Mahler: Symphony No. 5. London Symphony Orchestra, Rudolf Schwarz. Everest EVC 9032 (1995) 723918903224
Recorded 10 & 11 November 1958 at Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London
A one-sided approach, stressing the 5th’s brooding lyricism and Viennese charm rather than its bite and rage
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 13 December 2011
We tend to forget, but these were the pioneers. When Everest Records (link will open new tab to my comprehensive discography) recorded Mahler’s 5th Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra under Rudolf Schwarz on 10 & 11 November 1958, it was only the third version ever recorded and the very first one in stereo. Bruno Walter had been the first, in 1947, still in the 78rmp era (Columbia, now Sony), followed by Hermann Scherchen on Westminster, in 1952. The next recording was Bernstein’s epoch-making one, with the New York Philharmonic, in January 1963, on Columbia. There were three more in the 1960s: Leinsdorf 1963 (Boston Symphony Orchestra, RCA), Vaclav Neumann 1965 (Gewandhaus Leipzig Orchestra, Eterna) and Barbirolli 1969 (New Philharmonnia Orchestra,, EMI). To think that as of April 2010, Peter Fülöp’s stupendous Mahler Discography lists 176 recordings (DVDs included) of the symphony!
Rudolf Schwarz (1905-1994, link to Wikipedia) hasn’t left a big name in the history of recording, and even less as a Mahler conductor. In fact, this is his only Mahler recording. He was born in Vienna and was chorus master at the Düsseldorf Opera under George Szell between 1923 and 1927, then Kapellmeister under Josef Krips in Karlsruhe from 1927 to 1933. Not the right place to be for a Jew in 1933. He was dismissed and became the music director of the Jewish Cultural Association (Jüdisches Kulturbund) in Berlin, one of those institutions created by the Goebbels to which the Jews were confined, playing music exclusively among Jews, exclusively for Jewish audiences. Yet, Schwarz didn’t leave Germany when he could have, and was sent to the camps of Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen and Belsen, which he survived (partly thanks to the intercession of Zitla, Furtwängler’s wife). After the war he emigrated to Sweden, then became the music director of the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra (1947-51), of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (1951-57), of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1957-67) and of the Northern Sinfonia in Newcastle (1967-73), eventually acquiring British citizenship.
His recording of Mahler’s 5th didn’t make much of a splash back then, soon superseded by the versions of Bernstein and Leinsdorf and, at the turn of the 1960s/1970s, Barbirolli, Solti (Chicago Symphony, Decca), Haitink (Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Philips) and Kubelik (Bavarian Radio, DG). When I grew up to music in the late 1970s, it was never even mentioned in the discographies. It is really with its CD reissue that it attained something of a cult status.
The sonics have much to do with it. They are stupendous, spacious, vivid, clear and detailed, and afford great instrumental character and pungency to every desk and solo instrument. Early stereo? Other than a minimal tape hiss, it sounds better than most digital recordings. I wonder if it ever sounded that good on the original LPs, or if it is the state-of-the-art transfer that must be lauded (see more about this in the final paragraph). The tuba jumps at your ear, and I love it. I’ve rarely heard timpani so well-defined, at least in the first movement (not so in the second, I wonder if they changed microphone placement).
In the first movement Schwarz establishes a fine pesante mood of burdened “fatum”, eschewing the more assertive kind of military march favored by Walter, Scherchen and Leinsdorf. His relatively reined in “suddenly faster” section at 5:19 may have been one of the factors that led the Gramophone reviewer, when the Everest LP came out in Great Britain in 1967, to call it “rather underpowered” especially in comparison with Bernstein and Leinsdorf, but in fact Schwarz was there following almost to a fault the model established by Bruno Walter. Although the effect is not very “leidenschaftlich” (passionate) and “wild” (I don’t think this needs a translation), it is interesting for establishing less a contrast with the previous section as for continuing its mood of burneded despondency; the trumpet calls sound not like cries of revolt but like wails of despair. I am less happy when it comes to the finer details. Schwarz leaves aside many instructions of Mahler, like the one to play the opening trumpet triplets “flüchtig (quasi accel.)” in the manner of a military fanfare; under Schwarz they are played straight, and a bit stiff. Maybe because of his held back basic tempo, he doesn’t observe the “etwas gehaltener” indication (somewhat more held back) at 1:09 (measure 34) and again at 2:58 (measure 88), and just moves on at a steady pace; not that it lacks lyricism and a right sense of gloom and doom as it is, but he might at least have tried. The beautiful cello countermelody at 3:31 is almost inaudible (measure 104). And the inability of the different desks of the LSO to play their triplets entirely together at 0:40 bothers me. But ultimately these are small glitches in an overall convincing and characterful picture.
In the second movement Schwarz makes up for the potential sluggishness that his very moderate tempo might have conveyed (not until the late 1960s and 1970s was the movement played slower still, especially by Barbirolli) through his remarkable instrumental bite and pungency, and he develops great brooding lyricism in the slower sections with their reminiscences of the first movement’s funeral march (1:28, 4:19). More details: if YOU hear the ff horns at 1:05 (measures 54-56), let me know. On the other hand, the (unmarked) trombone crescendo immediately after, at 1:13 (measure 62) is a great touch. Again, while his basic conception may have been highly disputable, Schwarz and the Everest sonics make it work.
My original post from 2011 on Amazon.com came after the effusive review by Santa Fe Listener, “A harrowing Mahler Fifth for a harrowing century”, whose judgments on Mahler interpretation I rarely agree with. I’m personally very reluctant to the kind of litterary, biographical filter applied to music listening as Santa Fe Listener does in his review. I said that one of the interpretive characteristics of Schwarz’ 5th is the slow tempo he adopts in the fast section of the first movement, less rage and revolt than wailing despair; but it is the same tempo as Walter, and Walter was never sent to the concentration camps. And where I hear no “concentration camp” but all Viennese charm, abetted by the great instrumental character afforded by the vivid sonics, is in Schwarz’ Scherzo; his woodwinds at 0:48 (measure 43) are mild and elegant, with no trace of sardonism or nastiness, his “wild” passages are not very wild (3:54 and other similar moments) because Schwarz seems unwilling (rather than unable) to obtain real ff and fff from the London strings, and his climax at 5:14 is tepid at best where in other versions it is scorching. His “etwas ruhiger” (somewhat calmer) section at 2:34 is not as held back as you might have expected, but his Viennese Waltz develops all the more charm as there is no attempt (as with Bernstein for instance) to, even affectionately, mock the Viennese charm, and the more lyrical sections develop great tenderness (7:46). His coda at 17:12 is kept at a very moderate tempo – no “sehr wild” here, no race to the abyss – and when comes the final acceleration at 17:48, “noch rascher” (even more precipitate), Schwarz doesn’t budge. Not that I mean all this as a criticism; as esteemed a Mahler critic as Tony Duggan from Musicweb-international (who gave this recording the accolates when it was reissued) considers, disputably but at least arguably, that the Scherzo should not be the continuation of the second movement but a pivotal “junction box” between the symphony’s two extremes, in “the war between positive and negative poles”. I’m not sure Schwarz provides that – his Scherzo is decidedly on the positive side – but if you want the “Viennese charm” approach to the music, he realizes it perfectly and convincingly. What’s a “concentration camp” Scherzo anyway? Wouldn’t it be one that was grim, high-strung, wild, biting, raging, scorching? Then go to Solti’s – he was a Hungarian Jew, but spent the war as a refugee in Switzerland. Or go to Mitropoulos live in New York in January 1960 (collected in the 6-CD set Music & Arts CD-1021 barcode 017685102127 with Symphonies Nos. 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, & Adagio 10): for that Scherzo alone Duggan dismissed the whole performance, despite having only praise for the other movements – it is from his review that I excerpted the quote. But Mitropoulos was never in the concentration camp, he spent the war years safely as music director of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra – heck, he wasn’t even a Jew, but a devout Greek Orthodox. Bruno Walter was Jewish and strongly affected of course by everything that happened between 1933 and 1945, but at least he escaped the concentration camp, and yet there is also considerably more urgency and heat in his reading – not so much a celebration of Viennese charm as a memorial to its loss, a Scherzo for Carol Reed’s/Orson Welles’ “The Third Man” (filmed two years after Walter’s recording), if I want to let myself be dragged on Santa Fe Listener’s litterary terrain. Boulez is not Jewish and never was in the concentration camp although he may have considered the Paris Conservatoire as something very similar, but he conducted the Scherzo in concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1968 very much in the same way as Walter (published in 1989 on Nuova Era 2326).
Details: Schwarz is a bit stiff, listen how he does NOT observe Mahler’s “accel.” on the first horn upward surge. Likewise, he observes to a fault Mahler’s instructions not to press (“nicht eilen”) at 1:07 and again at 2:02 and doesn’t budge his tempo, but when Mahler writes a few bars later “flowing again” (2:16), it is clear that he meant that “nicht eilen” as a prompting to slow down imperceptibly; Schwarz does neither, slow down nor flow again. But these details matter only if you consider that a performer should be bound to the score, especially in a pioneering recording, when nobody has really been given a chance to know what the composer wrote sounds like exactly.
Although these days the famous Adagietto is usually taken anywhere between 8 and 12 minutes and closer to the slower range (the world record is held by Scherchen live in Philadelphia in 1964, on Tahra TAH 422, clocking at an egregious and fascinating 15:10, music at the threshold of silence and immobility, Mahler seen through the eyes of Arvo Päart times John Tavener), the evidence is that Mahler never conceived his Adagietto as a lament or meditation upon the passing of things, a kind of anticipation of the finale of the 9th symphony, but as a declaration of love to Alma. He himself is recorded as conducting it in an average of 8 minutes, Walter clocked at 7:42 and Mengelberg, who also knew a thing or two about conducting Mahler, left the fastest ever recording, a little over 7 minutes (1926, conveniently reissued in 2003 on Naxos Historical 8.110855, barcode 636943185520, in the transfer of Mark Obert-Thorn). And after all, as with Beethoven 7th Symphony, it is “adagietto”, not “adagio” (and I wouldn’t be surprised if Mahler had meant his own title for the movement as an oblique reference to Beethoven’s). So Schwarz’ 7:30 is likely to shock only those accustomed to the other, “non-mahlerian” tradition. Heard on its own, its tender and passionate atmosphere is beautiful, in whole AND in details, and all the more so, I think, as it doesn’t try to milk or underline the lyricism contained in the notes, but just lets it flow from the notes. That leads to a finale which, again, Schwarz takes at a held-back tempo, lending it a kind of clumsy bonhomie, and stressing more the movement’s lyricism than its unbridled joy (“Allegro giocoso” is Mahler’s marking here). The approach is not the one I find best suited for the movement, but thanks to his great sonics and orchestra’s great instrumental character, Schwarz again makes it work. Detail: at 11:09 I think he doubles cellos with trombones (measures 518-19).
Ultimately then, this is maybe not the great version other reviewers and some critics make it. Its choices and approach are often disputable and one-sided (and not necessarily the side more germane to the composition) – but the best tribute I can pay to Schwarz is to say that he (and the Everest sonics) makes it work. Those who learned their Mahler 5th through that recording between 1959 and 1963 (when Bernstein’s version was published) may have had a partial and somewhat skewed view of the symphony, but they were not cheated or mis-lead.
A final note on the edition. Despite the rarity and price, this is the CD edition you want, the original 1995 reissue by the Seymour Solomon-run Omega records. As I said, the transfer and sonics are state-of-the-art. When Solomon died in 2002, the copyrights of the Everest catalog were acquired by a Criterion Music Company and ultimately reissued again on CD by a Harkit Records, a British company. Some of the reissues reshuffled the original Omega/Everest CD’s couplings (for instance Harkit’s EVERCD 007 sensibly paired Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Petrushka, both conducted by Sir Eugene Goossens), but most did away with any pairing, and amounted to short TT (for an example compare Harkit’s Brahms: Symphony No. 4 by William Steinberg to Omega’s EVC 9016 barcode 723918901626 , which added no less than Stokowski’s 3rd. Anyway, I don’t know for their other reissues, but avoid this one at all costs, the transfer of this Mahler 5th is simply shameful, a disgusting distortion of the Omega sonics. Listening with headphones, at the very beginning of the symphony, on the trumpet calls, there is a kind of awful “breeze” around the sound that reminded me of the swish of the stylus in an LP groove (although I don’t think that is what it is), and I even noticed faint clicks that for a second made me wonder if they hadn’t made their transfer from an LP (but I don’t think that’s what it was). The first two seconds of the Adagietto have been cut out. At the beginning of the finale, a very soft passage, along with more of that swish (it is present on the original CD transfer also, it isn’t just tape hiss but also a very low frequency, but it is more stable and not nearly as obtrusive; I heard it only because comparing with the Harkit reissue had made my listening keener), there are constant dropouts, and more clicks, not so faint anymore. I was so disgusted that I didn’t investigate more. “Dutch Masterers” is credited with the remastering: well, call it “debited”. Whatever the equipment, two things were missing: care, and ear.
AND: they misspelt SchwarTz on the CD’s back cover. I am aware that price is no small consideration, and some of those original Omega/Everest CDs have become highly demanded and expensive items on the secondary market (I had to wait very patiently to find my copy for slightly under 25 postage included, and I pay that kind of price for a CD only on very special occasions), but if ultimately you go for this cheap (in all senses) reissue be aware that you are putting your ear where your money is, and getting an entirely distorted picture of what Schwarz’ version should sound like. This is to the Omega CD and Everest sound what the cheap Everest LPs in the 1970s were to the original ones from the early 1960s. Even the silver disc’s printed artwork (and that’s the doing of a “Colors” company) looks cheap and very reminiscent of those late 1970 LPs’ centre prints. Shame on Harkit records. Just so that you know what to avoid: