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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding
rec. 2016, Berwaldhallen, Stockholm
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902366 [73:23]

I’m not sure whether Harding and the Swedish RSO are planning a complete Mahler cycle: if so this is its second instalment after their (I thought) wonderful No. 9 (review). Either way, I pounced on this disc when it first arrived but, in the event, found it took a while to ignite.

The opening trumpet solo is very fine, moving with plenty of light and shade, but those two great fortissimo gasps of breath from the orchestra didn’t sock me between the eyes in the way that the greatest performances do. Indeed, I found that to be something of a problem through both the opening movements. No issue with colour: the strings are beautifully shaded in the funeral march, and the trumpets sound magnificent on the first appearance of the great chorale theme in the second movement. Harding prepares that climax well, highlighting (no doubt with the help of the HM engineers) the brass while also pulling away the other instruments to give them space. On the whole though, both movements feel like they are holding something back, as though unwilling to give all they could and slightly lacking in teeth. Both sound perfectly fine, but need to be more red in tooth and claw.

Things really up with the Scherzo, however. The horns of the opening positively bray, and the whole movement has an in-your-face quality missing from Part One. There is light and shade aplenty, as well. The opening section has a bucolic swing that is really infectious and utterly unlike the preceding movement, which is, of course, exactly what this schizophrenic work is supposed to be. The waltz theme at 2:40 is wonderfully schmaltzy at 2:40, and the strings manage to sound both ghostly at 7:12 and wryly knowing at 10:30, thought the tutti climax sounds just a little rushed.

The Adagietto doesn’t hang around, which is no bad thing in this music. It avoids gloop while retaining delicacy in the outer sections and sensual passion in its middle. The finale is shot through with sunlight, both in mood and the character of its playing, with some particularly delightful wind solos. Harding cheekily speeds up a little before the final unveiling of the brass chorale, but this didn’t bother me, and the coda dissolves into a twinkle of laughter.

So it’s a very good Mahler 5, but not quite up there with the best, which include Abbado and Rattle in Berlin and, of course, Bernstein in Vienna. Still, it’s worth hearing, and if it is the next part of a cycle then it still makes me excited for the next instalment. The recorded sound is absolutely first rate.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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