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Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor

Orchestra National de l'O.R.T.F
Conducted by Hermann Scherchen
Harmonia Mundi HMA 1955179 [53.20]
 Amazon UK 

The liner notes for this reissue describe the third movement as "…the longest in the Fifth Symphony". However, a look at the track timing makes it appear, at 5.35, the shortest. The fact is that in this "live" performance made for French radio in 1965 Hermann Scherchen imposed a huge cut in the movement and two more in the finale. What a pity no one thought to tell the liner notes writer. What a pity the company didn't think to tell prospective buyers. Scherchen needed to trim the piece to fit the radio station's schedule which explains this musical equivalent of a frontal lobotomy and rules this version out of consideration for all but the specialist collector or those who like their Mahler symphonies less than sixty minutes even when the composer had other ideas. A pity, because there are many passages in what is left, in the first and second movements especially, that are compelling like few others. There is also an account of the Adagietto fourth movement which, though one of the longest, brings some superb string playing and a degree of eloquence few can approach.

Scherchen imposes himself superbly on the first movement from the very start and brings out an idiomatic sound from the woodwind choir in the funeral march that stays in the mind and could teach a thing or two to present day interpreters. Then the wild passage in the centre goes off like a rocket. In the second movement Scherchen seems to take the music by the scruff of its neck and shake it just to see what might drop off and I have a feeling this is how Mahler himself would have conducted it.

Admirers of Scherchen's quixotic, illuminating, eccentric view of Mahler in this work could try to find his 1953 mono recording on Millennium (MCD 80081) which is complete in every note and carries many of the virtues, and the vices, apparent in those parts of the work that get heard in this issue. But they would miss what is, for all its disfigurement, a version that demands to be heard by all Mahlerians.

A potentially "killer" alternative version spoiled by cuts imposed by the conductor. Purchasers beware.


Tony Duggan  



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