Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Philadelphia Orchestra, Hermann Scherchen live 30 October 1964. Tahra TAH 422 (2001), TAH 4027 (2010)

Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Philadelphia Orchestra, Hermann Scherchen live 30 October 1964. Tahra TAH 422 (2001) barcode 3504129042219:



Reissue Tahra TAH 4027 (2010) barcode 3504129402716:



More eccentric you will not find – what did you expect? This is Scherchen, not Haitink or Kubelik
Originally posted on, 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. He made pioneering studio recordings of the 5th (link will open new tab to my review) and 7th Symphonies for Westminster in 1953 (the latter on MCA Millenium Classics MCD80082 barcode 0602438008223, or Westminster/DG 471 263-2 barcode 028947126324, review pending), when these works were still rarities on disc: his was the first LP version of the 5th and the second ever after Bruno Walter’s from 1947, and his 7th was also the 2nd on LP, hard on the heels of Rosbaud’s badly flawed and under-rehearsed version on Vox (CD Vox Box Legends CDX2 5520, barcode 047163552021).

But Scherchen was also the arch-maverick, the musical provocateur. Some conductors hardly change their conception of a work in decades, but Scherchen always seemed intent at discovering something new and different in the notes at every performance. This performance of the 5th, given with the Philadelphia Orchestra on October 30, 1964, is a resounding case in point. More eccentric you will not find.

Start with the most egregious: a central Scherzo slaughtered to a mere 5:36 minutes, 401 bars cut out of 819, almost half the music (and given that it is the slow sections that are cut, this amounts to roughly 2/3 of the movement’s running time). This is what Scherchen’s Frankenstein creature looks like: at 3:43, after measure 173 (return of the opening tempo) he jumps to measure 490 (the modified return of the same). Then at 4:58, after measure 578, rehearsal figure 22… he simply stops (there is no sectional separation here in Mahler’s music) as if there was a fermata, and jumps to the coda, measure 764. It sounds awful.

And he does it again in the Finale: at 5:13, where measure 329 and a big brass interjection should have “happened”, he jumps to measure 538 (rehearsal figure 24). It is jarring, like slamming a door violently and hearing no sound (one of the funniest scenes in Jacques Tati’s film Playtime develops exactly that). And for whatever reason, Scherchen makes another small one, at 8:50, the first ten bars of the coda, measures 749-758. This is 119 bars out of 791, 15 %.

Why? I don’t think it is for anything like Union reasons which might have compelled him to keep the performance under 60 minutes (TT is 58:10) and the whole concert under a certain length, because the program was rather short (Tahra’s booklet shows the concert bill, and it had only Haydn’s 49th symphony “La Passione” as an opener). Furthermore, while Scherchen’s studio recording for Westminster is complete, I see in Peter Fülöp’s phenomenal and indispensable Mahler discography that his two other live recordings (there’s one from 1962 in Milan on Stradivarius  STR 13600, barcode 8011570136008, and one in 1965 with the French Radio Orchestra National on Harmonia Mundi “Musique d’abord” HMA 1905179 barcode 3149025012494) also come with cuts, and, judging from the movements’ timings, apparently the same ones. So it was probably Scherchen’s idea that a concert audience couldn’t take more than an hour of Mahler, which would be difficult with any performance of the 5th: even Walter and Abravanel (Vanguard Europe 08 4008 71 barcode 3351474008717, US SVC 25 barcode 0723918002521), which are the two shortest-running recordings ever (Abravanel is even the fastest of all recorded versions in the first two movements, Walter in the Scherzo) are a little over 61 minutes. Most versions are above the 67-minute mark.

But Scherchen made things even more difficult for himself, by conducting the slowest Adagietto EVER – and this is not a figure of speech, but hard digits. Most Adagiettos these days run anywhere between 8 and 12 minutes. When the Adagietto was still construed as Mahler had conceived it, not 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, conductors like Mengelberg (1926, conveniently reissued in 2003 on Naxos Historical 8.110855, barcode 636943185520, in the transfer of Mark Obert-Thorn) or Walter took it in 7 to 7:45 minutes. Scherchen? 15:10! It is both egregious and fascinating, music at the threshold of silence and immobility, threatening to be drowned under the sound of tape hiss as if under the hazy fumes of amnesia or like whiffs of echoes of the Titanic’s orchestra heard under water decades later in Michael Nyman’s fantasies, Mahler seen through the eyes of Arvo Pärt times John Tavener (I’m exaggerating of course – but why shouldn’t I, since Scherchen does too. He does animate and surge in the more passionate sections, “fliessend”/flowing or “mit Wärme”/with warmth). It is not an approach that goes well with audience coughs. Thank God they didn’t have cell phones in ’64!

These are the most glaring eccentricities, but the rest abounds with more, or, if you want to be more positive, call them strong idiosyncrasies, marks of an always extremely personal approach (although there is no way of being positive about Scherchen’s butchering cuts, and “eccentricities” is much too nice a description). Not at the beginning of the first movement though: it starts beautifully, with more of a sense of burdenened “fatum” than Scherchen gave it in his 1953 studio recording (it now takes him 5:57 to reach the faster section, against 4:55, which is slower than Barbirolli‘s 5:50 in 1969 for EMI, first CD reissue 1988 EMI Studio CDM 7 69186 2 barcode 077776918624, and almost as slow as Bernstein’s 6:15 in Vienna in 1987 on DG. I also noted the beautiful cello counter-melodies at 3:56 (measure 96). At the return of this slow movement after the fast section, Scherchen’s “schwer” at 8:24 (measure 262) is even more burdened, a burial on a gloomy day with pouring rain and feet hardly capable of tearing out of the thick layer of mud on the pathway to the cemetery – a reminiscence of Mahler’s own funeral, maybe (Scherchen wasn’t present, but Henri-Louis de la Grange’s account and the photos provided in his Mahler biography show that indeed it rained). But then, these two framing episodes make for an even more brutal contrast with the faster section at 6:21 (“suddenly faster – passionate – wild”) which Scherchen, now as in 1953, takes at a precipitate tempo and the fastest I’ve ever encoutered (1:17 for the section, to Leinsdorf’s 1:32 or Bernstein’s 1:47). Yet another very personal touch is that, where you’d have expected the third episode of the movement, with its ghostly strings, at 10:37 (measure 323) to be slow-moving (all the more so as Mahler indicates here “still the same tempo”, and Scherchen was by then moving extremely slowly), the conductor takes it in fact very flowingly, and furthermore accelerates markedly up until the “klagend” (plaintive) climax at 11:28, as if he wanted to make the section an expressive reminder of the fast one.

In 1964 Scherchen hasn’t changed his conception of the second movement compared to 1953, but makes it even more extreme, taking the “fast” a touch faster even and the “slow” a touch slower. He hurls into the movement with even more frenzy than in 1953 (first section in 1:04 to his earlier 1:07), to the point that the Philadelphia strings can just scramble to follow and prey to get at the end of the first section still all together, at the expense of any hope for clear articulation from them or the brass, or any snap from the latter. And as in 1953 but even more than back then, Scherchen still follows the law of maximum contrast, with an even more held-back tempo in the ensuing slow section (taken in 2:12 vs 2:08) with its reminiscence of the first movement’s final episode. Taken on its own, it is very beautiful, with a fine brooding mood and deep chant from the cellos, but since – see above – Scherchen had taken that episode very briskly in the first movement, it destroys any sense of tempo relationship: minute expression at the expense of architectural coherence. But you do get that tempo relationship with his first movement’s “schwer” passage referred to above, when it returns in the second movement at 6:23 (measure 266), and Scherchen is back at his quasi-motionless (he was incomparably more straightforward in 1953). As before, Scherchen pursues this law of maximum contrast throughout the movement (except at the “più mosso subito” at 7:14, which unlike in 1953 he now keeps very pedestrian), making it seem all the more manic as Mahler stages the tempo changes sometimes within a few bars, and Scherchen even exaggerates the tempo changes indicated by Mahler, taking for instance his warning “not to rush” at 9:11 (measure 400) as a prompting to markedly slow down (and he probably had no other choice, since he was indeed really rushing just before). And this doesn’t exhaust the list of idiosyncrasies with which Scherchen fills the movement: it is all those of 1953, stepped up a few notches, and more. Idiosyncracies need not be damned just per se, and it is great to get a strong personality if it illuminates the music. Not that Scherchen here isn’t thrilling. But where, in 1953, he kept things just short of the fatal line where personality becomes distortion, he’s now crossed that line (and the best pointer to that is the orchestra’s inability to cope with those crazy tempi) without even looking back.

Obviously, on that day of October 31 1964, Scherchen stepped on the podium in a spirit of “anything goes” and “I’ll go to the very limits”. Again, compared to his 1953 Scherzo, and for what you can hear of this one in the course of its butchered five and a half minutes, everything is stepped up, but now so much so (fast MUCH faster and slow MUCH slower) that it amounts to a veritable change in conception. Where he kept things surprisingly easy-going in 1953, he now takes a very brisk and seemingly joyous approach, a mood closer to the “giocoso” inscribed by Mahler at the top of the finale, and a joy skidding into frenzy, again testing the Philadelphians to their limits. But when comes the little Viennese Waltz at 2:02 (he reached it in 2:29 in ’53), which he took already at a held-back tempo back then, almost as if he was gently mocking its trappings of naïve charm (but it became customary practice in later recordings), he now almost grinds to a halt: this is a waltz danced at the rehabilitation center for grave car injuries. I don’t mean it as a criticism: beautiful Hollywood love stories can develop at the rehabiliation center, and there is a unique delicacy to Scherchen’s music-making here. But to give an objective idea, Scherchen takes the section in 1:41, compared to his 1:06 in ’53; the slowest I had encountered so far were Bernstein-Vienna and Inbal (Denon 1986, original Western release CO-1088 barcode 081757108829), who both took it in 1:08.

And if Scherchen’s aim was to keep the performance under 60 minutes, by the finale he must have thought he was badly running behind schedule, because he takes the most precipitate tempo I’ve encountered (his 1953 finale was surprisingly laid back, at least in its first 5 to 6 minutes), a wild ride on the merry-go-rounds and roller-coasters of Coney Island or Vienna’s Prater playgrounds, unleashed joy skidding into frenzy, and again the surest sign of the inanity of the approach is the Philadelphian’s (no slouch orchestra) inability to cope cleanly. And of course when come Mahler’s indications to play “fliessend”, flowing (as at 3:58, measure 241), Scherchen is so fast he has nowhere to go. That is, until the “Grazioso” section after his bleeding cut, at 6:24 (measure 606), which, wouldn’t you know, he takes very slowly – this is not mocking the passage’s naïve charm, it is ridiculing it – and then, past that short section, with no prompting of any kind by Mahler to change tempo, he reverts to his previous speed (6:47, measure 623).

So, obviously, this is not a recording for the casual Mahlerite. Scherchen’s 1953 studio recording, though not devoid of idiosyncrasies (I can call it “strong personality” also) offers better sound than this 1964 concert and a much more balanced account, and remains today a valid account, not just for historically-minded Mahlerites. Scherchen’s butchery of the Scherzo and Finale in 1964 (or in his other live concerts) has no excuse and for that he deserves eternal damnation in Mahlerian hell. No worry: his extreme Adagietto and his great musical personality in the first and second movements (and even in the little waltz of the Scherzo) earn him a reprieve. No really serious Mahlerite should miss at least that Adagietto, if only to hear once what extremes the notes can yield.

PrimaryThe Philadelphia Orchestra released this same concert in their Centennial Collection in 1999 (POA100-1/7, barcode 679211000026), and the sound is better, marginally more vivid and present, but with more present tape hiss also; Tahra’s transfer is more dulled, with less high frequencies. It also comes with the radio host’s announcement (every conductor seems to be “distinguished” on American radio). But then, this is not a version you’ll want to hear for its sonics. The Tahra disc comes with great liner notes, giving the complete programs of the concerts conduced by Scherchen on the tours of the USA and Canada from 1964 to 1966, the year of his death (this concert was the first one, and was repeated in New York early November). The notes also quote contemporary interviews of Scherchen, where he talks less of Mahler than of the present and future of music, and as interesting as are his views, they are also eccentric to the point of absurdity: “now, the question is whether the necessity of music continues in human society (…). The problem of modern music is not the question of tonality vs. atonality (…). The far greater problem is that we are now at a technological dividing line in human culture – at the beginning of an even greater change, perhaps, than that produced by the invention of agriculture.” Well, try eating an Apple computer or an iPod for your lunch, and you’ll see what really matters, agriculture or modern technologies. And the anonymous author of the liner notes, presumably Scherchen’s daughter and manager of Tahra records, Myriam, or her husband René Témine, adds a personal commentary in an untranslated footnote: “it seems that, regrettably, Scherchen had seen right. If one considers the present situation of music and the record, in these days of globalization, the catastrophe that Scherchen certainly adumbrated isn’t far away…” Now come on, give us a break! In 1964 when Scherchen gave that performance of Mahler’s 5th, there had been only five studio recordings of the the symphony (Walter, Scherchen, Rudolf Schwarz, Bernstein and Leinsdorf). As of April 2010, by the count of Peter Fülöp, there were 176 of them! Where is the catastrophe? Over-production, you mean?

Comments are welcome