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CD Review

Gustav Mahler

Symphony #5 in C Sharp minor

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
Deutsche Grammophon 4776334
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Sandwiched between a reference #4 and #6, Leonard Bernstein's early (1963) New York Philharmonic Fifth is easily the worst of the Mahler recordings released during the conductor's lifetime. Badly recorded and not especially good from a technical standpoint, it is perhaps the one performance that is unquestionably superseded in Bernstein's later cycle on Deutsche Grammophon. Since the whole project has always been very expensive, those who swear by the earlier Columbia efforts can grab this "live" Vienna performance easily at mid-price.

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra sounds spectacular. This is not an orchestra whose unique qualities match well with the composers'. As proof, consider Lorin Maazel's Sony Classical effort from a few decades later. With the same work and orchestra, the performance turns out to be a disaster. The fault really isn't Maazel's; this was one of the most technically intelligent conductors to ever live. No, the problem lies with the orchestra. Maazel himself dryly commented that "They don't like Mahler", and over the decades they have played that way. Consider this; the orchestra has no truly great Mahler #1s. In the "Resurrection" they have Mehta on Decca (Abbado, Maazel, and Boulez are all quite poor). In the Symphony #3, Boulez is the surprising frontrunner, and Maazel actually does very well by the Symphony #4. This is the best #5 from Vienna, and the list goes on.

Whereas in the Boulez #3 and Maazel #4 certain qualities made those performances successful (a swift reading lacking sentimentality and Kathleen Battle, respectively) the issue in question most resembles Mehta's excellent #2. Like Mehta, Bernstein simply imposes his will upon the orchestra and demands that everyone play the music as the composer intended. Unlike Mehta, Bernstein opts for sheer weight as opposed to freshness, and the results may strike listeners as a little heavy. However, as a document of one of the great Mahler conductors of all time, this sensational performance still belongs in every library.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman