27 Sep 2005

MAHLER: Symphony No. 5

Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is a tour de force that can tax a conductor and orchestra in live performances. While it often takes several sessions in the studio for performers to match the required intensity of playing with exuberance that is also part of the work, some live performances convey that fine balance immediately.

Such is the case with this recording, which stems from concerts given at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, on 30 June and 1 July 2004. As noted in the accompanying booklet, this recording is the result of a conscious effort to preserve some of the fine performances given in France in a series of recordings issued in conjunction with the Institut National de l’Audiovisual.

The seasoned Mahler conductor Bernard Haitink gives this performance the shape that it requires. Since he recorded Mahler’s Fifth Symphony several times in his career, the music is certainly familiar to him. Yet the freshness and spontaneity he brings to some of the tempo changes and transitional passages enhances the sense of continuity that Haitink brings to the work. This is particularly apparent in the Scherzo, which needs thoughtful conducting to make it function organically, rather than give the impression of a number of ideas strung together. Clarity is the hallmark of this movement, and some of the details found in this recording are not present in others. While some conductors maintain the line as the motives move through the orchestra, Haitink goes further, to bring out the accompanying lines that are essential to the textures Mahler intended for the work. Mahler had discussed the primacy of counterpoint around the time he composed this Symphony, and this recording confirms his consciousness of that musical element. Likewise, the clarity of orchestration that Mahler wanted to include in the score emerges in this performance. The brass have a burnished color that fits well with the rest of the ensemble, and they do not dominate the movement. The listener gets a sense that they have the capacity to intensify the sound and that the conductor is reserving that ability for those places that absolutely require it. As a result, the details emerge in this performance are not always evident in others. Haitink has met the challenge of this movement very well, and each movement of this Symphony bears the stamp of his insightful conducting.

The Adagietto that follows is a character piece in comparison to the Scherzo. Not only is the Adagietto much shorter in duration, but the scoring is for a smaller number of instruments, strings and harp only, in contrast to the full orchestra that is part of the Scherzo that precedes it. Haitink performs the Adagietto at a thoughtful pace, placing it among the longer interpretations of the score. Yet his tempos allow him to bring out the intensity of the strings of the Orchestra National de France, an aspect of their ensemble that other conductors do not always achieve so well. For him, this movement is a song without words for the orchestra, and the slower tempos create a sense of timelessness that fits the text of the song that serves as its basis.

Likewise, the Rondo-Finale’s sprawling dimensions pose no problems in Haitink’s interpretation, which makes use of spacious tempos that allow the various tunes that comprise the movement to be heard clearly. He brings out the motives from Mahler’s settings of poetry from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, with an emphasis on the lyrical elements in this movement. By giving the thematic passages this slant, Haitink makes it easier for the listener to recall the music when Mahler dissolves those ideas into fragments later in the movement. Likewise, when Mahler reprises the chorale from the second movement, Haitink recalls the intensity that he had given its first occurrence. In fact, Haitink has given the first two movements a somber, imposing, character that allows the finale movement, the Rondo-Finale, with its well-paced tempos and clear form, to serve well as a foil for the earlier ones.

Again, it is the details that set this recording apart from others, since Haitink creates textures that are faithful to the score. Nowhere does a solo part or solo section overbalance the orchestra, which maintains its ensemble throughout. This approach is at once sensible and definitely satisfying. While some performances that make use of breathtaking, this recording presents a more measured interpretation of the score.

This recording taken from live concert performances benefits well from the hall, which is one of Paris’s finer ones. Audience sounds are imperceptible until the end, when the extended applause responds appropriately to the work. It is even possible hear the moment when Haitink must have returned to the stage or taken a solo bow, because of the audience’s suddenly increased enthusiasm. The audience clearly appreciated the performance and responded accordingly. This concert is memorable for a number of reasons, and certainly worthy of the criteria Radio France established for preserving this and other fine performances as a means of preserving those “unique moments, often highly charged with emotion.”

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, WI