Mahler: Symphony No. 5 / DePreist, London Symphony

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MAHLER Symphony No. 5 James DePreist, cond; London SO NAXOS 8.557990 (72: 43)

The Mahler symphonies have had a somewhat episodic history on Naxos: most of the recently completed cycle features Antoni Wit conducting either the Polish National Radio-TV Orchestra or the Warsaw National Philharmonic; but the recordings of the First, Seventh, and Ninth Symphonies were conducted by Michael Halász. Now, another Fifth appears, conducted by a distinguished American with the mighty LSO.

Whatever its provenance (and why look such an attractive gift horse in the mouth?), this is a sturdy, musically solid performance. The first movement is characterized by commanding fanfares and the steady tread of the funeral march. DePreist doesn’t linger over the latter, but he isn’t as hasty as Sir Roger Norrington in his view of the fanfares, either. One unusual gesture is the sudden ritenuto immediately after the eruption of the quicker tempo at the first Trio; this seems to suggest that the struggle is almost too much. The timpani introduction to the second Trio is muted, becoming almost an echo at the end of its phrase, an effect repeated at the end of the coda, where the muted trumpet, which echoes the opening fanfare, is almost inaudible—a very haunting effect, made that much more interesting by the final note, which is decisively sforzando.

The second movement is a convincing extension of the first, as the stormy opening gives way to the subdued echo of the funeral march. The two themes are convincingly alternated, the occasionally imploring character of the second theme suddenly giving way to optimism in the chorale that ends the development section; this is reinforced by its later D-Major variant, aptly described by Dr. Floros as “Vision of Paradise.” This performance amply demonstrates how apposite that characterization is, while the coda plunges the listener back into the maelstrom.

DePreist takes Mahler’s indication of nicht zu schnell to heart for the Scherzo, as a very expansive tempo (very similar to that of Michael Tilson Thomas in his new Fifth) produces music of geniality rather than robust jollity, and it is a bit short on vigor for a movement marked kräftig (the last minute is an exception, as the music dashes to the end). The LSO copes easily with the relaxed tempo, producing music of strength in addition to good humor. The sound production from Abbey Road Studios is clarity itself, allowing the wide variety of instrumental effects in this mammoth score to be heard while producing the necessary sonic punch when required. The soundstage is satisfyingly wide and deep, and on the whole this recording can stand comparison with most of the Mahler Fifths on the market. Fanfare ’s headnotes used to include the producer’s name, so I am happy to note here that the producer of this splendid-sounding recording is our own Michael Fine.

The Adagietto is decidedly old school, clocking in at 10:42; as with the MTT performance, this can work if one accepts that there are often conflicting feelings being voiced, and if, as is the case here, there is some flexibility in the tempo. The prominent harp assists in giving the illusion of movement in this otherwise timeless music. On the whole, DePreist makes a better case for this kind of interpretation than Tilson Thomas.

An echo of the amiability (and tempo) of the Scherzo is heard as DePreist ushers in the finale; the movement gains momentum as the rondo takes shape. The tempo marking Allegro giocoso , and the term Frisch, are utilized by Mahler to characterize this movement; “jolly” and “fresh” this interpretation certainly is, and the whole performance comes to an exhilarating close.

For a symphony as oft-recorded as the Mahler Fifth, there have been (surprisingly) few featuring this orchestra; I for one am grateful to Maestro DePreist and his crew for producing such a successful performance with one of the world’s premier Mahler orchestras. At the Naxos price, this is one of the Mahler bargains of the decade.

FANFARE: Christopher Abbot

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8557990

  • UPC: 747313299027

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Gustav Mahler

  • Conductor: James DePreist

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: London Symphony Orchestra

  • Performer: Maurice Murphy, Timothy Jones