January 25, 2007


Mahler: Symphony No. 5. James DePreist conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

     Gustav Mahler made his famous comment, “My time will yet come,” some 50 years before it did.  When Mahler’s time finally arrived, thanks to Bruno Walter’s persistent advocacy through the decades and Leonard Bernstein’s flair and showmanship in the 1960s, it came with such strength that Mahler’s music – especially the symphonies – rapidly became part of the standard orchestral repertoire.  The results are frequent performances and lots of recordings – so many that it is reasonable to ask why another one is necessary.  The answer, in the case of James DePreist’s version of Mahler’s Fifth with the London Symphony, is that conductors not usually thought of as “Mahler specialists” (that is, ones other than Walter, Bernstein, Haitink, Tennstedt and a few others) frequently reveal things in this music that listeners may not have heard before.  There may be lots of Mahler out there, but there is still more to be discovered in his complex, variegated music.

     DePreist, now 70 years old, made his debut with the London Symphony only in April 2005, and recorded this Mahler Fifth at the end of that month.  So one would not expect perfect rapport between conductor and orchestra; and indeed, there is a greater feeling of mutual respect here than of easy familiarity.  This is particularly clear in Part One of the symphony – the first two of its five movements.  DePreist insists on some rubato in the first movement, just when the music gets speediest, and the orchestra seems to go along reluctantly, although the playing is never less than smooth.  The second movement, the most intense of them all, is simply too well-mannered here – DePreist never asks the orchestra to cut loose, and it does not.  And the slowdown at the very end is an unnecessary bit of attempted drama.

     But this performance really hits its stride in Part Two (the symphony’s third movement) and Part Three (movements four and five).  These sections are simply outstanding.  Mahler feared that the third movement would be played too fast, and DePreist understands why it should not be: his pacing is leisurely, expansive, yet highly dramatic.  The optimism of this movement contrasts strongly with the funereal and agonized elements of Part One, and if the difference is less clear than it could be here, that is only because Part One could have used extra intensity.  Part Two is as sunny as anyone could wish.  And Timothy Jones’ solo horn playing is excellent – as indeed is the solo trumpet work of Maurice Murphy in Part One.  In fact, the brass and percussion are the strongest parts of the orchestra in the first three movements, playing with vigor, intensity and fine tone throughout.

     The strings finally come into their own in Part Three.  DePreist makes the lovely fourth movement, scored only for strings and harp, very sweet indeed; there is not a trace of bitterness here, as there sometimes is in other performances.  And the finale, which can sometimes seem a disappointment after the vigor and grandeur of all that has come before, here becomes the symphony’s capstone, as Mahler intended.  The more-or-less-conventional form of this rondo (the only movement with its basic tempo indications in the traditional Italian rather than in German) is coupled with structural complexity and thematic reminiscences that DePreist brings out very effectively.  And when the brass choir enters at the end, the effect is both joyful and filled with high drama.  Because of the somewhat weak Part One, this is not the very best Mahler Fifth available; but because of its many excellences, it is a most worthwhile addition to the still-growing Mahler catalogue.

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