated interpretation from Mahler the conductor than we are now used to, there's the firm belief this movement is a "song without words" to be played in line with what the human voice could cope with. Performances whose length in minutes is measured in double figures fall outside that. I would also add that in the last movement Mahler recalls the Adagietto in the way he also does themes from the first movement in the second. I believe the recapitulation of the Adagietto material in the fifth movement works best the closer it sounds to the way we heard it first. Since the reprise of the material in the last movement is, by nature of the movement it's contained in, somewhat quicker then an Adagietto nearer in tempo to it reinforces the point Mahler is trying to make that these two movements are indeed intimately connected. Barshai takes just over eight minutes for the Adagietto and that seems just right for investing it with the right amount of charged nostalgia and giving that crucial binding effect with the last movement. The string playing is also exceptional with matchless phrasing from all the desks. Further than that I can only add that this is the first time I have really been made to think of this wonderful movement as one among five rather than as a piece all to itself. I mentioned feeling the same way with his first movement so this is another example of Barshai's remarkable identification of the deep structures in this work.

Taken together as Part III the final two movements are different again from the third movement, but the structural integrity that is again stressed helps bind the elements together. The last movement itself is spaciously drawn and Barshai pulls off the trick of not letting the tension dip as Barbirolli does in his EMI recording. By also paying attention to the rhythmic gait, as well as to the Adagietto reprises, he conveys an honest, earthy humour that is ripe and exuberant but never forced. Another example of giving Mahler the last word. The end of the work in this recording is winning and enhancing and with the feeling that a vast journey has been completed, but one when you can remember every detail. That, in the last analysis, is the clincher for this recording as the best this work has received.

If you buy only one new Mahler recording this year make sure it's this one. Versions of Mahler symphonies of this calibre arrive very seldom. It is the finest recording of the Fifth Symphony currently available.

-- Tony Duggan, MusicWeb International

More reviews:

Tony Duggan's survey of recordings of Mahler's 5th


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.


Rudolf Barshai (September 28, 1924 – November 2, 2010) was a Soviet and Russian conductor and violist. Barshai achieved fame as a musical interpreter and arranger of Shostakovich's and Prokofiev's music. He is particularly noted for his arrangements of Shostakovich's string quartets for chamber orchestra. In 2000, Barshai produced a performing version of Mahler's Tenth Symphony. He recorded a number of Shostakovich's works, among which was the widely praised world premiere recording of the composer's Fourteenth Symphony. Many of his recordings earned critical acclaim and won international awards.


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