MAHLER:  Symphony No. 5 in C# Minor.
Berlin Philharmonic Orch/Sir Simon Rattle, cond.
EMI CLASSICS 57385 (F) (DDD) TT:  69:07

MAHLER:  Symphony No. 8 in E Flat Major "Symphony of a Thousand"
SCHOENBERG:  Die Jakobsleiter
L. Aikin, C. Boesiger, A. Marc and M.J. Wray, sopranos; E. Grunewald and D. Peckowa, contraltos; T. Harper, G, Renard and G. Winslade, tenors; J. Br–scheler, J. Johnson, A. Michaels-Moore and H. Müller-Brachmann, baritones; P. Lika, bass; EuropaChorAkademie, Joshard Daus; Aurelius Sangerknaben Calw; Rundfunkchor Berlin; Sigurd Brauns; SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Michael Gielen, cond.
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC  10622 (2 CDs) (DDD) TT:  65:30 & 60:54

EMI's newest Mahler Fifth was autumn's Big Release in 2002, recorded live on September 7-10 in Berlin during the first concerts by Simon Rattle as Claudio Abbado's formal successor in the acoustically treacherous Neue Philharmonie. Two single-spaced pages of unadulterated puffery accompanied the review copy—a putative "appreciation" by Nicholas Kenyon, who replaced his countryman Andrew Porter as critic of the New Yorker before returning to England. Kenyon comes off as a latterday Richard Osborne, who was Karajan's designated cheerleader in the Anglo-American prints. One can understand, however, EMI's wish to put the best possible face on a seven-year extension of their exclusive contract with Sir Simon (whom the Berlin Philharmonic engaged for an unprecedented term of 10 years) in these parlous times world-wide.

I had listened to and was preparing to write about this, along with Michael Gielen's authoritative 1998 performance of the Eighth Symphony, when a bacterial infection blindsided me on Halloween night until Christmas Eve (in two bouts of unequal duration, like the Eighth). Home again, I listened again to the Fifth with score, although not the latest critical edition since Universal's Kritische Gesamtausgabe of the 1960s (Mahler was a compulsive tinkerer until his death in 1911, and "last thoughts" keep turning up, albeit none recently of major import; in fact you can even make do with the Eulenberg/C.F. Peters edition of 1904 ). Sir Simon uses the latest revision, however, which the orchestra plays sumptuously although more in the weightier tradition of Karajan than the tonally luminous, impeccably balanced orchestra Abbado remade starting in 1991. Even the solo oboe has reverted to bleating, for those charmed by ovine simualtion.

As a reading, let me suggest that aficionados of Rattle's earlier Mahler EMI recordings with the Birmingham and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras will want his Fifth in their collections. It has some admirably ferocious moments in the third-movement Scherzo, and again at the end, although in the Adagietto (at 9:33, half a minute longer than Abbado's 9:01 with the same orchestra on DGG, likewise recorded "live" in May 1993) he never quite finds its heartbeat. An intellectual restraint prevails both more and less throughout this performance: nothing quite matches the raptus of Rattle's finale in the Berliners' Tenth Symphony of 1999 on EMI, when he was still music-director elect. Unless "surround sound" creates an ambience one doesn't hear on the standard CD, this recording suggests that EMI's production team has yet to discover the magic that DGG finally achieved in Abbado's Fifth and subsequent Mahler recordings. (A Karajan Fifth from the same venue is still available as a DGG "Original," but it was never forthcoming interpretively: indeed tepid at times, and as they say in Britain, po'-faced overall.)

As for EMI, on Rotel's 1080 HDCD player, the sound stubbornly refuses to blossom, while climaxes in the first and last movements with heavy artillery come off like LP-era distortion. I'd rank this version among the top half-dozen Mahler Fifths in the digital age. But I'm keeping Abbado, who was instinctively attuned to Mahler in the best of his recordings, culminating in the Third, Seventh and Ninth at the end of his Berlin tenure. Many of you will continue to cherish Bernstein, but his last version from Vienna was over the top emotively, while the first version with the New York Phil lacked world-class orchestral discipline.

On to Gielen's Eighth, recorded in December of 1998 at Freiburg with the radio orchestra that Baden-Baden shares, which he made into one of Europe's most distinguished between 1986 and 1999. On a single "Essential" CD, Sony still lists his overheated performance of No. 8 that reopened the Alte Opera at Frankfurt am Main in August 1982 - then, as in 1998, with an uneven group of soloists, over and done with in 72:10: arguably an all-time speed record compared to 83:47 in 1998. The Eighth is a Gielen specialty which he is conducting this season in several European cities. R.E.B. is fondest of a 1959 BBC concert performance by Jascha Horenstein that clocks in at 79:36. And there remains of course Solti's storied Vienna recording for London with the touring Chicago Symphony in the late summer of 1971—at rehearsals of which I really learned the piece, although I never was coaxed to cherish long stretches of the second movement.

Gielen's first movement tempo in 1998 (22:53) is only a minute slower than his 1982 version, (indeed 26 seconds faster than Horenstein's) but the difference is profound: his 1998 tempo is indubitably "right," to the greater glory of the hymn "Veni, creator spiritus."  Add plenty of choristers, a full complement of players, a superb recording chamber even with an audience present, and you have an historic performance. The remaining 10-minute difference between Sony and H”nssler comes in the second movement, based on the final scene from Goethe's Faust, where Gielen makes the orchestral prelude (depicting "mountain gorges, forests, boulders, wilderness") the chiarascuro tone poem it should be - eerie as well as mysterious, whereas previously he tended to hurry. His Freiburg tenor, Glenn Winslade as Doctor Marianus, almost conquers the challenges Mahler hurled, although one could wish Ben Heppner had been available. Male colleagues are exemplary, however: Anthony Michael Moore as Pater Ecstaticus and Peter Lika as Pater Profundis.

On the distaff side Alessandra Marc is plummy-sounding as Magna Peccatrix, but Christine Boesinger as Mater Gloriosa becomes increasingly shrill as the vocal line soars; she stays on pitch but effortfully. The contraltos remind one that Solti had Yvonne Minton and Helen Watts in his cast of eight soloists, ably though Gielen's 1998 counterparts perform their chores. And chore is the operative word during a lot of Goethean word-spinning before we are transported by the final "Alles Verg”ngliche ist nur ein Gleichnis" chorus. But Gielen never lets interest flag or details be swept under the rug, all the while maintaining a pulse that makes timing irrelevant - a performance of altogether extraordinary dedication, as meaningful to Gielen as Horenstein's was to him. However, 83:47 means two CDs, and Gielen begins the first with Jacob's Ladder, a 42- minute "oratorio fragment" intended as the first part of a larger work, "Death Dance of the Principles," which Schoenberg had begun working on in 1912, whose libretto he completed in 1915, and started composing in 1917, but never completed although his hope to do so in 1944 proved unavailing. There never would be a second part, anymore than there would be a third act in Moses und Aron. Part One, Jakobsleiter, was finally completed by Winfried Zillig and premiered at Vienna under Rafael Kubelik's direction 10 years after Schoenberg's death.

Speech-song, not only by solo singers but by the chorus, was already a part of Schoenberg's second-period methodology, starting with Pierrot Lunaire in 1912, and Jacob's Ladder is an extension of the 12-note vocabulary used in his drama, Die glückliche Hand. The angel Gabriel is a principal character, assertively characterized by John Brücheler. Glenn Winslade was two years younger here and comfortable with all but a single cruel tone in alt. He is matched by tenor Guy Renard, whose Wagnerian-Mime tenor chills the marrow. This is not an "easy" piece on first acquaintance, but it grips one early on and invites repeated hearings, although H”nnsler provides only the German text. Likewise, there is no English translation of the Mahler, whose first movement follows Schoenberg, also devoted to supernatural powers. The only serious competition is Pierre Boulez's performance from the '70s in his Schoenberg collection on Sony, but that hadn't the idiomatic choral, vocal or instrumental suavity at Gielen's disposal in music indigenous to Baden-Baden musicians since the SWR was founded in 1946. The full-bodied recording was made at Freiburg in August 1996, with the same care for detail that sounds even grander in Mahler.

A benchmark for the ages, in other words.

R.D. (January 2003)