Top Ear

The Gentleman’s Mahler: Barbirolli’s Mahler 5

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Jeremy Lee writes

Mahler’s 5th is arguably the composer’s most accessible work, and at any rate it’s certainly the most popular if only because the Adagietto featured in the film Death in Venice.  As discerning Mahlerians would already know, the current market is awash with great Mahler 5s that take wildly different approaches to the work–“universe”-like as with Karajan, volatile joy-ride as with Solti, and of course the emotionally extravagant Bernstein with the Viennese.  Sir John Barbirolli’s Mahler is extremely variable, and unfortunately the first time I heard his Mahler was not long ago with his truly awful Mahler 2, but here in the more compact 5th his approach is almost the exact opposite of Karajan’s approach:  more human, more understated, warmer, never self-indulgent, and–joy of joys–equally as valid.

It’s a very polite approach, if I may say so.  Nothing is too aggressive, but that doesn’t mean everything is vanilla and silk–the orchestral outbursts in the first and second movements are imperative and forceful, even with a hint of authority, than mere shouts of anger.  The choral brass at the end of the second and fifth movements is really something special–it’s just so well balanced, the trumpets never flaring out of the picture like just about any other recording I’ve heard, and instead it just lies above the alto, supported with the buoyant horns and the lush trombones.  So instead of apocalyptic jubilation like we get in Solti’s performance, we have a triumphant and humbly honest chorus.  The solo horn in the third movement is one of the sunniest–warmly sunny–tones ever to have graced a Mahler 5 performance, and always makes me grin whenever I hear it:  to me, it’s almost the embodiment of jollity.  In fact it’s something about the Philharmonia sound that makes the whole work sound polite:  the whole orchestra’s balance is just superb, with beautiful strings, bold percussion–that tam-tam in the climax of the 2nd movement!–and of course the impeccable brass and prominent woodwinds, the latter undoubtedly reminding us that the Philharmonia still is Klemperer’s orchestra (Klemperer may have allowed Barbirolli to conduct it with his orchestra because Klemperer didn’t like the work).

Barbirolli’s interpretation of the Adagietto itself is a rare gem, and worth comparison with other great performances.  The tempo of which to take the movement has always been the center of debate for many conductors:  sources suggest Mahler himself took it at 7 minutes, and so did Bruno Walter–all these on the fast end of the scale, but on the other hand we have Karajan’s 12-minute slice of self-indulgence, not to mention even slower performances, some even stretching it to an unbearable 15-minute idyll.  Of course, there are more than a few reasons why conductors would like to take it slowly, chief of which is citing the (apocryphal) source that Mahler intended it to be a Lieder Ohne Worte of love to his beloved Alma, and that if taken too quickly it might result in coldness and mechanical-ness, but all too often this results in them “degenerating” the movement into a thick, viscous vat of glucose syrup, honey, aspartame and whipped cream (here I am not referencing to any particular recording).  Barbirolli, on the other hand, strikes me as being the most perfectly weighted–taken at a slightly faster-than-usual 9:52, it manages to be touching without being cheap, amorous without being sugary, and flowing without being cold (partly thanks to the string tone).  The result is an Adagietto of such emotional subtlety that rarely leaves a dry eye.

A good word to sum up this performance is “gentlemanly”.  Reserved, humble, polite, warm, considerate and thoughtful, it’s a Sir’s performance.  Being human, there inevitably are small quibbles such as passages in which have “lost their way”, or the rather deliberate start of the 2nd movement, but to me they are tiny prices to pay for Barbirolli’s glorious approach.  Sonically it’s one of EMI’s best efforts, extremely lush throughout, and is essentially a non-interventionist approach.

Of course, Mahler purists will say that Barbirolli fails to capture Mahler’s symphonic ideal of a symphony being “like the world–it must embrace everything”, and emphatically I would agree–for that Karajan and Bernstein would be more suitable.  But as a work of art, as an artistic approach, Barbirolli serves as a very good antithesis to those used to highly-charged performances:  who knows, it might even make them reconsider the work in a different light!  A Great Recording of the Century indeed, and surely one of the reference recordings of Mahler’s beautiful work.  As such, it duly deserves my highest recommendation without any reservation at all.


  • Album name:  Mahler:  Symphony No. 5
  • Performers:  Sir John Barbirolli (conductor); New Philharmonia Orchestra
  • Label:  EMI Great Recordings of the Century 07243 56696204
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD
  • Total playing time:  74:29

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

One thought on “The Gentleman’s Mahler: Barbirolli’s Mahler 5

  1. A similar recommendation to give a listen might be Rudolph Barshai’s recording, with the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie, on Brilliant Classics. Mahler fanatic Tony Duggan said he thought it was the best on disk.

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