Mahler: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Sakari Oramo, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Warner Classics 2564 62055-2.

What is with this sudden proliferation of live recordings over the past decade or two? It seems as though every other classical album I audition from a record company was recorded live. Is it just that all the conductors in the world suddenly feel they can only do their best work in long, live takes, their spontaneity only ignited by the presence of a live audience? Or is it a financial thing? Are live recordings so much less expensive to produce than those in studios or empty concert halls that it's all companies can afford to do anymore? Are audiences in effect subsidizing the cost of producing records?

In any case, with Sakari Oramo and his City of Birmingham players doing the Mahler Fifth in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 2004, the sound is typically "live," meaning it has plenty of air but doesn't have the definition or focus one would normally hear in a good studio production. Indeed, here the sound is slightly "off," appearing at times harsh, at times murky, at times strident, but never seeming absolutely right. Then, there's the audience, who are very quiet yet whose presence is always felt through subtle wheezes and paper rattlings. And, really, when any music ends, I like to take a breath and relax and think about it for a moment; I do not need 800 people clapping in my ears. It reminds me of the canned laughter in a television sitcom.

Insofar as the interpretation is concerned, Mahler's scores are so diverse and often so bizarre, they admit practically any reading. So Oramo's performance is no better and no worse than most of those I've heard, although it is perhaps a little less cohesive than some others. The conductor, displaying a youthful freshness and bounce, comes into his own in the big, central Scherzo, and he follows it with a traditionally sweet-toned if long-winded Adagietto. But then he's back to a more divergent playing style in the Finale. Oh, well....

In this last analysis, this is not a recording I would recommend as a first choice in the repertoire, not with conductors like Barbirolli, Haitink, Solti, Rattle, Karajan, Abbado, Bernstein, and Mackerras so readily available on disc.


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