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Mahler sy5 PTC5187021
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Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No 5 in C-sharp minor
Czech Philharmonic/Semyon Bychkov
rec. 2021, Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, Czechia
PENTATONE PTC5187021 [72]

The first thing which strikes the listener here is the wonderful sound both from a technical, engineering and a playing point of view – but then it soon also becomes apparent that the opening emerges as rather lethargic, with odd, fractional hiatuses between beats; this is not so much a funereal march as a foot-dragging slog.

There being so many classic accounts of this symphony already extant in the catalogue - those on my shelves including Karajan, Shipway, Kubelik, Abbado, Barbirolli, Bernstein (twice), Tennstedt (twice), Levine, Maazel and Suitner - the inevitable question about any new issue is, how many more do we really “need”? The competition being so tough and numerous, we can afford to be picky; for my purposes of comparison, I chose two favourite and quite disparate recordings: Karajan’s 1978 live performance in Salzburg and Shipway’s 1996 studio recording – and although there is little difference in their timings of the first movement and Bychkov’s, their sense of momentum, maintained without sacrificing legato, is more convincingly conveyed. That ponderous, deliberate manner is maintained throughout and for me robs the music of part of its menace and grandeur. That loftiness, intensified by the banality of the opening fanfare, is perhaps mocking and ironic but the music must still be interesting and for me Bychkov’s plod is simply a good deal less interesting than Karajan’s or Shipway’s more plastic phrasing. Likewise, the panicky, agitated central section is rather dull under Bychkov’s hands, lacking the sense of a hysterical but futile resistance the best performances conjure.

Moving to the other emotional extreme, the weightless serenity of the (over-?) famous Adagietto simply lacks distinction and Bychkov’s insistence upon a no-nonsense tempo of just over nine minutes as opposed to Karajan’s near-eleven (twelve in the studio) and Shipway near-thirteen(!) backfires. The two late conductors create a sense of timelessness, even stasis, which elevates the listener beyond this earthly sphere- although I do like Bychkov’s handling of the music around six minutes in with its so-typically-Mahlerian, exaggerated portamento slide and wish he would more often have indulged himself and the music thus. Even the usually dynamic Solti finds so much more aching languor in the music in his live recoding with the Chicago SO, despite being only marginally slower. The climax is simply short on ecstasy – and any recording of the Fifth which disappoints there is self-disqualifying.

The other movements are more successful, although I could still wish for a more enthusiastic observation of Mahler’s instruction “Mit größter Vehemenz” in the first half of the second movement but its conclusion is mightily impressive – sonorous and driven. There is plenty of Schwung about the Scherzo and the horn playing – from both the soloist and the team – is especially admirable. Bychkov does well in encompassing all the kaleidoscopic gamut of moods and textures of this extraordinarily varied movement and it ends in a paean to Mother Nature. Likewise, the demands of the predominantly contrapuntal – and hence very “classical” - finale are expertly encompassed; it displays the best of this recording, making me wish that I had found the first movement and Adagietto more satisfying. The Czech orchestra really sounds as if it is enjoying the triumphant chorale which crowns this most enigmatic of symphonies and the listener is swept along with its fervour.

As I mention in my introduction above, if there were not so many established classic recordings, this could be among the best, not least in terms of its sumptuous sound and virtuosic playing, but…

Ralph Moore

Published: October 10, 2022

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