June 2001

Mahler - Symphony No. 5
Philharmonia Orchestra, Benjamin Zander, conductor
Telarc 80569
Released: 2001

by Tom Lyle

Musical Performance ***
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***

[Reviewed on CD]I can hear it now, "Not another Mahler Fifth!" I, myself, own or have owned interpretations of this symphony conducted by Abbado, Barbirolli, Bernstein, Boulez, Chailly, Haitink, Inbal, Sinopoli, Solti, Tennesedt, Walter, and probably a few others that don’t immediately come to mind. I would recommend many of these, but is it necessary to own all of them? Probably not, unless one is a Mahler aficionado -- or owns a record store! And yet, here we have one more version by none other than the idiosyncratic, although much respected, Benjamin Zander.

This release is one of Telarc's two-for-the-price-of-one double discs, which combine a CD of the performance with a lecture/demonstration of the piece performed. Zander's interpretation of the Fifth is, overall, very good. The members of the Philharmonia perform beautifully, as they also did a couple of years ago in the Zander-led Mahler Ninth [Telarc 80527], another performance-plus-lecture release. Of course, Mahler enthusiasts already have one or more favorite versions, and they will surely pounce on at least a few of Zander’s interpretive choices on this newly released Fifth.

Like many others, I am so familiar with this symphony, that I often imagine I could conduct the score from memory (if I knew how to conduct or even read music well). I have problems with some of Zander's choices in the first movement, but otherwise it is a fine interpretation. I feel Zander over-sentimentally lingers over every nuance of the Trauermarsch. Rubato is one thing, but it becomes saccharine when applied to nearly every phrase of the movement. There is some of this same over-sentimentality in other parts of the symphony, particularly in the Adagietto, but is not nearly as pronounced as in the opening movement.

Otherwise, this interpretation is fine, commensurate with the best modern interpretations and performances. My own favorite versions are Claudio Abbado’s Berlin Philharmonic CD on Deutsche Gramophone [DG 37789], and Sir Georg Solti’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra LP set on Japanese London/Cisco [KIJC-9234/5]. Zander’s reading (other than the first movement) seems to fall somewhere in between the two -- sacrificing a little of the precision of the Abbado for the power and emotion of the Solti.

Telarc's sonics, though, are different from either. The Solti and the Abbado possess a front-row perspective (actually, the Solti seems to have been recorded from the perspective of the podium), whereas the Zander has more a middle-of-the-hall point of view. This distance conceals a bit of the detail, yet for the most part, the excellent Telarc sound makes up for that. The disc's wide soundstage, extended frequency extremes, and natural sound are typical of the excellent recordings Telarc has been releasing of late.

As mentioned, this two-for-the-price-of-one set also contains Zander’s articulate and moving explanation of the symphony, illustrated with musical examples taken from historical recordings, as well as Zander's own back-catalog and piano playing, and a short excerpt of Mahler himself, courtesy of a piano roll. Zander explains the symphony in minute detail, dissecting it seemingly phrase by phrase, yet at the same time making the entire discourse compelling through his uninhibited enthusiasm.

For the Mahler neophyte who wants to gain an appreciation of this piece, this CD set may be a good choice. The performance is, for the most part, excellent, and Zander's discussion of the symphony is entertaining. For the new listener who just wants to hear the Fifth without the analysis and create his or her own mental pictures of the meanings held within the music, it still might not be a bad choice -- though I would probably recommend another version for someone’s first exposure to this masterpiece. And the Mahler-ite will probably pick this up regardless of a recommendation. There’s a good chance it will prove a satisfying listen for years to come.