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Hyperion Records

LSO0664 - Mahler: Symphony No 5

Recording details: September 2010
Barbican, London, United Kingdom
Produced by James Mallinson
Engineered by Jonathan Stokes
Release date: February 2011
Total duration: 70 minutes 46 seconds

Symphony No 5
Trauermarsch  [13'19]
Scherzo  [17'27]
Adagietto  [10'35]
Rondo – Finale  [14'41]

Mahler’s Symphony No 5 marked a new direction in his compositions and a step away from the choral elements of the previous three symphonies. The work was completed during one of the happiest periods of Mahler’s life, and the symphony showcases virtuosic orchestral playing, an exquisite love song without words for his wife Alma, and a jubilant finale.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Gustav Mahler’s early experiences of music were influenced by the military bands and folk singers who passed by his father’s inn in the small town of Iglau. Besides learning many of their tunes, he also received formal piano lessons from local musicians and gave his first recital in 1870. Five years later, he applied for a place at the Vienna Conservatory where he studied piano, harmony and composition. After graduation, Mahler supported himself by teaching music and also completed his first important composition, Das klagende Lied. He accepted a succession of conducting posts in Kassel, Prague, Leipzig and Budapest, and the Hamburg State Theatre, where he served as First Conductor from 1891–97. For the next ten years, Mahler was Resident Conductor and then Director of the prestigious Vienna Hofoper.

The demands of both opera conducting and administration meant that Mahler could only devote the summer months to composition. Working in the Austrian countryside he completed nine symphonies, richly Romantic in idiom, often monumental in scale and extraordinarily eclectic in their range of musical references and styles. He also composed a series of eloquent, often poignant songs, many themes from which were reworked in his symphonic scores. An anti-Semitic campaign against Mahler in the Viennese press threatened his position at the Hofoper, and in 1907 he accepted an invitation to become Principal Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and later the New York Philharmonic. In 1911 he contracted a bacterial infection and returned to Vienna. When he died a few months before his 51st birthday, Mahler had just completed part of his Tenth Symphony and was still working on sketches for other movements.

Mahler began his Fifth Symphony in 1901. This had been a turbulent year: in February, after a near-fatal haemorrhage, Mahler had resigned as conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; at about the same time he met his future wife, Alma Schindler, and fell passionately in love. All this seems to have left its mark on the Fifth Symphony’s character and musical argument. But as Mahler was at pains to point out, that doesn’t ultimately give us the ‘meaning’ of the Fifth Symphony. For that, one has to look directly at the music. The first movement is a grim Funeral March, opening with a trumpet fanfare, quiet at first but growing menacingly. At its height, the full orchestra thunders in with an unmistakable funereal tread. Shuddering string trills and deep, rasping horn notes evoke Death in full grotesque pomp. Then comes a more intriguing pointer: the quieter march theme that follows is clearly related to Mahler’s song ‘Der Tambourg’sell’ (‘The Drummer Lad’), which tells of a pitiful young deserter facing execution – no more grandeur, just pity and desolation.

Broadly speaking, the second movement is an urgent, sometimes painful struggle. The shrill three-note woodwind figure near the start comes to embody the idea of striving. Several times aspiration falls back into sad rumination and echoes of the Funeral March. At last the striving culminates in a radiant brass hymn tune, with ecstatic interjections from the rest of the orchestra. Is the answer to Death to be found in religious consolation – Faith? But the affirmation is unstable, and the movement quickly fades into darkness.

Now comes a surprise. The Scherzo bursts onto the scene with a wildly elated horn fanfare. The character is unmistakably Viennese – a kind of frenetic waltz. Perhaps some of Mahler’s feelings about his adopted Viennese home went into this movement. But the change of mood has baffled some writers: the Fifth Symphony has even been labelled ‘schizophrenic’ (though ‘manic depressive’ might be more appropriate). Many psychologists now believe that the over-elated manic phase represents a deliberate mental flight from unbearable thoughts or situations, and certainly there are parts of this movement where the gaiety sounds forced, even downright crazy. Mahler himself wondered what people would say ‘to this primaeval music, this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound, to these dancing stars, to these breath-taking iridescent and flashing breakers?’ Still Mahler cunningly bases the germinal opening horn fanfare on the three-note ‘striving’ figure from the second movement: musically the seeming disunity is only skin-deep.

Next follows the famous Adagietto, for strings and harp alone, and another profound change of mood. Mahler, the great Lieder composer, clearly intended this movement as a kind of wordless love-song to his future wife, Alma. Here he quotes from one of his greatest songs, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I am lost to the world’) from his Rückert-Lieder. The poem ends with the phrase ‘I live alone in my heaven, in my love, in my song’; Mahler quotes the violin phrase that accompanies ‘in my love, in my song’ at the very end of the Adagietto.

This invocation of human love and song provides the true turning point in the Fifth Symphony. The finale is a vigorous, joyous contrapuntal display – genuine joy this time, not the Scherzo’s manic elation. Even motifs from the Adagietto are drawn into the bustling textures. Finally, after a long and exciting build-up, the second movement’s brass chorale returns in full splendour, now firmly anchored in D major, the symphony’s ultimate home key. The triumph of Faith, Hope and Love? Not everyone finds this ending convincing; Alma Mahler had her doubts from the very beginning. But one can hear it either way – as a ringing affirmation or as strained triumphalism – and it still stirs. For all his apparent late-romanticism, Mahler was also a very modern composer: even in his most positive statements there is room for doubt.

Stephen Johnson © 2010

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