Classical Reissue Reviews

MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor – Cologne Radio-Symphony Orch./ Hans Rosbaud – ICA Classics

ICAC resurrects a classic 1951 performance of the Mahler Fifth by Hans Rosbaud, a glorious incarnation for the period and a splendid call to the composer for all ages.

Published on February 2, 2013

MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor – Cologne Radio-Symphony Orch./ Hans Rosbaud – ICA Classics

MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor – Cologne Radio-Symphony Orch./ Hans Rosbaud – ICA Classics ICAC 5091, 66:01 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Even among devotees of Mahler’s music, the association of that most histrionic of composers with fellow Austrian Hans Rosbaud (1895-1962) remains unlikely, until we realize how much Mahler set the prototype of Twentieth Century aesthetics for this soft-spoken conductor whose slightest gesture could unleash a torrent of sound. Much like Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache, Rosbaud found that working with radio-symphony ensembles allotted him the requisite rehearsal time and degree of artistic independence he could not have enjoyed within the confines of the more formal symphony orchestras’ budgets. Richard Kapp (1936-2006), with whom I shared a microphone on several “First Hearing” panels, never spoke of his studies with Rosbaud with anything less than veneration. “He mastered every style,” offered Kapp, “despite his repute only in the most contemporary classics.”

The Mahler Fifth resurrected by ICA derives from a Cologne Radio session 22 October 1951 taped in preparation for broadcast. The recorded sound more than resonates with the various furies that engulf this score, with its martial trumpet call – for Mahler the very incursion of Mortality – to the often sweeping moments of emotional paroxysm and personal lamentation. Rosbaud allows something of the Nineteenth Century rhythmic license and portamento to infiltrate the first movement, without sacrificing the nearly hysterical vehemence that Mahler frequently demands. The funereal ethos pervades the A Minor Stuermisch bewegt movement as well, music that seems to court a confrontation with one’s personal Abyss. The contorted contrapunctus wrestles with Mahler’s demons and angels with an unbroken sense of line, and we wonder if Rosbaud’s stylistic line of descent lies in Scherchen or the even more volatile legacy of Oskar Fried, who left us, unfortunately, no Fifth. The magnificent horn and tympanic peroration at the Storm’s last pages whirls more in the Mitropoulos vein, another Mahler acolyte reveling in his own distinctive approach.

The extended D Major Scherzo proper dances, however askew its eccentric wit. The waltz impulse lies someplace between Schubert, J. Strauss, and drunken Richard Strauss, cross-fertilized by bouts of the beer garden. The polyphonic string work sounds like a preparation for the biting antics in Stravinsky or Roussel. The later pizzicato work plays in the manner of ironic troubadours, accompanied by yearning French horn riffs. The percussive and emotional intensity increases, and we nod in awe at the orchestral discipline of the Cologne players, given the relative novelty of this music for their fingers. Rosbaud takes the famed F Major Adagietto – a virtual love-letter from Mahler to wife Alma – at a moderate tempo that walks – in full appreciation of Romantic slides and luftpausen - rather than wallows in the clouds, retaining the innately noble eroticism of the music without descending into molasses. Mahler ends in a bucolic rambling D Major, a concession that “intimations of mortality” could be assuaged by the simple gifts of Nature. Once more, a definite urge to polyphony informs the movement, realized by Rosbaud’s forces with playful or stormy ardor, as required. Muscular and sensitively wrought at once, the Rosbaud conception achieves a sense of dignity and unity within the knotty whirlwinds of contradictory forces that define Mahler’s interior world, spacious as its tormented loves will permit.

—Gary Lemco




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