Mahler – Symphony No 5
Leonard Bernstein, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon, 1988
As with other works by his favourite composers, Bernstein recorded also Mahler’s Symphony No 5 more than once. There are several recordings of it, among which I remember the one made with the New York Philharmonic in 1963, and the other with the Wiener Philharmoniker in 1987. The present review refers to the more recent recording, which actually is not one of Bernstein’s best recordings.
Many reasons concur to this judgment. In the first place, the sound is unbalanced. It seems that the engineers’ main effort was to make music as loud as possible, but in the passages where the orchestra plays forte and fortissimo it is quite bothersome – and passages of this kind are omnipresent in this recording.
This leads me to the second reason, which is connected with the rendition of Mahler’s symphony. Bernstein is as closely associated with Mahler as he is with Copland (Appalachian Spring), Barber (Adagio for Strings), Stravinsky (The Rite of Spring, Mass, Les Noces) and Shostakovich (Symphonies Nos. 5 & 9 and especially No. 7). Moreover, it is to his credit that he was the first who gave Mahler’s symphonies the prestige they deserves, while before they were considered merely as provincially Viennese products.
And yet, in this case it seems that he has exaggerated with over interpretation. In this performance, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is a dark and heavy work and only few passages are really praiseworthy. If while listening to the gloomy first movement you cannot be deceived that this is a funeral march, the problems start with the second movement and continue with the third.
It really seems that the core of the symphony has been desecrated. Apart from the sound, which in the second movement is more annoying than ever, Bernstein conducts in a stiff manner, and many nuances remain unexpressed. The third movement (Scherzo) is slightly better. It preserves some of its delicate elements, but Bernstein’s heavy hand compromises its lightness.
After these two, quite unsatisfactory movements, with the Adagietto things improve, to the point that this can be considered the best of the five. Its relaxation makes possible to embellish the music – if not in the most detailed way, at least in a way that is quite effective. The fifth movement is quite good too, despite Bernstein’s heavy hand.
And yet, this recording of the Symphony No. 5 is still considered an important one in Mahler’s discography. Why? Well, because after these unflattering considerations, there is one positive aspect to point out. Bernstein exaggerates for sure in his intent to impose his own vision in such a strong way, but the fact remains that this is still the expression of an idea. Though this idea will not please every listener, the worst thing that can happen to a performance (to be devoid of any idea) is luckily avoided. Bernstein tries to make Mahler’s Fifth Symphony a grandiose work, at all costs, and, even though in practice the outcome is not one of the best, there is not a moment where he seems to wander from the point. I think it is for this reason that this recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is – if not its ideal rendition – at least an interest testimony.