Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Hermann Scherchen 1952.
Originally on LP Westminster WAL 207 (see listing on Discogs.com – link will open new tab):
MCA Millenium Classics Hermann Scherchen Edition MCD 80081 (1996) barcode 602438008124
Westminster (Deutsche Grammophon) 471 268-2 (2002) 028947126829
Collected in The Art of Hermann Scherchen (2016) 028948246854 (38 CDs Deutsche Grammophon)
Also collected in Tahra TAH 716-718 (2011) 3504129071615:
Also collected in Scribendum’s The Art of Hermann Scherchen (27 CDs), Scribendum Argento SC801 (2015) 5060028048014, see listing on Discogs.com:
Note: I don’t know the sources of the Scribendum edition, which appears to reissue many of the Scherchen Westminster / Nixa recordings of the 1950s that Universal/Deutsche Grammophon now holds the rights to. Note that the Scribendum set came out a year before Deutsche Grammophon’s own (more complete) compilation. I don’t know if Scribendum officially licensed their recordings from Universal/DG or used other (and less reliable?) sonic sources. In my experience of other publications of Scribendum (Mravinsky, Munch…), they are a serious label. See this relatively (but not entirely) helpful review on Amazon.com comparing the contents of the Scribendum and DG sets. I haven’t checked in detail, but I suspect that a number of the recordings that are on Scribendum and not on DG were previously CD-reissued in Japan – I have a number of Japanese CDs of Scherchen’s Westminster recordings not reissued in the West by MCA or DG, including all Beethoven’s Symphonies, Brahms’ First and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth.
Maximum contrast, huge personality, great sonics – a Mahler 5th sometimes eccentric, but still valid today
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 15 December 2011
Hermann Scherchen didn’t belong to the “first generation” of Mahler conductors, those who had personal contact with Mahler, like Willem Mengelberg, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer or Oscar Fried and can be considered, each in their own way and with all the necessary provisos (the decades elapsed since Mahler’s lifetime when they made their recordings, the influence of their own interpretive personalities), as the standard bearers of a certain Mahler tradition. Rather, Scherchen belonged to the second generation, those who championed Mahler from the early 1920s on. This recording, made somewhere in 1952 rather than in July 1953 as reported in MCA’s or Scribendum’s reissues and September 1953 indicated by Tahra (impossible, since the original LP was reviewed in The Saturday Review of 29 November 1952 and in High Fidelity of March-April 1953) and the one he made at the same time of the 7th Symphony for the label Westminster have an invaluable historical significance, as early pioneers of the Mahler discography. Both were the second recordings ever of the respective composition, and the 5th the first one from the LP era even, after Bruno Walter’s 1947 premiere recording (link will open new tab to my review). The 7th came hard on the heels of Hans Rosbaud’s badly flawed and under-rehearsed recording for Vox (CD Vox Box Legends CDX2 5520, barcode 047163552021).
But Scherchen was also very often the arch-musical provocateur, one always intent at pulling the notes from inside out and exploring all their possibilities, even the most outlandish. In a live concert in Philadelphia from 1964 (published on Tahra TAH 422), he conducted the slowest Adagietto ever – and that’s not a figure of speech: the table of timings provided in Peter Fülöp’s stupendous and indispensable Mahler discography (incidentally, Fülöp retains there the dating of July 1953) shows that, as of April 2010, among more than 200 Adagiettos (and that is including the recordings of the piece alone, like those of Mengelberg, Kenneth Slowik and Gilbert Kaplan, and all the transcriptions, for piano, organ, synzesiser, chorus, viola & harp duet and what not), Scherchen is indeed, at 15:10, the slowest – music at the threshold of silence and immobility, Mahler seen through the eyes of Arvo Pärt times John Tavener.
So if a music lover, wanting to settle for nothing but state of the art sonics and thus dismissing the LP reissue of Walter’s version, had purchased only Scherchen’s Westminster recording anywhere between 1953 and 1959 (when the first stereo version, by Rudolf Schwarz on Everest, was published; it was reissued in 1995 on Everest EVC 9032) or 1963 (second and third stereo recordings, by Leonard Bernstein on Columbia now Sony, and Erich Leinsdorf on RCA), what idea would he have gotten of Mahler’s 5th?
First thing to note: based on the 1996 transfer and 20-bit remastering from Millenium Classics (the Tahra reissue appears to be the same transfer. I don’t have the Deutsche Grammophon/Universal reissue under the Westminster label, but in my experience of other Scherchen reissues, those later transfers are also excellent), he would have enjoyed great sonics. Here they are present, vivid and clear, with a background of tape hiss which I find entirely unobtrusive. In fact, there is so much a sense of space and depth that this could easily pass off for at least faint stereo – and, naturally, in 1952, it wasn’t. The orchestra plays excellently – am I wrong in thinking that the Vienna State Opera Orchestra is in fact the Vienna Philharmonic, playing under another name for contractual reasons? – and that is no small feat given Scherchen’s mad tempos in some passages, although, in the brooding lyrical passages, the strings exhibit no particular beauty of tone and in the finale the brass sound sometimes dangerously on the brink of falling out of sync.
Scherchen’s first movement starts more than well, without any interpretive distortion, close in conception to Walter’s, e.g. brisk by today’s standards (compare the 4:41 it takes Walter to reach the fast section, Scherchen’s 4:55, to Bernstein’s 6:15 in Vienna in 1987 on DG) but, to my ears (admittedly very welcoming to that approach) never sounding rushed. Some may miss the brooding and burdened quality of Bernstein, but where Bernstein, in the two words “funeral march”, puts (march) in paranthesis so to speak, Scherchen, like Walter (or, after them, Leinsdorf, Solti and Mehta), never lets you forget that this is a (funeral) march, and it marches on implacably. The difference between that and the Bernstein kind of approach is the same as in between the funeral march in Beethoven’s Eroica under Scherchen (13:18) and Furtwängler (17:15).
But Scherchen the eccentric shows his face in the next section, “suddenly faster – passionately – wild” at 4:55. Where Walter kept his pace reined in and consistent with his opening tempo, lending the music a despaired intensity, Scherchen brutally slams the gas pedal, playing up the contrast to a maximum, and launches on a breathless race that takes him through this section faster than anybody I’ve heard so far (compare his 1:17 minutes to Leinsdorf’s 1:32, Karajan‘s 1:35 and Mehta’s 1:37 – to mention the fast versions, or to Walter’s 1:56 or Boulez’ 1:55). I’m not convinced the approach is architecturally the most coherent, but it is certainly breathless, true to Mahler’s “wild” indication, and unique. If you’re in for interpretive personalities, you’ve got one here, to the hilt.
Scherchen’s second movement starts in the spirit of his “suddenly faster” section of the first movement: a mad, hectic rush. “Stürmig bewegt”, says Mahler, but this is no storm, it’s a violent hurricane. Nobody that I’ve heard so far beats that opening tempo, although Mehta comes close second. And it is not just the speed, it is the violence and rage that goes with it, those brass interjections cracking like whiplashes. You could easily fancy that this was music written by Shostakovich to commerate the 1905 uprising or the October 1917 Revolution – those familiar with his 11th Sympony will know what I mean. Then Scherchen remains entirely consistent with his approach in the first movement, by playing up the contrast between fast and slow, and where Walter, Vaclav Neumann (with the Gewandhaus Leipzig Orchestra in 1965) and Zubin Mehta (with the LA Philharmonic in 1976, reissued on Decca Ovation 417 730-2 barcode 028941773029) took the next section, the “significantly slower (in the Tempo of the first movement’s funeral march)”, at a forward-moving pace consistent with their brisk opening tempo (but not as brisk as Scherchen’s), Scherchen’s, starting at 1:07, is there very spacious and brooding, not quite as much as the “slow” versions like Barbirolli‘s (EMI 1969) or Bernstein’s in Vienna in 1987 (see link above) – but nearly. And Scherchen maintains these extreme constrasts throughout the movement, making them sound all the more manic as Mahler stages them at times within a few bars. But while the approach comes close to distortion, I feel that it never crosses that fatal line, because of the sheer violence it conveys. And where I was tempted to think that Scherchen had finally pushed eccentricity and arbitrariness too far, at 11:41, on the return of the opening motif (measure 520), which he now takes at a very deliberate tempo and with nearly elephantine heaviness rather than at his hectic opening pace, I noticed that Mahler had written here “Tempo I – somewhat slower than at the beginning”. Still, Scherchen has an eccentrically broad understanding of the word “somewhat”: this is “very”. And a final, and resounding idiosyncrasy: the final timpani stroke played not piano as Mahler instructs, but fortissimo.
After that, it comes as a big surprise to hear Scherchen take the Scherzo at a moderate pace, far from the urgency of Walter, one that seems to play the movement’s charm and easy-going bonhomie. But, tempo notwithstanding, the movement’s bite soon ascertains its rights, and those “charming” string melodies assume a grimer outlook, like your friendly neighbour turning out to be Jack the Ripper, or its Viennese equivalent. And again, the law of contrasts: when comes the “somewhat calmer” section at 2:29 and its little Viennese Waltz – which, as Walter and Rudoph Schwarz both demonstrated each in their own way, has a lot of charm when it is taken very seriously and without irony – Scherchen slows down his tempo so much as to convey the impression that he is mocking its charm: and he probably is. Another strong show of interpretive personality comes in the very slow and hesitant gait he adopts at 6:55, molto moderato, on the same but transformed Waltz theme now played by string pizzicati. I find it very beautiful. But a precursor’s eccentricities becomes his successor’s normalities, Scherchen’s molding of the rubato later became common practice, and it is interesting to note that, section after section, Karajan’s 1973 recording is (the?) one that comes closest to Scherchen’s, never straying by more than 15 seconds and finishing, like Scherchen, in 18 minutes, give or take a second.
The Adagietto’s beauty comes through in Scherchen’s reading – how could it not? – and I especially liked that the conductor didn’t hold his accelerations in the more passionate passages, the “fliessend” and “fliessender” (flowing), “mit wärme” (with warmth) or “drängend” (pressing), playing their passion to the full. Still, I think his recording here suffers from the lack of really spacious sonics and silky strings, and also, unfolding in the course of a little over 9 minutes, from not really choosing between the more meditative and autumnal approach which has become the norm in this movement (and usually extends it to 11 or 12 minutes running time), and Mahler’s original conception, still illustrated by Mengelberg, Walter and Schwarz (who all took it in less than 8), meant not as a valedictory lament anticipating the finale of the 9th Symphony but as a tender and passionate declaration of love to Alma. Later, as I mentioned in introduction, in his live 1964 concert in Philadelphia, the ever-provocative Scherchen made such a choice, with a vengeance, leading, at more than 15 minutes, the slowest ever Adagietto.
After that, the finale af first seems to return to and extend even the values of the Scherzo rather than of the first two movements – spacious and easy going rather than urgent and filled with the sense of playfulness indicated by Mahler (“giocoso”). There is an architectural coherence to that, if you consider, like the esteemed Mahler critic Tony Duggan from Musicweb-International, that the Scherzo is the pivotal movement both joining and separating the two opposite poles of negative and positive. Not that Scherchen lacks bite either, and his strings’ staccato runs starting at 1:27, introduced by a veritable dog bark from the brass, are as crisp and energetic as anyone’s. The Vienna Orchetra plays with great instrumental character, and some orchestral details jump at your ears, like the whipping brass interjection at 2:43 (measure 119). For the anecdote, at 3:44, measure 167, at the start of of a new staccato run of cellos and basses introducing a new episode, there is sustaining horn tone of B (doubling first violins) that sounds entirely in situation, until you look at the score and notice that it isn’t written: the same note in fact appears two bars later as the first one of the movement’s basic melody now played by horn. I first thought it was an uncorrected mistake rather than Scherchen’s doctoring of the score ala Stokowski, until I realized that the same thing happens on his live 1964 recording from Philadelphia.
But the impression of easy-going bonhomie soon turns out to be deceptive, and while Scherchen first seems not to observe at all Mahler’s indication to play “fliessend” (flowing) at 5:14 (measure 241), in fact, around 5:51 (measure 273), he imperceptibly and progressively steps up the pace and thus the tension with the surge of dynamics leading to Mahler’s grandiose ending. And “imperceptibly” here is again not a figure of speech: I realized only eventually that the movement wasn’t moving in its mood of easy-going bonhomie any more, but with great vigor and drive. This is masterfully done, entirely organic, and concluded by a jubilant coda.
So, back to my initial question: what idea of Mahler’s 5th did Scherchen’s pioneering recording convey? Certainly not a “middle-of-the-road” view (and there can be fine middle-of-the-road views, such as the one offered by Rudolf Schwarz), one with a few interpretive quirks and idiosyncracies, possibly playing up to excess the contrasts of tempo in the first two movements, but a view shaped by a huge personality and yielding great results especially in the Scherzo and Finale. It might have been preferable for the listener from the 1950s with only one recording to have a more “middle-of-the-road” approach (and Walter’s, in its own way, wasn’t at all either); Still, with Scherchen, he certainly didn’t get it all on one recording, but what he got was plenty. This still remains an indispensable listen for the serious Mahler admirer, and not just the historically-minded one.