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Recent Mahler Fifths on Record

By Eric Taver

PARIS, 20 April 1998 - The past year has seen the arrival of five new recordings of Mahler's Fifth Symphony - by Pierre Boulez, Evgeni Svetlanov, Yoel Levi, Riccardo Chailly and Daniele Gatti - to swell an already crowded discography. The event is not especially surprising as the Fifth is the best-known of Mahler's symphonies: the Adagietto, the fourth of its five movements, became a popular hit when Visconti used it in his film based on Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice. A symphony famous for but one of its movements is not necessarily a symphony that is easy to approach as a whole. The secrets of Mahler's gigantic Fifth are in fact difficult to penetrate, as much for audiences as for conductors.

Riccardo Chailly gives us a tour de force at the head of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam . The work becomes limpid in his hands: on the one hand, because the virtuoso musicians of the Dutch orchestra succeed in creating with the greatest clarity and "modernity" the myriad colors invented by Mahler; and on the other hand, because Chailly, using this return to the basic Mahlerian orchestra, thus takes on himself the psychological course of the work.

The trumpets of the first movement announce the creation of a new world; a human drama, evidently subjective, is played out in the second; to escape these psychological storms, one travels the world in a scherzo that gives a sonic dimension to all the noises of the earth; but love, simple and serene, gives back to this orchestra a unity that extends in all directions (the famous Adagietto); and the finale is then a celebration of newly found happiness, probably the only truly optimistic movement in all of Mahler's music. And it is precisely this final optimism that clearly troubles many conductors: in general, the first four movements, far from tracing the progression proposed by Chailly, are often given as pure drama, tragic from beginning to end.

Evgeni Svetlanov and his Russian State Symphony Orchestra, just as Daniele Gatti with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, are here masters of the tragic tone, each in his own way. The old Russian lion adopts an epic tone based on the long run, while the young Italian is more convulsive, working from moment to moment, but both stumble into a finale that is not linked to the preceding movements.

Another solution might be that adopted by Boulez leading the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra: the objective " reading". This type of X-ray aesthetic has numerous partisans, of which the disc by the Atlanta Symphony under Yoel Levi is an example, trying to make something "intellectual" and objective, "Boulezian" in other words, but where everything becomes totally predictable. The listener is easily bored. Boulez benefits from the charms and tradition of the Viennese orchestra: it is difficult to escape totally the historic and geographic weight. The Adagietto is both simple and lyric, ambiguous like the turn of the century Belle époque .

But this is to forget that Gustav Mahler (1860 - 1911), Austrian Jew, one of Siegmund Freud's first patients, was not merely a manipulator of sonic masses, as Boulez would have us believe: he was also a person suffocated by his period, extremely aware of the noise and fury of a continent rushing towards the First World War. He may have overcome this distress in his last works - more detached from the real world.

In this sense, the new recording of the Ninth Symphony by Boulez and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, almost unreal in its sonic beauty, is more easily defended. One can nonetheless prefer an ironic approach, another form of escaping from the horrors of the world, once used by Klemperer (EMI 2CD 763 277-2). But for the complex Fifth Symphony, the Boulezian aesthetic, unhistoric and simplistic, chilly to say the least, is much less interesting than that of Chailly which is both modern (everything is perfectly clear) and historic (a world, Mahler's world, arises out of this reading).

Recommended Internet sites:
Vincent Mouret's complete Mahler discography with commentary on each of Mahler's works is in French. At present, there does not seem to be an equivalent on the Web in another language.

The Gustav Mahler Library in Paris, created by French musicologists Maurice Fleuret and Henry-Louis de La Grange, is accesssible in English and French.

William and Gayle Cook Library at the Indiana University School of Music

Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly, conductor
Decca 458 860-2

Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor
Wiener Philharmoniker
Pierre Boulez, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon 453 416-2

Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniele Gatti, conductor
Conifer 75605 51318-2, distribution BMG

Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor
Russian State Symphony Orchestra
Evgeni Svetlanov, conductor
Saison Russe RUS 288 134, distribution Harmonia Mundi

Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor
Atlanta Symphony
Yoel Levi, conductor
Telarc CD 80 394

Mahler: Symphony No. 9
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon 457 581-2

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