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CD Review

Gustav Mahler

Symphony #5

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniele Gatti
RCA/Conifer Classics 75605-51318-2
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In medias res: After several listenings after what follows was written, I sat down and tried to better understand the finale. I find the 5th generally gloomy, as you will read. I kept reading, however, that the finale was "joyous". Was I missing something? So, I listened to Gatti and Barbirolli and Chailly. Yes, there is a playful element not heard in the previous movements. (The addagietto has foreshadowing of the 9th) No matter how I listened, however, it was not the kind of feeling I'd think of as "joyful". I hear a hint of sarcasm. Even in the thoughts of "joy" it is as if there's a sense of sadness in the knowledge that this "joy" is fleeting. Only at the very end does Mahler seem to say, "to hell with it!" and plunge in. Tonight I played the last movement of the various recordings I have. I seem to be developing a preference for Gatti even over Barbirolli. Still, read on about sound.

I first heard Gatti in a spectacular recording of Respighi's 'Roman Trilogy'. I was disappointed in the following recording, Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra and Divertimento. This recording, however, returns to the kind of impassioned playing I felt in the Respighi. It is a fine, fine performance. The problem is that the performance is better than the recording.

Last month I reviewed a recording of this piece by Chailly and the Concertgebouw on London/Decca. I raved about it, mentioning that the sound was particularly a part of the tremendous experience. Just now, I put that disc on again and it is so powerful that it leaves me drenched from the experience. The best word to describe the whole experience is "awesome" in the fullest meaning of the word. This Conifer release, even though it is using the latest, 20-Bit technology, pales by comparison. I make mention of this 20-Bit matter because I have been so laudatory of it in previous reviews. In any event, I have got admit that I wish somehow Gatti's recording had been made by the London team, because in many, many ways I slightly prefer Gatti's interpretation. The opening trumpet solo, for example, is more raw and elemental than the Concertgebouw's principal.

Again and again I found myself taken in with Gatti's interpretation. It is more existential than Chailly. There is a different sadness to be heard. At one point, I wrote, "Gatti's violins 'throb' more." One evening as I listened to this recording, I happened to be pondering death. A local student had died in a traffic accident the day before his prom. I have been in the house of a sudden death, listening to the keening and mumbled questions. You realize, again in Gatti's interpretation, just how personal is the experience of death. You realize that death is just a breath away. These thoughts were as much a part of the musical experience as reflections on a personal loss.

At one point that evening I noted, "Mahler's 5th is one of the weirdest things I've heard. It seems to not segue, but rather exhibits punctuated equilibrium as it goes from musical notion to notion." I'm not sure what that means anymore, but I think it means something. Gatti's interpretation is more turbulent and dissonant than Chailly and many of you will prefer it as a general recommendation, not finding the sound a problem at all. In the end, however, I will likely turn more to Chailly's truly awesome recording and experience the visceral music-making. Oh, to dream of Gatti's interpretation married to Chailly's sound world.

I must tell you that the insert notes, by Jonathan Carr, are fascinating. They make you want to check out his recent biography of Mahler, The Real Mahler. Good stuff.

By the way, I also listened to Sir John Barbirolli's recording in the process of writing this review. That recording is no longer available to my knowledge. Barbirolli's account is in a class by itself, and the recording is very good. In an attempt to put into words how they differ I offer the following. Chailly, in particular, elevates the music to a cathedral-like level, almost like a High Catholic Mass. It is powerful. Gatti's is more existential, Munch's 'The Scream' comes to mind. Barbirolli is somewhere between the two. I think all three recordings are a must for any Mahlerite and each offers insights the other does not. I don't have to live with only one and am glad for that.

I also wrote, "Question everything, even Nothing." during one listening session of the Gatti.

Post Script: Gramophone magazine now has an "at a glance" listing of recommendations for much, if not most, classical pieces. How can they continue to list Abbado's Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra recording as first for Mahler's Fifth, after both the above have been reviewed in that journal, instead of Gatti or Chailly??????? Also, in separate issues, Gramophone's critic DSG found Chailly a bit chilly and impersonal, preferring Gatti. Then, too, I almost always disagree with him.

A day or so later, I am listening, yet again, to the Gatti recording. This time the only notes are, "We have here a potentially great Mahler conductor." Later: Still trying to get a handle on trying to explain in words. Chailly's opening death is the death someone great; shattering like the death of a father; Gatti's is the death of you and me, and just as tragic for it.

Copyright © 1998, Robert Stumpf II