November 10, 2022


Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Czech Philharmonic conducted by Semyon Bychkov. Pentatone. $15.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Park Avenue Chamber Symphony conducted by David Bernard. Recursive Classics. $16.98.

     Mahler’s Fifth has become something of a litmus test for conductors, not only in terms of their Mahlerian sensibilities and their understanding of the composer, but also as a measure of their overall podium approach – much as another Fifth, Beethoven’s, has been a test for many years. Two new recordings of the Mahler, each excellent in its own way, not only show the power and vigor of the symphony but also highlight the particular strengths of the orchestras and conductors presenting it.

     In the Pentatone recording featuring the Czech Philharmonic under Semyon Bychkov, the first movement opens with a very clear clarion call and a distinct funereal rhythm. This provides an especially strong contrast with the faster section that follows the initial Kondukt. Bychkov does an especially fine job at the very end of the movement, which is exceptionally quiet and almost eerie. The second movement is strong and has all the Vehemenz that Mahler calls for. Interestingly, the contrasting silences within the brash material are especially well-considered, as are the individual instrumental solos: these are prime examples of Mahler using a large orchestra to chamber-music effect. The exceptional clarity of the sound is noteworthy here, and the ending, as the music simply disintegrates, is highly effective. The third movement, Part II of the symphony, has a pleasantly dancelike lilt, with good horn sounds that contrast well with the brass in Part I. Here the brass interjections are pointed and piercing, and the movement as a whole actually sounds strange, as if its parts do not quite come together: there is underlying restlessness and uncertainty here, emphasized by the rather odd use of percussion. The overall feeling is of constant eruption and subsidence: a series of outbursts from silence, with a pronounced chamber-like quality to the relationships among instruments. The fourth movement, which starts Part III of the symphony, swells effectively from nothingness but is not taken quite as slowly as Mahler indicates with his Sehr langsam designation. The movement is played with simple beauty and impressive delicacy of sound that befits this performance as a whole. Then the entire tone of the symphony changes at the opening of the Rondo, with a brightening and a sense of lessened complexity. This is exactly what Mahler wanted: his careful descriptive instructions for the four earlier movements here change to the single word Allegro, which might as well be Allegro ordinario. But the movement only seems straightforward, although it is certainly a release of the tension of Part I and a suitable contrast to the pleasant warmth and apparent naïveté of the fourth movement. Here Bychkov is not quite at his best: the movement comes across as a bit too discursive – certainly it is not as tightly controlled as the earlier ones, but Bychkov does not quite knit it together. The pacing, however, is very good, and yet again, individual instruments and whole sections play with precision and a kind of understated elegance – and eloquence. The slight lumbering quality of the music is deliberate and handled well here: after so much turmoil, here there is so much simplicity. The multiple contrapuntal lines two-thirds of the way through are brought out effectively, and the chorale, always difficult to pull off, works well here as a genuine climax. The result is a performance that carries the unsurprising message of per aspera ad astra, but makes it clear that this is no simple or simplistic journey.

     In the Recursive Classics release featuring the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony conducted by David Bernard, the symphony opens with a somewhat rounder trumpet sound, but greater stridency in the full-orchestra material. The first movement’s mournfulness is somewhat downplayed, making the movement more akin to the third movement of Symphony No. 1 than in Bychkov’s performance. Bernard is highly sensitive to individual instrumental touches: the prominence of the snare drum sets the mood very effectively, as does keeping the brass in the forefront and giving a plaintive sound to the faster section after the initial mournful one. Bernard’s care with rhythm makes the three short notes and one longer one sound clearly akin to the opening of, yes, Beethoven’s Fifth – an interesting parallel not always brought forth to this extent. This is a smaller orchestra than the Czech Philharmonic, but it does not sound thin at all, and its aural clarity is impressive. The movement here is more stylized, less anguished, than it is for Bychkov, but it becomes more dramatic toward the end and has a very well-done conclusion. The second movement opens with genuine vehemence but slows down after the initial flourishes before returning to tempo – not as effective an approach as staying in tempo throughout. The gentler and more-lyrical section fares better, with very warm sound, and the clear attacks on specific notes are a big plus. There is a thoughtfulness here to the slower sections, making them more ruminative and questioning than usual; there is also more rubato between sections to emphasize their emotional contrasts through stronger differentiation of tempos. Within sections, on the other hand, matters are remarkably cohesive, and the chorale near this movement’s end effectively anticipates the one to come in the symphony’s finale. In the third movement, the dance rhythms are somewhat more angular and awkward than Bychkov makes them: Bernard shows how Mahler stretches dance forms even while inhabiting them. The horn elements are pervasive in this reading, clearly audible even when in background. There is an almost oceanic feel to this movement, a sense of constant ebb and flow brought out to fine effect. The dissonances come through with considerable piquancy; the chamber-music treatment of individual instruments is admirably clear; and the movement’s final section is highly dramatic. Again there is a strong contrast between the end of this movement and the start of the next, with Bernard using a slightly slower pace than Bychkov does for the Adagietto, if still not really “very slow.” There is great beauty here in the simplicity of the basic theme and its flow, however, with a pervasive mood of gentleness rather than ardor. The movement is pretty, and more naïve than it usually comes across as being: there is no real sense of yearning. The latter part of the movement has a slower pulse that works well, and the horn tie-in to the finale is particularly good, bringing with it, as it should, a pronounced lightening of mood. Bernard’s pacing of the last movement is good, and the rhythmic emphasis is careful. There is joy here, but it is not unalloyed, although it gathers brightness as it goes – to an extent, this final movement is always problematic. Here the horn sections are a big plus, their sound clearly tied to that of earlier movements. Bernard’s reading of the finale is more cohesive than Bychkov’s, with a greater sense of building to a suitable conclusion. The movement’s meanderings do not seem pointless, much less unclear or incoherent: there is a sense that it is definitely going somewhere, even if the destination is not known until the chorale at the end.

     Neither of these performances is less than excellent, and neither is, strictly speaking, “better” than the other. Anything can be nitpicked: Bychkov is a bit stronger in Part I of the symphony, Bernard in Part III – especially in the finale. But both orchestras perform admirably, both conductors clearly understand this music and have given considerable thought to the best way to present it, and both here show themselves to be quite worthy of Mahler – and prove that his Symphony No. 5 is quite worthy of their time, attention, and very considerable skill.

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