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Broadcast Concert Review

Gustav Mahler

Fifth Symphony

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle

I've heard it said by music lovers in the USA that British critics and listeners can find no wrong in performances and recordings by Simon Rattle. Well, prepare to change your opinion.

We often say when discussing complete cycles of Mahler Symphonies that no conductor has ever quite managed to produce a satisfying result in all the works; that all conductors seem better suited to some works than to others; that each has "blind spots". I firmly believe this to be the case, and tonight as I listened to the BBC broadcast of the the London Proms in my humble abode I think I found Simon Rattle's blind spot where Mahler is concerned.

I never thought I would hear a performance of the Fifth that turns out to be faster overall than Bruno Walter's as represented by his 1947 New York Philharmonic recording. Walter's 61:52 overall is often explained by the fact that it was originally made on 78s. How, then, can one explain Simon Rattle's 61:36? Yes, you have read that right. I stop watched timed each movement and they came out as follows:

  1. 11:42

I know clock timings are nowhere near the whole story but when they are as extreme as this there has to be something going on that is fundamental in its effect on how the piece has been conceived by the conductor. To give Rattle's timings some context compare him with Boulez on DG and you get:

  1. 12:52

giving 72:17 overall, more than 10 minutes slower.

The faster tempo effect was clear right from the beginning in tonight's performance. The Funeral March, so important in establishing the mood of tragedy out of which the contrasts that Mahler is setting up to be resolved emerge, sounded at this speed more wistful than tragic. This was even accentuated by the slightly clipped articulation of the strings, beautifully prepared let it be said, but ultimately surely too careful. I know that in these crucial opening bars what I think Mahler intended was something more weighty and overwhelming. With Morris, Barbirolli, Bernstein, Shipway you have the impression of an entire world being carried to its imperial grave. With Rattle it could be your favourite Aunt or Uncle, much loved though I am sure they are. I liked the playing of the woodwind. There is no question that the sound world of Mahler is second nature to Rattle, but there was too little of it when it appeared. Consequently that defining moment towards the end of the movement marked "Klagend" failed to be the vast cavity that opens up in many of our favourite recordings. What is Rattle frightened of, I wondered?

The second movement was very fast indeed and here I was reminded of Bruno Walter to start with. There is, of course, a case to be made for the vehement sections to go at a furious pace. However, the conductor should know when to contrast this with a slower tempo when needed, notably the great cello lament. It isn't a question of it being pulled around and moulded, this unforgettable passage ought to contrast more with the maelstrom around it and Rattle failed again to mark this.

I suppose the performance was still capable of redemption at this point. All hinging on the Scherzo. So it is with regret I have to report that here, for me, Rattle finally blew it. Mahler is on record as saying he knew conductors would ruin this movement by taking it too fast and he was surely right. The performances that are a success are surely the ones that can reconcile overall structure with inner detail, making the listener aware of the episodic nature of the piece, the peaks and troughs, the passages of solitary contemplation set against the passages of wild abandon. Alas, at Rattle's breakneck speed any hope of paying more than a passing nod to the narrower paths of this great movement were doomed. There were times at which I found myself wondering whether Simon Rattle actually likes this music at all, so impervious did he seem to its varying colours, ryhthms and melodies. I won't say I doubt whether he understands the music because that would be unthinkable, but I wonder what the level of his sympathy with it is, what his purpose is in appearing to be so uncaring. It is a remarkable fact that, to these ears, compared with Rattle in this movement (and in the whole work, in fact) Pierre Boulez is an object lesson in poise, style and charm.

My sympathies were with Claire Briggs, the CBoston Symphony Orchestra's Principal Horn. Her's was a truly heroic performance at such an unbending tempo.

The tempo for the Adagietto was, for me, perfect. Would that all conductors could take it at this kind of speed and with this kind of simplicity. The nobility and beauty of the movement is surely enhanced at a flowing tempo. However, if Rattle's overall faster tempi is the price one has to pay for it then I'll take something a bit slower any time.

The last movement was interesting by appearing to begin Attacca as marked, but from then on the orchestra was delivering another empty vessel. The Wunderhorn quotes at the start were, though well played like everything else, perfunctory and the rest of the movement just a brilliant virtuoso display by an orchestra at the top of its form. But the movement, and the whole work, is much much more than that.

The crowd cheered, of course, though I have heard them cheer longer and louder for Mahler at the Proms. Yesterday when Derek Lim asked me whether I liked the Morris recording of this work I said that I always find that question almost impossible to answer. Not tonight. Did I like the Rattle performance? No, I did not. Did I DISlike it? Yes, quite a lot.

Now, where's my Barbirolli?

Copyright © 1999, Tony Duggan