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Reviews: Mahler: Symphony No. 5 - Jansons

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Reviews: 5

Review by hiredfox December 17, 2008 (8 of 14 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
This is an absolute stunner. One of the finest recordings that I have ever heard anywhere. The RCO arguably performs Mahler better than anybody and this Fifth is certainly the finest version on SACD and their best of this series. I believe the RCO recordings are made by the same team that produce Pentatone recordings, surely they are the world leaders in hi-def realism via DSD?

Don't be fooled into thinking that this is yet another Mahler symphony off the fashion-house production line.

You would need a very good reason indeed not to add this fine disc to your collection - do so whilst stocks last!

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Review by Oakland September 9, 2009 (14 of 14 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
Early on I made a New Years resolution: No new Mahler for 2009. Well I have broken that resolution (and most others) several times over.

There are a lot of Mahler 5th’s out there. But I got to tell you I found this Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Mahler 5th performance with Mariss Jansons conducting to be a surprisingly emotional experience, at the very first listen, but especially after multiple listens. Upon first hearing I was expecting no more than a routine leisurely listen but got much much more. The performance is probably the best I have heard in many years, not that I have heard that many and I am certainly no expert. Although the 5th Symphony does have a special meaning for me because it was with this symphony that I first "found" Mahler after numerous previous failed attempts to "understand" his music. And this is most certainly the best recording of this symphony I have heard. Performance is key, of course. And while I will leave a critique of the performance to others I will say that this performance truly satisfies me in all 5 movements, but especially the Adagietto, which I find can be the Achilles heel of otherwise fine efforts.

So, except for a brief comment on the Adagietto my comments here focus most on the recording, because with Mahler, probably much more than any composer before him, recording *does* matter to make the most intimate and harmonious connection to the composition. I realize that some downplay the importance of recording quality vs. performance, and most often with good reason. A great recording can not salvage a poor performance. But a recording of this quality of this symphony provides a sunlit clarity as to why a lesser recording could (and does) serve to compromise or obscure the performance.

Yes, this RCO Live recording is well endowed with explosive impact where called for in the score. But I have come to expect that with any new SACD recording of this symphony and other 20th century orchestral works. And while that aspect is implemented with even greater clarity than other recordings I have heard this is not what sets this recording apart in my mind. That is secondary. No, I was struck with the amazing degree of articulation and transparency of this recording. This is a technical triumph for a composition which I have found, in some passages, to have a “Bruckner” type density or thickness which in a lesser recording can (will) veil the airy subtleties and color which permeates Mahler’s 5th.

A LSO Live Barbican recording of Beethoven symphonies can have very good results. Witness the fine Haitink set. But substitute Mahler (or Sibelius) where the distinct layering of instruments/motifs/color is so critical (much more so than with most Beethoven symphonies, for example, and I think you can get a far less satisfying result. In Mahler’s 5th at times I hear up to 6 or 7 motifs or voices going on simultaneously among musicians who are scattered across the orchestra at distinctly multi-layered depths and with extraordinary clarity. A recording of the highest order is needed to pull this off with Mahler’s 5th,

So why else does the recording quality matter? Mahler’s 5th (and other Mahler too) at times *demands* his unusually large forces of musicians to play with as much volume and intensity as possibly with *no* hold back, but without loss of composure. And for sure the RCO is up to the task. But it takes a special recording to capture that without distortion and all the while preserving the dynamic contrasts and quiet passages which are every bit as important as those impressively forceful, most demanding passages. Individual Instruments/musicians or groups of instruments are never suffocated. Even at maximum tutti the most delicate woodwinds come though with sparkling clarity and to scale with respect to volume and depth placement. This RCO Live recording (which I understand was recorded with Pentatone engineers) allows the listener, even at speed, to see through the density of the music, which I learned through the transparency of this recording is really not nearly as "dense" as I have previously believed.

Getting back to the Adagietto, a conductor’s handling of that movement (compared to the other four) can be completely unpredictable for the listener. I have heard performances (live and recorded) in which the Adagietto sounded excessively long (I have a couple of recordings that last beyond 12 minutes) and dirge like. Admittedly, these tend to be older recordings. (And who knows, maybe “dirge” is the “correct” approach). Apparently, Mahler did not offer clear guidance or markings on how it should be played. Anyway, I like my Adagietto slender and pastoral leaning, sunny side up. Jansons interpretation may not be exactly sehr langsam (very slowly) but for me he gets it right.

With all that said I gotta tell you I would really like to have the Fischer/Budapest/Channel Classics/Sacks team take on the Mahler Symphony 5th. Now that would be a “shootout” I could relate to.

Robert C. Lang

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Review by seth February 22, 2010 (6 of 10 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
As usual, I'll be the lone dissenter on this recording.

My main main problem with the performance is that throughout it Jansons is awash in a sea of strings. He pushes the string section to the front of the balance, and while the Concertgebouw's strings are quite gorgeous, this comes at the expense of the other instruments, especially the brass. This is particularly problematic in the second movement because it is propelled by the brass. It's certainly the most virulent movement in the symphony, with all the dotted quarter notes, piercing mutes, horns lifting their bells in the air, etc. The brass in this recording are just not forceful enough. I could go through the whole movement bar-by-bar, but two moments I'll nitpick about are the descending trumpets 6 bars before 19, and the horns 2 bars before 20 that get especially sold-out. And throughout the whole performance, there just wasn't enough brass.

This is more subjective, but I also found a lot of the climaxes lacking tension, such as the episode in the third movement involving the whip.

The recorded sound is very good in multi-channel. There's a realistic sense of hall ambience. Deep bass comes in especially well. The reverberant acoustics of the Concertgebouw hall do give the orchestra a muffled sound occasionally, and during some of the loudest moments instruments in the back of the hall have a hard time coming through, such as the triangle.

This is generally an exceptionally well played and recorded performance of the Mahler 5, but it leaves me wanting more and you can do a lot better.

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Review by Ernani71 October 15, 2010 (3 of 7 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
A superbly recorded Mahler 5th. Unfortunately, after a great start, the performance peters out. The orchestra cannot be faulted, as they play with consummate skill throughout. It is Jansons who fails to sustain vitality and cohesion through to the end. You might prefer this release to Jonathan Nott's if you are primarily interested in superior sound. And the sound IS impressive. The opening trumpet rings out bright and clear, and when the whole orchestra comes crashing down you literally feel the waves pushing the air all around you. Another highlight is the perky plucked strings in the third movement, and the glockenspiel simply sparkles. Having said that, the very best SACDs are a little smoother/warmer. I find this recording to be slightly fatiguing.

Those who don't mind less resplendant sonics, however, may want to opt for Nott, who is well on his way to one of the most satisfying Mahler cycles on record. Where Jansons marches out of the gate full of energy and bravado (a grand funeral procession fit for a hero), Nott is far more restrained and melancholy. There is much less conviction in Nott's first movement (less brio in general, I would say), but don't let that fool you; he subtly gathers emotional intensity until, by the end, the symphony is fully charged. With Jansons you get the opposite (and this despite leading a much finer orchestra). Under Jansons, Mahler's deconstructed waltz (third movement) is a plodding monstrosity. Nott takes the waltz apart, to be sure, but in such a way that it still holds together and is danceable. In the final movement, bubbling forth like a jaunty, frothy little brook, Nott sustains a forward momentum that carries us along, whereas, despite the brilliant playing of the RCO and a resurgence of vitality in the last few bars, Jansons is all but dead in the water. Most of all, Nott achieves an underlying tenderness in the most lyrical passages. This is most apparent in the fourth movement (Mahler's love letter to Alma) which, in Nott, gently unfurls the petals of a yearning and blossoming love. With Jansons, you get the movement, but not the yearning, not the blossoming, and consequently not the love.

Bernstein's 5th with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra has also been released on SACD, but has limited availability.

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Review by willemvoorneveld July 9, 2012 (5 of 9 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
Plenty of Mahler 5 releases on SACD and RBCD are available and there are many good performances among them. Among them I count Haitink, Abbado, Chailly, Tilson Thomas, Bernstein and Boulez and this list is not complete for sure.
For starters in Mahler’s music the 5th is maybe the best option to begin with because it does not contain choral or vocal elements that usually need more time to appreciate. Whatever the reason for listening, the 5th remains a very vital and accessible symphony despite the fact that it starts with a funeral procession (Trauermarsch: In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt - Plötzlich schneller etc) . Who wants to listen to a funeral march on Saturday evening? The answer might be that in almost all of the movements in this symphony the music progresses from tragedy to joy or darkness to noonday, much like Beethovens Eroica.

The naming conventions that Mahler used for the movements in most of his symphonies are very descriptive as if he wants to leave no open questions as to how his music should be performed. Still, it gives conductors enough room to play with. In this release Mariss Jansons gives a fresh reading with an orchestra on top form. The music breaths and never drags. All tempi sound very natural and Jansons does not need special “personal” effects to make the music more interesting. He keeps the attention no matter what. I forgot to make notes when my SACD player was halfway the famous adagietto. Jansons takes 9:16 minutes for the adagietto which is one of the quicker ones among the currently available releases; Haitink (with the Berliner in 1989 on RBCD and DVD) takes 13: 55 for the same adagietto (remains my other favorite in this work).

The sound engineers have achieved a very transparent recording. Mahler used more very low and more aggressive percussion in this symphony than in his earlier works, and this recording presents this low-end energy in a very live like way. The Concertgebouw with its reverberation time of 2.5 seconds (2.8 seconds without public=long) will never present low-end energy in a very dry fashion and till a certain extend this might make reproduction of low frequencies tricky for sound engineers. On this recording low-end sounds great with lots of real live ambiance, and based on some experiments of a friend of mine, DSD direct (so no PCM conversion and bass re-direction) gave the best results. This mandates the use of 5 large speakers, otherwise bass and ambiance energy is lost because all 5 channels seem to contain full band music information.


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