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A tale of two Fifths
Benjamin Zander and Rudolf Barshai: What’s the Internet buzz?


As we approach his 141st birthday (this Saturday, July 7), Gustav Mahler’s time just keeps coming. His Fifth Symphony alone can claim close to 100 recordings, and now there are two new releases, one by Benjamin Zander with the Philharmonia of London, on Telarc, the other by Rudolf Barshai with the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie on Laurel. Zander, of course, is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and the New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, and at 60 he’s just beginning to hit the big time, recording the symphonies of Mahler and Beethoven on a major label and with one of the world’s great orchestras. Rudolf Barshai, who’s in his late 70s, is known worldwide as a fine violist but not as a conductor; his orchestra is an all-star ensemble of German high-schoolers, and his label is a tiny Los Angeles outfit whose personable owner, Herschel Burke Gilbert, is even older than he is. So it’s the Zander that must have the Internet buzzing? Guess again.

The Adagietto of his Fifth Symphony is the most popular thing Mahler ever wrote — which is remarkable for a 103-measure movement for strings and harp that doesn’t even resolve. Through the first half of the 20th century it was frequently excerpted; Leonard Bernstein played it at Robert Kennedy’s funeral, and it anchored the soundtrack of Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice. But the complete five-movement Fifth has always been something of a puzzle, despite the numerous recordings. Mahler’s other symphonies end in triumph or tragedy; this one concludes with a boisterous “Rondo-Finale” that quotes his Knaben Wunderhorn song “Lob des hohen Verstandes” (“Praise of Lofty Discrimination”), in which a singing contest between the cuckoo and the nightingale is judged by a donkey. (Surely Gustav couldn’t have had music reviewers in mind . . . ). Mahler then fast-forwards the chorale from the second movement (a technique that impressed Theodor Adorno no end) and incorporates the melody of the Adagietto into 15 minutes of fugato follies (complete with, at bar 79, a playful allusion to his Fourth Symphony) that rise to a closing, uh, donkey apotheosis. Musicologists continue to debate whether there’s something serious hiding under the whipped cream, but any way you slice it, it’s still dessert.

So where’s the meat of this symphony? Over the past half-century, conductors have increasingly tended to find it in the fourth-movement Adagietto, which has seen a wider range of performance times than any piece of classical music ever. Bruno Walter in his 1947 New York Philharmonic recording took just 7:37. By 1970, when John Barbirolli and Rafael Kubelik were doing the Fifth, the norm was 10 minutes or so. Herbert von Karajan, James Levine, and Claudio Abbado got it up to 12 minutes; Bernard Haitink in his 1988 Berlin remake set the current commercial-release record at 13:54 (Hermann Scherchen and Seiji Ozawa are said to have approached 15 minutes). Now the pendulum is swinging the other way: Jukka-Pekka Saraste got it back down to 9:31 in 1991; Abbado on his 1993 Berlin Philharmonic remake took 9:01. On these new recordings, Zander does it in 8:33 and Barshai clocks in at just 8:17.

Mahler is partly responsible for the confusion: Adagietto suggests “not as slow as an Adagio” (or does it simply signify a “mini-Adagio”?), but he also marked it “sehr langsam” and “molto adagio” (“very slow”). Still, there’s good reason to think what he intended was closer to Walter’s 7:37 than Haitink’s 13:54. Timings in almost all German Romantic music increased in course of the 20th century as conductors and listeners alike equated “slow” with “profound.” I doubt Mahler ever heard the Adagio of his Third Symphony at anything like the 29 minutes that James Levine took with the BSO this past February. One of his own performances of the Adagietto was timed at about nine minutes. And the way it defers its resolution suggests that we should regard the Adagietto and the Rondo-Finale as a kind of prelude and fugue.

But does it really matter? In the 78-minute bonus lecture disc that accompanies his Fifth, Zander argues that it does. For him, the 12-minute Adagietto is a funeral threnody, the eight-minute one a song of love. He cites Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg’s claim that, according to both Gustav and Alma, the Adagietto was written as a love letter to her. It’s a good story, and it’s supported by the appearance in bars 51 through 61 of the “Love” motif from Tristan und Isolde, an opera that both Gustav and Alma loved. Yet there are reasons to doubt it. Once he became director of the Vienna State Opera, Gustav composed only in the summer. He met Alma in November of 1901; he probably wrote the Adagietto in the summer of 1902, when they were already married. Alma doesn’t record the “love letter” incident in her diary at the time, and she never claimed the piece as “hers” afterward, which would be most untypical of her, especially given its popularity.

In any case, Mahler’s symphonic movements are never simple. The Adagietto’s first phrase is identical to the one that opens his Kindertotenlieder song “Nun seh’ ich wohl” (“Now Indeed I See”) — which is about the death of a child. And its final phrase is identical to the one that closes his Knaben Wunderhorn song “Urlicht” (“Primal Light”), which is about finding Heaven. What lies in between, permeated with Mahler’s rise-and-fall yearning motif (familiar from the Finale of the First Symphony and the Poco Adagio of the Fourth), is about more than just his love for Alma.

And the heart of the Fifth Symphony? That would be its middle and longest movement, the Scherzo. Only Mahler would write his heart into a movement whose name means “joke.” Like the Scherzo of his First Symphony, this one’s a war between two dances in triple time, a country-bumpkinish yodeling ländler and a shy city waltz; and while they’re having it out, the French horns take us back to his Wunderhorn childhood (as that posthorn does in the Scherzo of the Third Symphony) and the first violins, helped out by an obbligato French horn, deliver a wistful elegy, Mahler’s farewell to a world he’s no longer innocent enough to retreat into. It’s a sobering moment, and when it ends, he creates out of ländler, waltz, and nostalgia a dizzying dance of life and death that’s cut short by guillotine-like final chords.

Not exactly the stuff that Beethoven’s Fifth is made of, you might think — and yet the first four notes of the symphony’s opening trumpet fanfare (already heard at a crisis point in his Fourth Symphony) are exactly the same stuff as the “Victory” motif, the same rhythm, Gustav boldly seating himself at Ludwig’s table. This first movement is a funeral march; it’s followed by a movement of passionate outrage that appears to have overcome death with a triumphant chorale, only to see it dissolve into thin air. So in his Scherzo, Gustav gets real, mixing it up with all the cynicism, anti-Semitism, and superficiality turn-of-the-century Vienna can muster. That leads to the Adagietto — painful everyday love as opposed to the romantic fantasies of his First Symphony — and then the sometimes bitter laughter of the Rondo-Finale. It’s an 18th-century creation, the epic as satire.

THIS IS BEN ZANDER’S THIRD RECORDING of the Fifth. The first, a live performance with the Boston Philharmonic, appeared on cassette in the early ’80s; the second, also live, this time with the New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic, was made in 1997. There aren’t huge differences in concept, though the first has the most personality (and a slowish Adagietto, 11:15). For his Philharmonia recording, Ben seems to have taken as his inspiration the piano roll on which Gustav plays his Fifth’s funeral march. It’s an ear-opening traversal, fast and short on histrionics (he’s no Leonard Bernstein) but long on subtle, life-giving phrasing. I wonder whether even Mahler was able to get that kind of subtlety out of a full orchestra. If he did, he must have been the greatest conductor of the past century.

As for Zander, if he got that kind of subtlety out of the Philharmonia, the reviewers didn’t hear it: David Gutman (Gramophone), Jonathan Carr (International Record Review), David Nice (BBC Music Magazine) and Stephen D. Chakwin Jr. (American Record Guide) range from respectful to moderately favorable. I wish I could disagree. I’m tempted to blame the recording: despite (or because of?) its Direct Stream Digital™ recording system and Super Bit Mapping Direct™ DSD conversion processor, it has that hard, bright, unatmospheric sound I associate with Georg Solti’s Decca Mahler recordings. The bass seems thin and shallow, and I don’t hear the ferocious snarls and growls that have characterized Zander’s live Mahler performances with the BPO and the NEC Youth Philharmonic.

What I do hear is a conductor observing the composer’s indicated tempos and his numerous markings: don’t hurry, don’t drag, grow imperceptibly softer, etc. The Mahler bins are full of performances that ignore these markings, so Zander’s attention is laudable. But in Mahler, as in Beethoven (see my essay on Beethoven’s Fifth in last year’s September 1 Phoenix), fidelity to the score is only the beginning. What makes that Mahler piano roll sing —Gustav’s personality — has nothing to do with the score. No conductor can mimic that personality; he has to provide his own. That’s what I’m missing on Ben’s Telarc recording.

Take the Adagietto, which despite the quick tempo doesn’t flow as easily as Walter’s (or even Karajan’s, which proves that a 12-minute performance can be about love and not death). Mahler’s short phrases seem to mark pauses for breath, as if this were a song without words (another indication that it shouldn’t be taken too slowly), and Zander plays it that way, but it sounds as if he were trying to breathe just like Mahler, and to me that’s like trying to copy Frank Sinatra’s phrasing. I “see” Walter looking at those phrases, thinking, “Ah, like a song,” and playing, breathing, it like his song.

Or take the end of the funeral march, where after a Heaven-storming shudder (Mahler marked it “klagend” — “weeping”) the orchestra limps home. The trumpet fanfare returns (just as the four-note “Victory” motif returns in Beethoven’s Fifth), and Mahler marks it to be played the same way (“flüchtig” — “fleeting”), but we’re not the same person who heard it at the beginning of the movement, and so an old-fashioned conductor like Klaus Tennstedt invests it with the weight it’s taken on, just as Otto Klemperer would do in Beethoven’s Fifth. Indeed, in this coda Tennstedt gradually loosens the tension that built up into that “klagend” outburst: the descending trumpet at bars 387-392 slows almost imperceptibly, even though Mahler asks for “strict tempo,” and there’s a sense of release when the fanfare gets passed to the flute, as if the soul were escaping. All this is not in the score. But it’s devastating.

I also wish that in the Scherzo Zander had afforded more weight to the waltz that enters at bar 137, to underline the opposition of waltz and ländler; likewise that wrenching violin-and-horn farewell at bar 344, which seems to me the turning point of the symphony, goes for very little. It’s as if, despite his quick tempo for the Adagietto, Zander still saw that as the heart of the symphony. Perhaps that’s why the Rondo-Finale, here at an easy tempo, sounds slightly anticlimactic, bereft of its raucous, bust-the-joint-down joy. Ben at his best has always struck me as the reincarnation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s alter ego conductor, Johannes Kreisler: unconventional, unpredictable, savagely satiric one moment, full of idealistic sentiment the next. These days, he’s got caught up in fidelity to the score, which itself is not a bad thing; but he also seems to be taking fewer risks (is he feeling the pressure of performing in the international spotlight?), and that’s not the real Ben Zander. The performance of the Mahler Sixth that he gave with the NEC Honors Orchestra at Jordan Hall in April sounded like the real Ben; I hope that’s what we’ll hear on his forthcoming Philharmonia recordings of the Mahler Fourth (in August) and Sixth (sometime next year).

THE IRONY surrounding the attention that’s being accorded Rudolf Barshai’s Mahler Fifth is that Ben Zander made his reputation conducting the kids at NEC and the mostly young players of the BPO, and now that he’s hit the big time with an established orchestra, along comes Barshai with a bunch of high-school kids and trumps him. Barshai’s Fifth was recorded back in September of 1997, from a live performance given in Berlin’s Philharmonie as part of that city’s annual Fest-Wochen. I’m told that the Laurel CD was sent to the Gramophone for review a couple years ago but the magazine ignored it. I wouldn’t be surprised: Russian conductors are not known for their Mahler (Yevgeny Svetlanov gets the occasional kind word), this conductor is hardly known at all, and, really, a German youth orchestra? It can’t have helped that the CD booklet cover misspells Barshai’s first name (Rudolph!); inside Mahler’s birth and death dates are also wrong, and the performance venue is listed as both Berlin and Cologne.

In time, however, Tony Duggan ( and David Hurwitz ( raved about Barshai’s performance, and word began to spread. The July Gramophone has an enthusiastic boxed review from Richard Osborne (along with the shorter, less enthusiastic review accorded Zander); Barshai also comes out on top in the June International Record Review. Yet in America, at least, this release is unavailable in stores. Laurel’s new distributor, Classical Music Consortium, may remedy that situation, but for now, if you want the Barshai, you’ll have to order it on-line at

So, do you want it? Is it “amazing” (Hurwitz) and “the finest recording of the Fifth Symphony currently available” (Duggan)? Or is it just hot because it’s hard to find? Certainly the playing of this German youth orchestra is amazing, especially in the fugato sections of the Scherzo and the Finale — you’d never guess that this isn’t a first-class professional outfit. And the sound seems to me fuller and rounder than Telarc’s. Just compare the final pages of the second movement: the trombones and the tuba starting at bar 534, or the tam-tam at bar 544. In the concluding pages of the Finale, too, the winds and strings sing out in clear, crisp counterpoint to the brass. And Barshai has a feel for the arc of the piece. In its restraint the funeral march becomes a kind of prelude to the stormy second movement; the Scherzo gets room to kick up its heels (18:29 as against Zander’s 16:58 — otherwise tempos are pretty similar); and the Rondo-Finale is contrapuntally kinetic to the max.

But I’d stop short of calling this the best Fifth available. Like Zander’s reading, it’s fundamentally objective and literal; there’s no release at the end of the first movement, no acknowledgment of those key moments in the Scherzo. Here too the Adagietto doesn’t sound as natural as Walter’s, and those heehawing woodwinds in bars 53-56 of the Rondo-Finale don’t sound like the donkey that Mahler surely had in mind. I like Barshai’s reading better than Zander’s (the sound is a big factor), but Ben’s is more readily available, and it comes with that lecture disc, a real bonus for anyone who’s not already a Mahler expert.

Many of the best Mahler Fifths have been dropped from the catalogue (James Levine with the Philadelphia Orchestra; Klaus Tennstedt’s heroic 1988 London Philharmonic live performance, my own favorite) or are available only as part of boxed sets (Rafael Kubelik with the Bavarian Radio Symphony; Tennstedt’s LPO studio recording and his live New York Philharmonic radio broadcast). Bruno Walter commands Mahler’s idiom despite bolting through this work in 61 minutes (the norm is 70), but the sonics are, well, vintage 1947; inexpensive alternatives include Barbirolli, Karajan, Saraste, and Harold Farberman. Wyn Morris, very fast in the Adagietto and very slow everywhere else, is a revelation for experienced listeners; so is Pierre Boulez with his improbable blend of gemütlichkeit and deconstructionism. Riccardo Chailly is perceptive and has the plush sound of the Concertgebouw but doesn’t always sound as emotionally committed as Zander.

Not that the reviewers always know best — just look at the notices this symphony received when it premiered. In the Knaben Wunderhorn song that’s alluded to in the Rondo-Finale, the donkey awards the prize to the cuckoo because his song is easier to understand than the nightingale’s. Mahler ends his symphony with a descending cathartic thump, and some have heard therein the sound of his critics being booted out the door and down a flight of stairs. Only a critic would presume to contradict them.

Issue Date: July 5 - 12, 2001