CDs / DVDs, 28. November 2003
5 Sterne (höchste Wertung)

I bought this with my fingers crossed, - unreviewed, a live recording (not my usual cup of tea), Holland's third orchestra and a relatively (internationally) unknown conductor. My fingers are now uncrossed, - this is a "bit of a find", - an excellent, exciting performance captured in splendid sound.
I've long thought that this work has been distorted by association with Mann's Novella and Visconti's film of "Death in Venice" and as a result has been over-adagified (listen to Abbado's Chicago recording to hear what I mean). But when he wrote this (in the Austrian countryside, nowhere near Venice) Mahler was at about the happiest point in his life, - 42 and just met Alma, and before the tragedies immortalised in the Sixth. And, although it's "in C minor" the 5th works towards an optimistic, blazing, D major ending.

So it's terrific to hear Haenchen and his players present a vigorous, virile performance which strips some 8 minutes off Barbirolli and Bernstein (the VPO version), including a minute off the Adagietto. I still love the Barbirolli - nobody does dark radiance and sheer humanity better - and although I've owned the first Bernstein and the Philips' Haitink my other favourite is the second Bernstein, with the Vienna Philharmonic, who have this work in their blood and whose strings are simply the crème de la crème (as Miss Jean Brodie would have said). Sadly, my copy has been languishing in a box in a shed in Alice Springs for the past three years (while the Barbirolli has kept me company) but my memories of it are strong

If, in the final analysis, Haenchen's account, in striving to be scrupulously clean and whole, ends up lacking some of that visceral punch, the "wow" that Bernstein delivers, he is still exciting and involving (but objective at the same time, - a difficult balancing act, reminding me a little of Haitink).

The sound supports the performance gloriously. It was recorded using Polyhemia's (i.e. Pentatone's) custom-designed and built recorder, microphone pre-amps and mic. buffer electronics with DPA 4006 and Neumann KM 130 mics routed directly into a DCS DSD AD converter and a Studer 962 mixer. The result is bloody good. The soundstage is wide and realistic, the sound itself warm but clear and, although I (only) listen in stereo, the acoustic is captured brilliantly. At one point there's a door-noise in the hall and even on two speakers you can place it as being behind you, at the right and the rear of the hall. My guess is that the surround mix will be superb.

The sound makes the Netherlands strings sound as present as the Viennese (no mean compliment). Kettle drum and other percussion and clear and sharp but also deep and thunderous. At times the brass seemed a bit reticent, but you gradually notice that that is always when they need to maintain a proportionate relationship with the strings. When needed, as in the glorious chorale like peroration that closes the Symphony, they sound brilliant and bold.

A minor complaint is that whilst the instantaneous applause is well-deserved (for the performance, - just attention seeking for some audience members) I would have preferred a second or two's (sampled) silence to be inserted to allow me to let out my breath and relax (like a stunned mullet) before it came in and I joined in.

And another note of irritation, - this is a performance which strips away the externally-imposed distortions of Mann's and Visconti's Venetian associations so why the hell did the cover-artists have to go and plaster the case and booklet with pictures of bloody Venice ???!!!! Zero stars for artistic comprehension and marketing to the graphics boys.

But, with an excellent reading as well as a fine performance with great sound, five stars to Haenchen and the Netherlands Orchestraand to producer/engineer Erdo Groot. Not 5 stars with an "extra-special something" Rosette, like the Bernstein, but a very good disc in its own right.

P. SIMPSON (North Yorkshire, United Kingdom)