Top Ear

Gielen’s Mahler 5: The Anti-Romantic Way

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[Author’s note:  This post has been previously published, but I decided that my original review had to be refreshed, though not because my view on it has changed substantially.]

Jeremy Lee writes

The cast for this recording itself sounds very promising:  it’s Michael Gielen, a conductor who can master even the most complex of modern scores with consummate ease, and a truly masterly Mahlerian of the modern age, with the Southwest German Radio Symphony (or SWR Baden-Baden and Freiburg Symphony Orchestra), an orchestra not to be sniffed at:  their virtuosity at best matches, even surpasses, that of major orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic, and they recorded a generally stupendous set of Messiaen’s orchestral works with Sylvain Cambreling at the rostrum (Messiaen’s orchestral works being no easy bunch to play, let alone play well).  Here they play Mahler’s 5th symphony, and I shan’t beat around the bush:  this is the most Teutonic Mahler 5 there is today.

Don’t get me wrong:  it’s not Teutonic in the heavy, square, Klemperer way; rather, it’s Teutonic in the stereotypically modern German way of doing things:  precise, exact, and to-the-point (if you would excuse a bit of political incorrectness here).  Mostly everything is clean, precise and razor-sharp.  Gielen doesn’t allow time for too much sentimentality:  he keeps things sensible and moving smartly, with minimal give in the taut symphonic argument Mahler presents (little rubato, simply put).  Therefore the dynamic gradings are neatly discerned, rhythms, textures and harmonies extremely clear–try finding a cleaner start to the second movement.  The orchestra plays beautifully (save for a few isolated fluffs in the brass), sporting an unyielding, slightly abrasive and mostly extremely dark tone.  Excess of anything seems to be conspicuously absent–exactitude, Teutonic exactitude, is what Gielen strives for.

At this point you may be wondering how, if at all, is Gielen’s performance different to Boulez’s, a recording that I hold in extremely high regard.  After all, if there ever was a conductor even remotely like Boulez in terms of the aim for clarity and detail, Gielen would be the one.  For one, solidly though the radio orchestra plays, the Viennese is just on top form throughout Boulez’s, offering a performance of great spontaneity, warmth and precision while still retaining that gorgeously characterful Viennese sound (that burnished trumpet tone in the very beginning solo is just astonishing).  And then there’s Boulez’s approach to the work, an approach that is musically more satisfying not just because of the resolution of the details revealed (and Boulez has the higher resolution), but also because Boulez bothers to manipulate the tempi of certain passages in order to make it sound structurally even more cohesive taken in as a whole movement, as well as to reveal even greater detail, such as the relationship of various orchestral parts with each other.  Gielen’s on the other hand sounds like an exceptionally clear yet uneventful approach to this oft-recorded work.  Lastly and most importantly, the Viennese players–surprise, surprise–play the work like they truly mean it, realizing the work’s wide emotional range with surprising breadth and depth (considering who is at the helm), and displaying considerable romantic flair.  Gielen and his players just sound a bit too severe, too objective, refusing to let rip even at the hysterical coda (after the brass chorale) of the 5th movement while everyone else including Boulez lets their players have a thrill of their own.  Remember Karajan’s extremely (some say overly) lush, red-hot indulgence in the climax of the Adagietto?  Gielen is at the exact opposite of the scale, remaining straight-faced and unwaveringly grey throughout the movement.

Hänssler’s sonics are, as with the Messiaen set, excellent–non-interventionist and extremely realistic, but sort of lacking in warmth–Barbirolli and Boulez, just to name two, have warmth AND realism.  If it’s Gielen’s objective for utmost clarity, precision and definition you’re looking for, Boulez makes a better case for the “cool” school of Mahler interpretation.  But for those who like completely sterile, modernist Mahler, Gielen is worth hearing.


  • Album name:  Mahler:  Symphony No. 5
  • Performers:  Michael Gielen (conductor);  Southwest German Radio Symphony (SWR Baden-Baden and Freiburg Symphony Orchestra)
  • Label:  Hänssler Classic 93.101
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  68:50

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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