Jan 31, 2015

Mahler: Symphony No. 5

First impressions are of an imposing acoustic (Cologne Philharmonie) and – on the back of an unflinching down-the-line trumpet solo – a somewhat generic view of the opening funeral march. But, following the stormy diversion at the heart of this first movement, Saraste and Mahler seem to find each other; and with that newfound kinship, the identity and sound of the performance – with reedier winds and a more doleful manner – seem suddenly to come to life.

Instinctive Mahlerians take their time, they breathe in the atmosphere and feel the subtext. In the midst of the second movement’s impassioned onslaught, all surging strings and strident woodwinds, there is a passage for solo cellos – the eye of the storm, if you like – and Saraste finds within it something so personal and so inward-looking that it is as if he is placing his all his Mahlerian credentials on the line in that one passage. But there is better to come. The sprawling third-movement Scherzo is one of Mahler’s most individual creations and, mindful of the composer’s well-documented concerns that conductors would always take it too fast, Saraste positively basks in its atmosphere, respecting Mahler’s contemplative pauses, opening up great vistas with those gloriously ripe horn solos (beautifully taken by the Principal Horn) and even giving Bernstein’s famous Vienna Philharmonic performance a run for his money in that gauche pizzicato passage, where Mahler’s very particular stage direction that the oboe enter shyly and awkwardly could hardly be more sharply characterised.

Then the Adagietto, tender and flexible and through-phrased, taking as long as it takes and neither self-indulgently protracted nor pointedly ‘on the clock’, in accordance with Mahler’s wishes that it be swifter and more songful. Saraste’s reading dances through the finale, which feels, as it should, thoroughly liberating. The playing of the WDR SO, always top-class, has acquired an irresistible sweep along the way and the glorious release of the coda (given an expansive embrace by Saraste) is as good as it gets.

Of course, we are way past the point of asking if we really need another Mahler Fifth – there will be many others to come – but Saraste has insight and individuality; and if not in the Bernstein/VPO league, he surely has the measure of the piece. Mahler collectors would be well advised to give him a spin

Gramophone Magazine, Edward Seckerson, January 2015