Bychkov’s Mahler Fifth


MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 / Czech Philharmonic Orch; Semyon Bychkov, cond / Pentatone Classics PTC5187021

Although Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov is considered one of the finest Mahler conductors of the post-Klaus Tennstedt era, he has only recently begun recording his symphonies. There is a Mahler Fourth on Pentatone with the same orchestra and the exceptional Israeli soprano Chen Reiss, and now here is his Mahler Fifth.

Poring through the booklet, there is no indication that this is the new “revised” edition of the symphony as recorded by Sir Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic, but the score changes are relatively minor. The most striking is at the end of the “Adagietto,” where the Ratz/Fussl edition is marked “Dragend” (“pushing forward”) while the Kubik edition is marked “Sehr Zuruckhaltend” (“very held back”).  In addition, the Berlin Philharmonic plays quite sloppily on that recording (although Rattle conducts it with great intensity). It may be difficult to believe nowadays, but when I was growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, both the Mahler Fifth and Seventh Symphonies were considered very tough nuts to crack, but with time and newer recordings, they have finally taken their place alongside the more popular symphonies, Nos. 1-4 and the Eighth. (The Sixth, with its stampeding military sound and strange, long, hyper-hysterical finale, almost seems to be in a world of its own.)

From the very opening, with the solo trumpet playing those difficult triple-tongue triplets, everything in this performance goes right, although the entrance of the full orchestra doesn’t quite have the impact of Tennstedt’s live performance with the New York Philharmonic. Bychkov gives some interesting accents on the low string theme that follows, particularly the first time around, emphasizing the sadness of the music. The Czech Philharmonic, being an Eastern European orchestra, has a brighter sound profile than Israeli, Austrian or British orchestras in this music, which gives the music outstanding textural clarity if not as much warmth in the overall sound, but that is always a trade-off when one is leading such an ensemble.

There is no question, however, that this is a virtuoso ensemble, or that Bychkov draws the very best out of them. He knows this music as well as anyone and, thankfully, has his own ideas on pacing and phrasing, all of which work very well. One online critic compared Abbado’s Mahler to Rattle’s by saying that the former was an optimist while the latter was a pessimist, and it is true that a certain amount of pessimism, or at least sadness, permeates this symphony (along with the Sixth and Seventh). Bychkov also leans in the direction of pessimism, yet although his performance of the second movement is one of the clearest and cleanest I’ve ever heard, he just misses the hell-bent-for-leather feeling achieved by Tennstedt, Rattle or the young and very gifted Spanish conductor Jose Maria Moreno Malaga on IBS. It does, however, pick up in intensity about two-thirds of the way through the movement.

The Scherzo, too, walks a fine line between ultra-precision and excitement. I once knew a composer who very much liked performances of Mozart’s Symphonies that were unexciting but texturally clear because she enjoyed being able to hear the structure of the piece without interference from an individual interpretation, but I’m fussy. I want both, and this Bychkov does not give us on this recording. The same holds true of the “Adagietto.” It’s just…there. All the notes, but not all the feeling.

Thus I hear this as a very carefully prepared and meticulously played performance of the symphony that only occasionally touches the raw nerve endings that Mahler put into it. I need not add, for those who have sampled him on YouTube, that this is not how Bychkov normally conducts these works in live performances, but the recording is what it is. A neophyte listener will not be disappointed by it, and may in fact come to appreciate all its little details very well as this is the performance’s primary focus, but as an emotional statement, it comes close but no cigar.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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