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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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Soundwise this is one of the best recordings of the Fifth I have heard. It's quite a close balance with every detail sharp and clear. It's almost like having the score in front of you, nothing escapes your ear and for that it's valuable alone. The recording was made in Henry Wood Hall in London, which is where all the London orchestras rehearse, so there wouldn't have been much room for vast reverb which I don't think is suited to this work anyway. It is also, as we shall see, a sound picture well-suited to Gatti's interpretation.

The playing of the orchestra is exemplary. There isn't a department unprepared for the demands Gatti places on them, brass especially are really virtuoso in passages when they are going all out.

This is a reading that stresses symphonic structure above everything. It is a reading that eschews overt expression or overt emotion. It is a clear-sighted, clearheaded, pure-minded, almost calculated realisation of the score. The sound of the orchestra is sharp and clear with all lines carefully attended to and this suits Gatti's conception perfectly.

The opening trumpet fanfare is meticulously spaced to an extent I have never heard before. Arresting when done like this, because it has the effect of lingering in your mind right through the movement. The clear-sightedness is maintained when the funeral march gets under way as the "dragging" that many conductors adopt when the funeral lament appears is not in Daniele Gatti's imagination. When he reaches Trio I at 155 marked "Suddenly faster. Passionate. Wild." the sharp and bold lines of the reading accentuate a feeling of great energy rather than fear: this is Mahler for the head, not Mahler the heart - not on the sleeve, anyway. I knew by now this was not a performance that was going to move me, or even that it was intended to. So it was with the return of the funeral material at 233 that Gatti shows that he wants to almost compartmentalise Mahler's material in an almost manic sense of organisation: as if his firm hands on the material is all that's keeping us from chaos. For me this set up a special kind of tension which, I confess, I found very interesting. "Less is more" seems to be Gatti's motto. The end of Trio II, 357 marked "Klagende", is delivered like a guillotine followed by an impressive, snarling descent into nothing.

The second movement is fast, furiously so in parts. At the beginning I liked the sound of the basses really digging into the strings and then, soon after, the precise chattering of the woodwinds whose presence here will never flag. Gatti's insistence on a tempo just a little faster than we are used to in the really fast sections keeps the sonata form structure of this movement in our minds. The cello's lament at 188, the eye of peace in the hurricane, is likewise that little bit more flowing than usual. Gone is the heavy emotion of a Shipway, a Bernstein, a Tilson Thomas, but not too fast that it fails to make its effect. Here is a man not too keen on showing emotion, I think. Also, here is a conductor careful to want each episode to slip into the next without having to take any kind of evasive or dramatic action.

The section leading to the chorale also refuses to yield. Unkind souls might say that Gatti is too anxious to deliver us to the chorale at 464 and there is no doubt that, compared with others, power is lost in exchange for movement, energy and that clear head. But the arrival of the chorale is all that you wish for in terms of reaching a "way point", it's just that it fails to "move" in quite the way I am used to.

Purity is the word that springs to mind for the Scherzo: purity of sound, purity of expression. The opening is characterised by more sharp lines and vital rhythms. Even Gatti can't help himself relaxing his guard just a little for the moments of repose but there is an air of "Forgive me a moment, but I can't help myself" about it. You do have the impression in Daniele Gatti, as revealed by this performance, of a very serious young man anxious not to offend, careful not to appear too gauche or on anything other than his best behaviour. As I said earlier that can set up its own tension but it can also seriously undermine music that actually needs more "heft", more abandon.

But there is much to admire and enjoy. John Bimson is the Horn soloist, as he was for Frank Shipway though, characteristically, this time Bimson plays his solos slightly "stopped" whereas with Shipway we seemed to have the full open valve. A difference which speaks volumes for the difference between the two conductors' approaches with the same orchestra recorded a year apart. As the movement progresses the unwillingness of Gatti to yield to the great lyricism of this movement, the place where the two violently contrasting and opposing worlds of feeling in the symphony pivot, fails to win the movement its place in the emotional structure in anything but a very superficial way. You can marvel at Mahler's orchestration, for it is all so well played and balanced, but the feeling is that we are being pulled over not much more than the surface.

The Adagietto flows very well and the central section with its faster tempo is more muscular. When the slower tempo is asked for towards the end, because the initial tempo was faster than we are often used to, the singing line is maintained. However, Gatti's clear head doesn't leave much room for nostalgia or repose, beautifully though the RPO strings play here.

The Finale is a great virtuoso display but rather an empty vessel with little feeling of struggle won and triumph over tragedy. Other conductors can bring great warmth and also even humour to this movement, but Gatti seems to want to maintain his sharp concentration to the end, even though he raises the orchestra to a fine peroration at the close.

So, in sum, there is much to admire in this recording, but there is much that is missing also. I listened to Shipway straight after hearing Gatti for the fourth time and I heard all that I was missing. I love the mood swings, the sense of danger, the weightier delivery, the willingness to linger and caress. These aspects are present in other recordings also, of course, but I used the Shipway because it's one of favourites and is the same orchestra just a year before Gatti. One thing was obvious, though: good though the recording given to Shipway is, it isn't as good as the one given to Gatti. Over and over, whilst listening to Gatti, I caught details that are lost in the Shipway and for that this new recording is of value.

It is possible Gatti's way is the way Mahlerian interpretation is going in the future. Is a new generation now interpreting Mahler in a purer, less emotional style? Mahler For The New Millennium, shorn of emotion and the uncertainties that made one generation take up Gustav Mahler as a kindred spirit? Have what were once the great UNcertainties of modern life now become certainties and the focus in Mahler interpretation in the future going to pure music? We shall see.

Copyright © 1999, Tony Duggan