Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Vaclav Neumann
Recorded 8-11 June 1965, Heilandskirche, Leipzig
Philips “Silverline Classics” 426 638-2 (1990) barcode 028942663824:
Berlin Classics BC 2074-2 (1993) bc 782124207427:
For the subsequent reissues, see after the review.
Some fine moments, but too much understatement to the point of blandness for this to be a great recording
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 24 December 2011
[January 2023 addendum, upon repost on this website]. First, a small issue of dating: June 1965 (says Berlin Classics) or June 1966 (says Philips)? Peter Fülöp, in his magisterial and authoritative Mahler Discography (second edition, 2010 – link will open new tab to my review) retains 1966 (even adding: “6-10 June”), but I don’t know his source for claiming so, he may have just copied the date indicated by the first CD reissue (Philips), and in some (rare) other instances he’s been wrong on his dating. Still, the fact that the original recording is, in every edition, copyrighted “1967”, would seem to confirm the 1966 dating. On the other hand, Fülöp gives the same 1966 dating for Neumann’s Leipzig 6th, and it is unlikely that both would have been recorded at the same sessions. Finally, the recent Japanese SACD reissue indicates that the 5th was recorded June 8-11, 1965 and that it was the 6th that was done on June 6-10, 1966 (in Bethany Church, Leipzig). If that is true, Fülöp – or Philips – may have been fooled by the fact that 5th and 6th were first released in Europe by Philips in a 3-LP set. I’ll stick then to the 1965 dating.
…and whatever it may be,] these were still the days of the early pioneers. It’s hard to think, now when Fülöp’s discography lists, as of April 2010, 176 different recordings, DVDs included, that Vaclav Neumann’s was only the 6th published recording of the symphony, after those of Bruno Walter (1947, Columbia), Hermann Scherchen (1953, Westminster), Rudolf Schwarz (Everest, 1958), Bernstein on Columbia and Leinsdorf on RCA (both 1963). Neumann would later, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, record the complete cycle for Supraphon with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (SU 3880-2, barcode 099925388027), and again a near-complete cycle (only 7th, 8th and Adagio of the 10th were missing) with the same orchestra for the Japanese Canyon Classics in the early 1990s (some were licensed in the West by Emergo Classics; Symphony No. 5 is on EC 3616-2 barcode 016861361624). This Mahler 5th was recorded during Neumann’s tenure with the Gewandhaus Leipzig Orchestra and originally published by the East German label Eterna (see entry on Discogs.com). Neumann recorded four Mahler symphonies in that series, 5, 6 (Berlin Classics 0090452BC, barcode 782124904524), 7 (in 1968, 0090462BC, barcode 782124904623) and 9 (in 1967, 0021872BC). Of these, only 5 and 6 were widely available in the West because Philips licensed them in the 1970s and published them in the form of a 3-LP set; the 5th was also released in the US by Vanguard, Cardinal series VCS 10011-2. It is only in the CD era, when all were reissued by Berlin Classics, that I became aware that Neumann had also done 7 and 9.
I don’t suppose there was a great Mahler tradition in East-Germany, or even in Czechoslovakia, at that time, and one can wonder if a conductor shapes his vision only from looking at the score, or also from listening to the earlier recordings. This question was raised, because Neumann adopts tempos that are often very close to Bruno Walter’s. His first movement march marches on (he reaches the fast section in 4:44, to Walter’s 4:41 – compare to Bernstein’s 5:09, and to his 6:15 in Vienna in 1987 on DG, and doesn’t linger on the more brooding moments (the “gehaltener” passages, at 1:04 and 2:41). In that opening movement Neumann displays a fine sense of architecture, resisting the temptation to rush the faster section, as Scherchen did (but Walter was even slower, taking the section in 1:56 to Neumann’s 1:38), and his trumpet has fine vehemence, and a great Mahlerian sound, not too brilliant like the trumpets from New York or Boston. But where Walter, through various expressive touches, was able to bring out the music’s funeral weight despite his brisk tempo (like double-bass pizzcatti standing out to give the feeling of a burdened march at 1:02, or forbiddingly powerful brass utterances – try the horn at 0:54), Neumann remains clean, but lightweight and slick, and ultimately emotionally detached. His great “klagend” climax at 10:07 is rather weak. Adding, paradoxically, to the impression, are Neumann’s comfortable stereo sonics, vs Walter’s more boxy ones, but with more direct presence.
All those paramaters work to much better effect in the second movement. The first overriding impression is that of clarity: just try the opening cello and double-bass attack, perfectly focused like Leinsdorf’s (but less raging than his), where Bernstein in New York was plain mud, or the violin accompanying arpeggios at 0:32 (comparatively even Leisdorf’s sound like sonic slit). Not that the clarity comes at the expense of drive and bite: as in the first movement, the approach is brisk and a carbon copy of Walter’s (and so was Leinsdorf’s): the opening section is tossed off in 1:19, same as Walter and one second slower than Leinsdorf; Bernstein took it in 1:24 (and 1:23 in Vienna). In accord with his first movement tempi, Neumann (again, exactly like Walter) keeps thing very flowing in the slower sections as well. Other listeners might feel that it lacks depth of expression – I did a few years ago when I first heard this recording -, but I now think that it maitains a fine unity and feeling of urgency. Neumann again displays a fine sense of architecture, and while his slower sections tend to be flowing, he never rushes the faster ones (that is, within a basic tempo that is on the fast side), and clearly favors tempo coherence to the instant thrill of frenzy, which I hold in his favor. One tempo choice which does call attention is his very held-back and even pedestrian take on the return of the Tempo I at the end (at 11:44, measure 520): but Mahler writes “somewhat slower than at the beginning” and a few bars later “do not rush” (an indication which recurs three times) – “pesante”, so there is no taking exception to the way Neumann does it. My only reservation then is that a slightly too distant sonic pick-up of the brass weakens their (and the movement’s) impact and bite, especially in comparison to Leinsdorf (my assessment is based on Berlin Classics’ first CD reissue, and Brilliant uses the same transfer; I don’t know how the Philips transfer compares), in a very similar approach.
The same Bruno-Walterian values of urgency mark Neumann’s Scherzo (first section played in 2:20, to Walter’s 2:21 and Bernstein’s 2:30), lending it a feeling of juvenile joy verging on over-excitement, like kids on Christmas day discovering the wrapped presents around the Christmas tree (guess when I’m writing this). Neumann’s Waltz is (again like Walter’s) phrased with simplicity, not trying to overdo and even less mock its naïve charm, which again I hold in his favor, although other listeners may feel that it is under-characterized. But I do feel that these Waltzes are indeed too straight and under-characterized upon their returns at 6:19 and 8:48. Although Neumann takes them nothing near the “molto moderato” indicated by Mahler, it is more a question of phrasing than tempo. Walter isn’t slower, but just compare the way the Viennese conductor has the first one (Walter’s 5:52) phrased with a discreet and marvelous touch of hesitation in the gait, and how much more “schwungvoll” he has in the second (at 8:25), skidding into a giddiness that eludes Neumann, who remains very civilized. The impact of Neumann’s Scherzo is also, again, somewhat lessened by the lack of presence and bite of his woodwinds and brass in some spots. Hear for instance how the woodwinds are devoid of any kind of sarcastic pungency at 0:42 (measure 43), just bland. Furthermore, there is always the feeling that Neumann keeps the proceedings just a touch too controlled, especially in those “wild” moments where I longed for more unleashed frenzy: not Playmobils under the Christmas tree but bottles of Vodka. It is telling that, while their opening tempo was the same, Neumann should take overall a full minute longer than Walter to get through the movement, and it is not only because his slow sections are slower.
That relative emotional understatement, together with the softness and tenderness of the string tone, work better in the Adagietto – at 9:39, it strikes a middle ground between Walter’s (7:42) and Bernstein’s (11:00) and comes closest to Scherchen’s (9:10). Neumann tops it off with a truly excellent finale, one that is rather leisurely in tempo (overall similar to Levine’s in 1977, on RCA RD89570 barcode 0035628957023 or RCD1-5453 barcode 07863545326, or Bernstein’s in Vienna rather than to the more urgent Bernstein in New York, Leinsdorf or Walter) but exudes a true sense of insouciant joy, thanks in part to the clarity and pungency of the woodwinds (whiffs of an imaginary Bohemian countryside perhaps) and the crispness of the strings, and Neumann builds it up expertly to a triumphant coda.
I know that this recording enjoys great admiration is some Mahlerite circles. I enjoyed it too, more than thirty years ago, when it was the or one of the first Mahler 5th I heard in the LP days and knew much less than today. And sure, I doesn’t betray or distort the composition, in the way Scherchen often does (in his live recordings even more than the one made in the studio for Westminster). Still, there are too many passages in the first three movements that are under-characterized to the point of blandness for this version to be considered a great one, especially in view of all those that have been published since. Even in its days, in a similar approach, Leinsdorf was better. [January 2023 addendum] I do get, I think, why some people enjoy it and what they enjoy in it (I had that discussion, some years ago, with Amazon reviewer Larry VandeSande): its very understatement, its absence of “excesses”. Likewise, some proclaim to enjoy whiskey – if it is cut with 90% water. I feel authorized to say that in fact they don’t like whiskey, not really. Likewise, I would venture that Mahler without excess (whatever these excesses are), Mahler toned down, Mahler tamed, is not really Mahler, not the essence of Mahler. And some may like their Bartok mellow rather than savage, their Beethoven grand rather than unruly, their Brahms majestic rather than passionate. “A chacun son goût”.
Brilliant Classics 99549-6 (2000) 5028421954967:
Collected in Brilliant Classics 99549 (11 CDs) “The Complete Symphonies” (2000) 5028421995496:
Reissued Brilliant Classics 99803 (2002) 5028421998039:
Collected in 5 CDs Edel Classics 0002202CCC (2001) 782124022020 (with Beethoven Franz Konwitschny, Smetana/Dvorak Neumann, Bruckner Kurt Sanderling, Tchaikovsky/Schumann Peter Rösel Kurt Masur):
note: Edel is the parent company of Berlin Classics
Regis “Classic Collection” 99847 (2002?) 5028421998473:
Berlin Classics 0185502BC (2006) 782124855024:
Berlin Classics 0014332BC (2008) 782124143329:
Brilliant Classics 93278 (2009?) bc 5028421932781, also found under label number BRL93278 (2011?) same barcode:
Collected in “Classic FM” 93742 (release unknown – 2011?) 5028421937427
Note: barcode indicates that this is a publication from Brilliant Classics
(4 SACDs) Berlin Classics / Tower Records Japan 0302695BC (2021) 885470026954 (with symphonies Nos. 6, 7, 9):