Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Berliner Philharmoniker, Karajan. Deutsche Grammophon
Recorded 13-16 February 1973, in the Christuskirche, Berlin
DG 415 096-2 (1985), barcode 028941509628:
Reissue DG “Classikon” 439 429-2 (1993) 028943942928:
Reissue DG “The Originals” 447 450-2 (1996) 028944745023:
For later reissues and compilations, see after the review.
Karajan: a historical perspective on a version with some strong interpretive choices, that was and remains one of the best
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 1 January 2012
One thing you certainly didn’t associate Karajan with until the mid-1970s was Mahler. If ever there was a Mahler tradition in Berlin, it left the city and the country in 1933, and I’m not quite sure when it returned. It is interesting to note that Deutsche Gramophon was a late starter with their Mahler cycle with Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. Bernstein and Columbia had initiated theirs first, as early as 1960, with the 4th symphony, and completed it in 1967 (the Adagio of the 10th and a new recording of the 2nd were added in the 1970s). Then came Solti with Decca (1961 – the 4th again – to 1972 with the 8th), Abravanel on Vanguard (starting with the 8th in 1962, cycle completed in 1974) and Haitink with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra for Philips (his cycle really started in 1966 with the 3rd – his original 1st from 1962 was replaced by a remake recorded in 1972). Kubelik/DG’s first recording was the 9th (link will open new tab to my review), as late as 1967, when Bernstein completed his own cycle, but it took only 4 years to record the complete cycle.
So it was a great surprise to see Karajan tackle Mahler in 1973, and I wonder if Visconti’s film “Death in Venice”, released in 1971, had something to do with the conductor’s interest in the composer. Whatever that may be, Karajan’s recording had a huge influence (maybe not in the US, where Walter, Mitropoulos and particularly Bernstein had already done that, but in Europe certainly) in bringing to Mahler a whole new crowd of listeners and Karajan-fans who until then had had only scorn or disinterest for the composer – if even they were aware of his existence.
But, with a Mahler tradition lost in Berlin and Karajan no standard-bearer of any such tradition, you might have expected a wayward and disputable approach. In fact it is much better than that. It was, and remains, one of the greatest recordings of Mahler’s 5th.
Disputable it certainly is at times, but only because Karajan makes strong interpretive choices. One of the most striking features of his first movement is the strong contrast of tempo he establishes between a deliberate opening funeral march, conveying a great sense of burdened plight and implacability, and the fast section which gushes forth at high speed, thus giving the impression of a symphonic construction more sectional, less organic than it can be. Limiting myself to studio recordings (which excludes Mitropoulos’ famous concert from January 1960 given in the context of the New York Philarmonic’s Mahler festival – available in the 6-CD set Music & Arts CD-1021 barcode 017685102127 with Symphonies Nos. 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, & Adagio 10 -, or Boulez’ 1968 concert with the BBC, on Nuova Era), many previous versions had priviledged a sense of organic unity, by taking that section at a more controlled pace – whatever their pacing of the opening funeral mach, slow (Rudolf Schwarz – the first stereo version, made in 1958 for Everest Records -, Barbirolli with the New Philharmonia Orchestra in 1969 for EMI), fast (Bruno Walter, in his pionneering 1947 recording – remarkable here for taking the fast section at a very deliberate pace, in apparent contraction with his very flowing one of the opening funeral march -, Solti, Haitink, Kubelik) or in between (Bernstein in 1963 with the New York Philharmonic). A few years later, in 1977, James Levine – certainly a conductor with strong Mahler credentials – would adopt in the first movement, in his choices of tempo if not in the details of phrasing, an approach strikingly similar to Karajan’s.
In absolute, Karajan’s held-back pacing of the opening funeral march wasn’t unprecedented – Barbirolli in 1969 was slower still, and so was Schwarz – but the German conductor brings it interpretive traits and a shaping of details that are proper to him, like the brilliant, vehement trumpet tone in the fast section (one may prefer a less soloistic instrument, more embedded in the orchestral texture), the powerfully biting articulation of the orchestral triplets (try at 0:45, or again at 2:49) and the very staccato articulation of the accompanying trombone figure (first heard at 0:58), lending the march a great sense of fateful implacability, or again the beautifully delicate soft string tone at the “gehaltener” passages (1:13 and 3:05) or on the last trio at 9:46, conveying an incomparable feeling of distant nostalgia. Karajan’s shaping of the (unmarked) ritard. at 6:15 (measure 202; Mahler only writes “molto espress.” and “large bowing”) is much more tasteful than Walter’s, Bernstein’s, Leinsdorf’s or Solti’s, who all exaggerate it so much as to make it sound very calculated, and his great “klagend” climax at 11:16 is the most effectively realized and devastating of ALL those recorded until then (I’ll make no pronouncement about those recorded after, because I haven’t heard them all – Levine’s is also fine).
The other movement in which Karajan strays from whatever interpretive traditions existed back then is in the Adagietto. At 11:52, his was, at the time, the slowest ever recorded in the studio (but, in concert in Philadelphia in 1964, the ever-maverick Hermann Scherchen had conducted an egregious, bogged down Adagietto running more than 15 minutes – compare to the two Mahler disciples, Willem Mengelberg’s 7 in 1926 and Bruno Walter’s 7:42). The Mahler-derived tradition (Mengelberg, Walter, Schwarz) was to let it flow at anywhere between 7 and 8 minutes and at 8:29 Erich Leinsdorf (Boston Symphony Orchestra 1963, RCA) was somewhere in that league, Scherchen (in the studio, 1952 Westminster), Vaclav Neumann (Leipzig 1965), Barbirolli, Solti and Kubelik took a more adagio but still flowing approach at 9 and something, and for a decade Bernstein was the odd-version out and the initiator of the “slow” approach; but Bernstein’s 11:00 allowed for moments of more passionate animation. Karajan’s basic tempo is the same as Bernstein’s, but he keeps it held-back and hardly ever animates the pacing, playing the more passionate moments and Mahler’s promptings to accelerate (“do not drag”, “somewhat more flowing”, “somewhat pressing”, “flowing”) only through an augmentation of dynamics. That may be the “Death in Venice” influence – but the mood throughout is elegiac rather than funeral, sometimes rising to the passionately elegiac, if that is not too much of an oxymoron. Like it or not (it is hard to turn the Adagietto into less than beautiful music, whatever the approach), but the originality of approach can’t be denied.
For the rest, given Karajan’s lack of Mahlerian tradition, it is in fact surprising how catholic his interpretive options are, at least as regards his choices of tempi. Little here is entirely unprecedented. Even in the first movement, that playing up of the contrast between slow and fast wasn’t totally without antecedent. Both Scherchen and Leinsdorf had offered the same kind of slant, although through very different musical means: their opening march was swift in the Bruno Walter model rather than held-back and with a feeling of weight, but their fast was even faster and more explosive than Karajan’s – in the case of Scherchen, a mad rush. But, in the second and third movements, Karajan brings all these elements to a coherent whole of unprecedented bite, vigor and refinement. He launches into the second movement with great vehemence (exactly Mahler’s indication here), at a tempo that is exactly the same as Bernstein’s (but with crisper attacks from celli and double bass), but past the first and fast section (which Barbirolli took at a uniquely deliberate gait), Karajan is in fact very similar to Barbirolli, section by section, and in the end runs at 15:02, to Barbirolli’s 15:07 (for comparison, Walter was at 12:40, Solti 13:45 and Bernstein 14:15). But Karajan adds a touch of welcome urgency at times – and that touch (abetted by his much better sonics) is enough to purge the movement of any trace of Barbirollian plodding and lend it an unflagging intensity. Unique though is the very (and unprecedented) spacious tempo he adopts in the second slow passage at 4:29. Unprecedented, but not without heir: Abbado’s first recording, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1980, is very close throughout, and in that passage in particular. In general Karajan’s spacious tempi and the silky tone of his strings brings a unique, brooding atmosphere to these slow sections with their reminiscences of the first movement funeral march (1:23, 4:29). I could question the lack of coherence of his tempo for the return of the theme of the fast section of the first movement funeral march, at 10:13 (markedly slower than in the first movement), but Karajan is here in good company (Bernstein is slower than his first movement, Walter is faster) and his passage as it is has great, ominous character. Overall Karajan develops great vehemence and passionate sweep, and ultimately, it is impressive what a sure grasp he has over the music: there is no trace of tentativeness, no trace that this is a “first outing” in Mahler, it sounds as if he’d played it all his life.
And the same is true with the Scherzo. Again, there is nothing that is out of bounds with what had been done before. In fact – and all amends made for the difference of orchestral quality and the huge differences of sonics – in its choices of tempo, section by section, Karajan’s version here is uncannily close to the ancient Scherchen from 20 years before. Karajan’s opening tempo is midway through the urgency of Walter and the deliberation of Schwarz – meaning that it is perfectly balanced. And at 18:01, Karajan’s Scherzo is also, for its days, a spacious one, closer to Schwarz’ (18:10), Scherchen’s (18:00), Barbirolli’s (17:58), and even Bernstein’s (17:35) or Leinsdorf’s (17:22) than to Walter’s (15:15) or Solti’s (16:35). But it not so much these matters of pacing that attract the ear, as Karajan’s unique combination of extraordinary refinement and savagery, as well as his attention to the finest details of Mahler’s writing. Refinement: take his phrasing of the first waltz at 2:26: very slow – Bernstein had been as slow (and Scherchen even slower), but Karajan has incomparably softer and more delicate string tone than Bernstein, with minuscule traces of portamento; Karajan is a waltz in a salon of the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna under Emperor Franz Joseph, Bernstein is the imitation of it in the tavern. Another great touch is the way Karajan resists the temptation of pressing the “more flowing, but still measured” passage at 7:59 that develops from the second waltz, and keeps it very measured, soft and delicate. Attention to details: they are too numerous to describe, so I’ll mention only two: the biting cello and double-bass fp at 0:53 (measure 50), and the three biting horn fp at 3:44 (measures 190, 192, 194). Savagery: hear the two ff timpani thwacks at 3:53 (measure 200), then jump to Barbirolli at… 3:53, to Bernstein at 3:58, to Leinsdorf and Schwarz at 3:54 and tell me if you even notice them. With Solti, at 3:38, you hear them also, but not as potent as Karajan’s. And the savagery doesn’t stop there, of course: it merely starts. While I find that the first big scorching climax at 5:08 lacks a touch of violence (Bernstein’s, at 5:15, was better, and that was nothing compared to Solti’s, at 5:08, scorching like a napalm bomb), the savagery nonetheless emanates from all the passages with eighth-note string runs marked “wild” by Mahler (or “wuchtig”, or “sehr heftig”, forceful, violent), especially as the movement starts building up to its hectic end, at 10:49 (a passage again introduced by three resounding timpani blows). Karajan’s range of dynamics is extreme, from the almost imperceptible pianissimo to the blasting fortissimo, and 14:23 is a good place to test the resistance of your loudspekers, as it goes from one the the other within the length of 40 seconds. The coda at 17:19 is taken at a hair-raising, breakneck speed, true to Mahler’s “sehr wild” and with no place, once it is started, to accommodate Mahler’s ensuing “più mosso”, “drängend” (pressing) and “noch rascher” (swifter).
The finale again finds a nice balance between the high-strung, breathless joy of Bernstein or Solti and the pedestrian and sometimes even slumberous (but at times also very lyrical) stroll of Schwarz, to say nothing of the clumsy dance of Barbirolli. Not necessarily the approach I prefer in this movement, there is more visceral excitement in the Bernstein-Solti approach (and Barbirolli certainly has a quaint charm of his own), and Karajan sometimes lacks a touch of bite, but his pacing feels always natural, comfortable, laid back even (it is clealy under the stamp of Mahler’ indication “nicht eilen”, do not hurry, that Karajan placed his reading – and it does appear six times in the course of the movement), and the music exudes a great feeling of tenderness, which doesn’t exclude moments of more vibrant joy. Only at the end does Karajan speed up things a bit to a concluding chorale of triumphant exultation.
If I had been writing at the end of the 1970s, this is the version I would have unhesitantly recommended (with Solti and Barbirolli as two complementary alternative views, extreme fast and high-strung and extreme deliberate; since then a studio recording made for the Austrian radio by Hans Swarowsky in 1971 has surfaced that is even more radical than Barbirolli’s and that consequently I prefer to his, but it appeared only in 2000). I may have some reservations especially about Karajan’s playing up of the contrast of tempo in the first movement, which is not my prefered interpretive option there, but that counts for not much in view of everything this version had to offer. Writing today, there are too many subsequent versions that I haven’t heard to know for sure if Karajan would still be among the very best. But I suspect that, by the end of the day, he will.
More reissues and compilations (Japanese editions mentioned only when audiophile versions not otherwise available in the West):
Reissued on The Musical Heritage Society 514502K (1997) 717794450224:
Collected on “Berliner Philharmoniker Centenary Edition”(50 CDs) DG 479 1049 (2013) 028947910497 (for details see listing on Discogs.com):
Collected on “Karajan 1970s” (82 CDs) DG 479 1577 (2013) 028947915775 (for details see listing on Discogs.com):
(BluRay audio) DG 479 1053 GH (2013) 028947910534:
(Platinium SHM-CD) DG Japan UCCG-40016 (2014) 4988005808998:
(SHM-CD) DG Japan UCCG-52169 (2018) 4988031296028:
(SHM-SACD) DG Japan UCGG-9122 (2018) 4988031262177:
(UHQCD) DG Japan UCCG-41038 (2020) 4988031393918:
(UHQCD stands for “Ultimate High Quality Compact Disc”. see here for details)