Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No 5 in C-sharp minor (1901-02) [69:48]
Symphony No 6 in A minor (1903-04) [77:38]
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. live, Kloster Eberbach, Eltville im Rheingau, Germany, 25 & 26 June 2011 (Symphony 5), 29 & 30 June 2013 (Symphony 6)
Bonus: Introductions to both symphonies by Paavo Järvi [20:32]
Subtitles for bonus: German, Korean, Japanese
Region code: Worldwide. Video: 1080i 16:9; Sound: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and PCM Stereo.
C MAJOR Blu-ray 729404 [180:00]

This is the third instalment of Paavo Järvi’s Mahler cycle. To date my acquaintance with it has been limited to the substantial first movement of the Third Symphony which I greatly admired, both as an exciting performance and an excellent audio-visual presentation when it was auditioned a little while ago in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio. Other instalments have been reviewed by my colleague, Dave Billinge and links to his appraisals can be found at the foot of this review.

Järvi was Music Director of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra between 2006 and 2013 – he is now their Conductor Laureate. A major project during their years together was a Mahler symphony cycle, performed between 2007 and 2013 in association with the Rheingau Music Festival. This performance of the Fifth Symphony was part of the inaugural concert of the 2011 Festival while the Sixth opened proceedings two years later.

It seems to me that the Fifth takes a while to get into its stride. Another way of putting that would be to say that I think the conductor is more at ease with the spirit of the last three movements than with the first two movements, which form a linked pair. The opening of the first movement is intelligently paced by Järvi as a good, firm slow march but as the music unfolded I began to feel that there wasn’t quite enough weight to the interpretation – that’s not a criticism of the excellent orchestra. The faster sections are taken very quickly indeed. The second movement is very swift at first, the music invested with a good deal of bite. The more relaxed episodes are also well done. Yet when the quasi-recitative passage for unison cellos is reached I think that Järvi’s treatment of it is rather too expansive: he makes something of a meal of it. Overall, when the end of this movement was reached - and with it the end of Part I of the symphony – I wrote in my notes “good but not gripping”. These two movements didn’t quite have me on the edge of my seat as some other interpreters such as Barbirolli, Bernstein and Tennstedt in their different ways have done.

The substantial Scherzo contains a crucial Concertante part for the orchestra’s principal horn. Järvi brings his player out to the front as if he were a concerto soloist. I’ve never seen this done before though I recall that Simon Rattle did the same thing with his Berliner Philharmoniker recording, a performance which I’ve only experienced as an audio disc (review). Positioning the horn player in this way is something of a mixed blessing. You lose the feel of the principal horn as a primus inter pares but on the other hand both the eye and the ear are drawn towards the Concertante part, giving it a refreshing prominence. On balance I like this idea and it’s all the more welcome when the player is as fine as the soloist here, Samuel Seidenberg. It’s in this movement that Järvi’s interpretation begins to flower. He visibly delights in highlighting the “rough edges” in Mahler’s scoring and his conducting is lively and vital. His orchestra responds with alacrity, not least the tangy woodwind instruments. For my taste some of the slower passages are milked just a bit too much but there’s no denying that Järvi invests these episodes with character.

His account of the celebrated Adagietto is on the expansive side but not to such an extent that the music becomes bogged down. On the contrary, Järvi’s performance has flow and, when appropriate, no little ardour. He affects to look surprised when the sustained horn note functions as the bridge between the Adagietto and the Rondo-Finale. In this finale we see once again facial expressions that evidence Järvi’s enjoyment of the music. It’s an energetic and good-humoured performance, which the conductor relishes. The bucolic sophistication of Mahler’s finale is well served here. Järvi takes much of the movement at a challengingly fast pace but doesn’t rush the music off its feet. I didn’t feel that the shining brass chorale towards the end of the second movement made as much impact as it does in some performances I’ve heard but when it reappears to crown the finale it sounds very splendid and the closing pages are exultant.

The core tempo for the first movement of the Sixth is brisk; the exposition repeat is observed. Järvi is warmly nostalgic in the slower interlude with the cowbells. When the music picks up again it seems even more driven than before, though I don’t believe the pulse is actually quicker than what we heard in the exposition. There’s a very fine line between playing this music urgently and taking it too swiftly and I have a nagging feeling that Järvi just crosses that line. To me he seems to miss some of the music’s grim truculence; others may disagree.

Although I accept that there are strong arguments for placing the Andante second my own preference is to hear the Scherzo second, which is how Järvi performs the symphony. I have to admit, though, that after Järvi’s bracing treatment of the first movement part of me would have welcomed the relaxation of the Andante. Järvi’s account of the Scherzo is biting and trenchant. It’s a performance of extremes, though – or at least of strongly contrasted tempi - and the slower passages seem to me to be rather more pronounced than usual. The movement is certainly projected very strongly. The Andante is an unqualified success; Järvi paces and phrases it beautifully. As climaxes approach he moves the music forward with urgency before relaxing back to his main tempo in a very convincing way.

The vast finale follows the Andante with a minimal gap. The introduction is tense and as the pace gathers the tension rises incrementally. Järvi leads an intensely dramatic, powerful reading in which the two hammer blows are huge – and very well achieved by the percussion department. The orchestral playing, which has been extremely fine throughout, is particularly impressive in this movement.

If I were recommending a library choice for either symphony these Järvi performances would not dislodge the leading versions. However, they have much to offer; Järvi has clearly thought long and hard about both scores and his orchestra backs him up marvellously.

I said earlier that I’d been impressed by the audio-visual side of the excerpt that I heard from the Third Symphony. My TV is not hooked up to my hi-fi in the way that the equipment is configured in our Listening Studio so I couldn’t quite replicate the sound quality that I experienced in the Third. Nonetheless I thought that in both these symphonies the sound as heard through my Bose-enhanced TV sound was very good. The picture quality is excellent; the images are clear and sharp and the director has used his cameras most effectively to capture the performance. I didn’t find the menu very easy to navigate; in fact, so far as I could see there isn’t much of a menu: you have to select “play symphonies” and then scroll through the tracks. That’s not desperately satisfactory given that it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to experience the two symphonies back-to-back. There’s a short introduction to each symphony by Paavo Järvi. These are interesting but I’m mildly surprised that they’re tucked away as “bonus features” at the end of the disc. Surely it would have made more sense if each had been included as a preface to the symphony in question.

Collectors who are following this Järvi cycle – the only cycle so far on Blu-Ray, I believe – can invest with confidence.

John Quinn

Paavo Järvi’s Mahler cycle reviewed on MusicWeb International
Symphonies 1 & 2
Symphonies 3 & 4
Symphonies 7 &8

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