Spring Symphonies 43/60 - Mahler: Symphony No 5

This is a rather sad story story about a break up of a fine romance.  

I remember hearing Mahler's Fifth  symphony in a roughly played concert conducted by Arvid Jansons.  Jansons senior died a few days later in Manchester.  The Halle didn't really take to his conducting and in truth he was quite frail that night at Sheffield City Hall.  But people stood and cheered the performance to the rafters - I should have suspected something was amiss.

At the time I was a) surprised I could tell a decent performance from a bad one (I was young and only recently into concert going) and b) massively, passionately in love with this fascinating work.  It became some sort of sacred cow for me - despite not knowing at the time much music at all.  But things changed and this is the story of the de-mystification.

I was quite opinionated on the work from the start.  I remember railing when I heard Karajan's DG recording having nurtured a lighter sound world conjured up by Raphael Kubelik in his DG recording.   I went on to hear in many times on disc and on radio broadcasts - particularly memorable were the VPO/Bernstein Prom which can be heard here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBaNdjO4Ah0  which was so luscious it was like drinking double cream.  There was a strange radio broadcast of Abbado and his Lucerne Festival Orchestra where the charge to the tape in the finale was led by Emmanuel Pahaud's flute in a weird but compelling bit of duff mic balancing.  I recall Vänskä failing to beat in the trumpeter of the Minnesota Orchestra at the Proms more recently - some calamity ensued. I recall my fascination for a bootleg recording of Karajan conducting the work live in 1978.  It's been a long and chequered personal acquaintance   

As my passion for the work has grown older, it has faded.  I was going to write about the Seventh Symphony or perhaps the Ninth - the only two Mahler symphonies I really relish hearing.  But I think the Fifth symphony in all it's now faded glory is a better subject not least because I know a lot of people love it and will disagree with me.  

Mahler's Fifth is ubiquitous nowadays seemingly part of the core repetoire - even into the last years of the last century it still had a wow factor. Notoriously difficult to play and made hard to fathom with the Mahler cult inward examination of "meaning" and "emotions".  Listen back to some of the earlier recordings and you find conductors feeling their way with it.  When Mahler 5 was recorded, in part before WWII and complete after the war it was a rich fruit only a few conductors were willing to tackle by the turn of this century everyone was having a go.  Nowadays the catalogue grows at a prodigious rate.  There’s a handy discography here: http://gustavmahler.net.free.fr/symph5.html

It starts with a funeral march - lead by trumpet and so this portentous journey begins and from the outset I now hear the thing which was my comfort in the early days of listening to this symphony - the repeated melodies are the things now that most jar.  Too much of Mahler is repetition purely for the sake of re-inforcing the point home.  He may have been insecure about his music but he probably didn’t expect that we would play them to death in the comfort of our own homes.  Repeated exposure to this repeated material has done for me.  And this first movement and too much of Symphonies 2 and 3 falls into this camp.  It ends with a dramatic pizzicato full stop.

The second movement marked story is just that, and brings something of the battle out in Mahler - frenetic and fearsome - I like how this movement starts, but it soon becomes something much more staged and dressed up.  The billowing sails reveal nothing but wind.  The music is carefully angled so that it’s wee highlights are reinforced and it quickly looses the force with which it opened.  I’m not sure to what purpose it is stormy either.  there’s another reason for using a nautical analogy especially with some conductors working to emphasise the extremes of this music.  There’s a real feeling of travel sickness in this music now as it shudders from one crisis to another.  The slow section is remarkably prone to over-pointing.  It’s rather like being tossed around in the back of a boat.  To my ears Mahler also ranges too far for too long in this music.  The comical march generally sounds out of place and the following ascent to a trumpet topped peak only to be plunge down the mountain again to start it all over is a silly device.  there is some nice orchestration at times and I will give Mahler his dramatic sensibilities are well judged at times in this movement.  The final third of this movement does serve a great structural function of introducing the chorale which will play such an important role in the last movement.  So my feeling is that much of the first 20 odd minutes of this symphony is not necessary for any sake other than Mahler’s.

In a tonal sense this symphony could be compared - at a crude level to Beethoven’s Fifth symphony and it's journey via the key of C from Minor to Major.  And I imagine Mahler worked hard to ensure he went round as many houses as he could in the 70 minutes of this symphony to get there. But there is nothing much remarkable about this symphony’s tonal destiny: it was always bound to end in a jubilant audience jumping to their feet.

The Scherzo is the first movement which really engages me and it does so with so little material one wonders what Mahler would have been like if he’d had the same orchestra as Haydn had in the Esterhazy court.  The semi solo horn is a masterstroke though only when one hears a fine solo trumpet like John Wallace in Sinopoli’s Philharmonia recording do we get to something of the taxing requirement in that Department in this symphony and this movement.  As Richard Osbourne has I think observed - this movement can make time stand still and run backwards.  It feels close rot the more adventurous music of Mahler’s time too.  As these concentric circles all revolve - each on a slightly different access the sight lines get completely muddled.  It is a marvellous movement: as are both that follow.

The Adagietto is a wonderful piece of string writing up to a point and that point is the paucity of the treatment of new material.  The theme is simply a slowed-down version of a significant melody in the finale.  The heavily syrupy Bernstein rendition (NYPO 1963) - slower and more sickly than the composer might stomach - set the pace and tone for this movement for a long time.  A few people rebelled but the iconic status of this movement took it out of the symphony somewhat - that more people know this than the finale that follows is surely wrong…no?

The Rondo final is Bacchanalian at times but also supremely well constructed on almost classical lines.  The orchestration is brilliant and the sheer swagger of the music is ebullient and compelling.  There's a cat and mouse quality to this finale which shouldn't be overlooked for two reasons.  First the dramatic tension suggests a theatrical quality to Mahler's imagination which is borne out of sheer entertainment for the audience - he holds them in the palm of his hands.  Second this highlights the longeurs of the preceding movements and with it - for me at least - the self-absorption of the composer.  These movements aren't worlds, as he once exclaimed to Sibelius that a symphony should be.  Far from it, the types of material Mahler uses in his symphonies is not so varied, the devices not so wildly different.  The content in the lesser movements quite mundane at times.  These movements are not for Mahler.

The finale ends with a blaze of glory.  The bursting through of the Major is elemental and fundamental to our understanding of what a symphonic conclusion should be.  It is not music which communicates to me in the same way as it used.  It is not music to be lauded as epoch changing.  There are some fine movements in Mahler - this finale is one of them - but that doesn't make a great symphony.

So pleas listen with new ears to Mahler and tell me where I'm wrong: have so many years with this symphony have led me into a cup-de-sac?

Here's the much-missed Lorin Maazel with the Vienna Philharmonic playing with the straightest of bats



Popular Posts