Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Wiener Symphoniker, Hans Swarowsky, February 1971. Berlin Classics 0017202BC (2000, 2002)

Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Wiener Symphoniker, Hans Swarowsky. Berlin Classics 0017202BC (2002) barcode 782124172022:



From 3-CD set “100 Jahre Wiener Symphoniker 1920-2020”, Berlin Classics 0017102BC (2000) 782124171025:



Recorded February 1971 in the ORF (Austrian Radio) Studio

You liked Barbirolli and Bernstein in Vienna? In a very similar conception, this is even more extreme – and even better
Originally posted on, 31 December 2011

I was very sceptical in approaching this recording. Listening to Sir John Barbirolli‘s outstanding, but also uniquely deliberate recording of Mahler’s 5th symphony, made in 1969 for EMI (link will open new tab to my review), I enquired in the table of timings of Peter Fülöp’s stupendous and indispensable Mahler Discography to see who (if not Barbirolli) had recorded the slowest ever second movement, Scherzo and Finale. As deliberate as he is, it turns out that Barbirolli holds the record in none of these movements (although he did when his recording first came out). But that’s when I realized that, while Swarowsky comes close in the Scherzo but not quite, his version remains the slowest ever finale. Slowest ever, the finale of Mahler’s 5th symphony, notated “Allegro giocoso” and “frisch” (lively)? Already Barbirolli’s choices of tempo were problematic enough as it was (that finale made me sell away my record once, some years ago, although not any more). So slower still?

I had intended to listen to Swarowsky’s 5th independent of these matters of timing anyway. Hans Swarowsky (1899-1975) was universally recognized as a great pedagogue of conducting: he taught at the Vienna Academy of Music, and among his students were Mehta, Abbado, Sinopoli, Janssons (another such great pedagogue was Franco Ferrara at the Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome). But he was never recognized as a great conductor, and even less as a Mahler conductor. In fact, his only Mahler recording to be released in his lifetime wasMAHLER - Swarowsky - Symphonie n°4 the 4th symphony with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra made for Supraphon in 1972 (Supraphon Crystal Collection 11 0625-2 011, barcode 8596911062524), shortly after this one. This 5th symphony was recorded in the studio in February 1971 for the Austrian radio and was published on CD by Berlin Classics only in 2000, and a recording of the First with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra was released on LP, on an obscure label in 1978.

Swarowsky’s entry on Wikipedia states that he was of Jewish descent (he was born in Budapest), but that is not confirmed by the entry on German Wikipedia, and even contradicted by the fact that Swarowsky, who from 1937 to 1940 had conducted at the Zürich Opera, returned then to Nazi Germany and was active during the war in Salzburg and occupied Poland, and was placed for a while on the “grey list” of suspected nazis or nazi sympathisers after the war. If he was of Jewish descent the Nazis sure didn’t know about it. (Addendum from January 2023: English Wikipedia doesn’t claim anymore that Swarowsky was of Jewish descent, although the “categories” tags still include a link to “Hungarian Jews”)

Anyway, it isn’t the smell of blood at the look of Swarowsky’s timings but his reputation at least as a pedagogue of conducting that made me curious in the first place to hear his Mahler 5th. Today when Fülöp’s discography lists, as of March 2010, 176 versions (including Dvds), we easily forget that the early 1970s were still times of Mahlerian scarcity, although things were starting to change. The 1960s had been topped off by Barbirolli’s highly controversial but much-feted version on EMI. In 1970 and 1971 Decca, Philips and DG had already recorded, in short succession, Solti‘s, Haitink’s and Kubelik’s versions, part of their ongoing complete cycles – and they all had been pre-empted of course by Columbia and Bernstein, as early as 1963. Vanguard would soon record Abravanel’s (1974), Karajan first tackled Mahler with his 5th in 1973 (I can’t help thinking that Visconti’s 1971 film “Death in Venice” had something to do with the Austrian conductor’s new interest in the composer), Mehta and Levine would add their own versions in the second half of the 70s and the decade would be closed by Tennstedt’s.

So, I wondered, would Swarowsky have had anything interesting to say, even in the context of the times?

You bet he does. In fact: what a find! And to think this gem was kept in the Austrian Radio’s vaults until 2000!

Not that what he had to say was untirely unheard. As the timings suggest, it is striking how much Swarowsky’s approach resembles Barbirolli’s, or, later, Bernstein’s in his 1987 remake with the Vienna Philharmonic: it is a matter of both deliberation and huge orchestral power. The similitude with Barbirolli starts with a similar tempo in the first movement’s march (just slightly more animated with Swarowsky, who reaches the fast section in 5:41, to Barbirolli’s 5:50; for reference, Bruno Walter, the symphony’s 1947 prermiere recording, took that first section in 4:41, Bernstein 5:09 in 1963, 6:15 in 1987), the similar sense of a burdened march (Barbirolli’s slightly more than Swarowsky),the same powerful orchestral tutti. And it continues with the same held back tempo in the fast section (Swarowsky’s even more than Barbirolli’s: section taken in 1:59 to Barbirolli’s 1:46, which is slower even than the very slow – here – Walter, 1:56; Bernstein was at 1:46 in New York and 1:47 in Vienna), downplaying the contrast in favor of a sense of organic unity, and conveying a great mood of screaming despair. The Austrian radio sonics are stupendously present and vivid. I though EMI’s 1969 sonics for Barbirolli were “superb”, but on comparison it is incredible how much (in their original 1988 remastering on EMI Studio, but the 1998 remastering for Great Recordings of the Century didn’t improve things by much) they sound muffled, lacking brightness, with blurred timpani thwacks in a number of spots, and needing a strong boost up. Any shortcomings with Swarowsky? The trumpeteer is a bit shaky on the return of his triplets after the fast section – in view of the complete picture, this is a miniscule fleck at the corner. The Vienna strings don’t have the silky tone of their counterparts from the Philharmonic or even of those of New Philharmonia’s, and the final section at 10:39 leading to the great “klagend” climax doesn’t come near the feeling of nostalgia elicitied here by Barbirolli.

And the Barbirolli similitude continues in the second movement, with again a very deliberate opening tempo: Swarowsky takes the first (fast) section in 1:32, to Barbirolli’s 1:35, Rudolf Schwarz‘ 1:28 (that’s the first stereo version, made in 1958 for Everest, and though it didn’t make much of a splash back then it seems to enjoy something of a minor cult status since its CD reissue), Bernstein’s 1:24 in New York and 1:23 in Vienna, Walter’s 1:19, Leinsdorf‘s 1:18 (with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a fine version recorded the same year as Bernstein’s first recording) and Solti’s 1:13. But that similar deliberation comes with outstanding traits that are proper to Swarowsky, like the incomparably biting and powerful cello and double-bass attack; only Leinsdorf in Boston had done it so well (but Leinsdorf’s ensuing brass sound recessed compared to Swarowski’s) and Schwarz was not bad, but with Bernstein and Solti it was plain sonic mush, and Barbirolli’s sounds comparatively weak too. And the ensuing brass interjections: as good and powerful as they sounded to me with Barbirolli, on comparison with Swarowsky, at a similar tempo, they sound, again, just weak. Swarowsky’s brass have the violence of Solti’s, without the latter’s suffocating speed. Another ear-catching touch of Swarowsky are the detached cello and viola arpeggios at 0:37, but a big difference with Barbirlolli is the (relative) urgency Swarowksi invests in the slow sections (which makes him here closer to Schwarz). Other notable features are the potency of the cello counter-melodies, and the big string tone at 2:53 where Mahler indicates “large bowing – big tone” (measure 116). When returns the theme of the fast section of the first movement, at 10:35 (measure 392), many conductors either disregard entirely the tempo relationship with the first movement (Bernstein is slightly slower, Walter slightly faster), or need to markedly crank up their tempo (Leinsdorf, Solti), finding authority in Mahler’s indication here not to drag (“nicht schleppen”). Like Barbirolli, Swarowsky is here entirely consistent and doesn’t need to budge, but his tempo, even slower than Barbirolli’s, conveys a uniquely fateful character. Kept at a very held-back tempo, the great chorale at 12:30 sounds like The Great Gates of Kiev in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. And I am here only scratching the surface of all the instrumental touches that show that no detail of Mahler’s writing has gone unheeded by Swarowsky, and I could fill still more lines and paragraphs on the way he phrases the accents, the sforzandos, like no one else had before him. Overall Swarowsky’s second movement clocks at 15:49, which is significantly longer than Barbirolli’s (15:07) or Bernstein’s in Vienna (14:56), and the longest at the time. Not a record Swarowsky held for long: in 1973, Wyn Morris recorded a version that ran over 17 minutes (with the London Symphonica, reissued on Collins Classics EC 1037-2 barcode 5012106103726 or IMP PCD 1033 barcode 5010946103326). The hitch with such expansive tempos is that they run the risk of being sluggish and ponderous; but Swarowsky here – thanks also to the extraordinarily vivid sonics – is scorchingly intense, and Barbirolli, who I thought was biting and intense (and with vivid sonics), simply pales in comparison.

And I can extend that to the Scherzo. Swarowsky here is Barbirolli +. Plus deliberation (19:20 to Barbirolli’s almost “normal” 17:58, or Bernstein’s Vienna 18:46), but also plus vivid sonics, plus power and bite: Swarowksy makes it entirely work, and entirely convincing. Not that it is the slowest Scherzo ever, even it its days: in concert in 1969 in Toronto, Karel Ancerl took it in over 20 (Tahra TAH 242 barcode 3504129024215), and I’ve spotted in Fülöp’s table of timings 16 other versions that are slower, including, here too, Wyn Morris’, who seems very consistent in his very slow pacing; but, significantly, 14 of those were recorded in 1990 and after. The record is held by Haitink with the French Orchestre National in 2004, at more than 21 minutes (Naïve V5026 barcode 822186050262).

Beautiful Adagietto, at 10:35 more expansive than Barbirolli’s (9:50), more in the line of Bernstein in 1963 (11:00) or Boulez‘ in Vienna in 1996 (10:52). But the expansiveness doesn’t preclude moments of more passionate animation in the more pressing passages, and I like particularly that Swarowsky almost observes Mahler’s indication to play “etwas drängend” and then “fliessend” from 5:02 (measure 43) all the way to the four bar deceleration at 6:50 (measure 68). Bernstein, for instance, who starts very passionately, slows down back to his previous slow tempo much earlier, as early as measure 47.

And then comes the slowest Mahler 5th finale in the universe: 18:54. I should hate it – I’ve liked “my” finales of Mahler’s 5th to be brisk and convey a sense of exuberant joy, like those of Bernstein in New York (13:43) or Solti (13:36). As I said, Barbirolli’s 17:22 made me sell away my record once – although, coming back to it, I’ve found much appeal to it, exceptionable as it is. But Barbirolli is brisk compared to Swarowsky! Swarowsky plods. It is the dance of the hippos in Fantasia, the clumsy Ländler of Paul Bunyan on a vacation in the Vienna countryside. When Swarowsky reaches Mahler’s “fliessend” (flowing) indication at 6:02, you’ve got to laugh. This flows like oil in your saucepan. On the other hand, as inimaginable as it is, he DOES observe Mahler’s “nicht eilen” (to not press) at 10:09. He steps up the tempo (marginally) only for the coda at 17:11. When you hear Barbirolli against Bernstein or Solti, you think you are hearing Klemperer. But when you hear Swarowsky against Barbirolli, that’s when you think you are hearing Klemperer!

And, as inimaginable as it is… it works. Again, because of those extraordinarily vivid sonics, that great instrumental character and pungency, the crispness of orchestral phrasing. What I wrote of Barbirolli’s finale applies here, even more: “So forget what (you think) it should sound like, or what (you think) Mahler wanted it to sound like, and listen to [Swarowsky] for the unique atmosphere he has to offer. Certainly, this is unique, but be aware that this is not a “fair” rendition of the finale, but an extreme and outlandish one. Not the version to have if you have only one, but one certainly to have if you want to have a complete view of what ranges of music the notes of Mahler can yield”.

In fact, in that kind of approach, I unhesitantly recommend Swarowsky above and before Barbirolli: because it is more radical, because its sonics are incomparably more vivid, and because (other than the final section of the first movement) he realizes the outlandish conception even more effectively than Barbirolli, with even more power, bite, crispness. But be aware that my enthusiastic endorsement is one very subjective reaction to objective interpretive parameters that are cetainly extreme; the same could legitimately have justified a rejection… In fact Tony Duggan, the esteemed Mahler critic from Musicweb-international, dismisses this performance. Reading what he writes about it though, I find his comment very unspecific, and it gives you no hint whatsoever of what’s in store… except that it is extreme. But I find it entirely inconsistent with the accolades given by Duggan to Barbirolli and even more to Wyn Morris, and it leads me to think that Duggan gave only a casual listening to Swarowsky.

On the basis of this recording, Swarowsky wasn’t just a great pedagogue: he was a great conductor, with a unique vision AND the ability to carry it out, for which I can see only Klemperer (on his better days), Barbirolli and the older Bernstein as equivalents. It now raises the frustrating thought: why the obscurity and under-representation on disc?

Comments are welcome