©1983 Mark B. Anstendig

Arguments as to the meaning of this symphony have raged since it was first performed. Mahler insisted that it should be heard just as music, without a program. While I tend to agree more with Mahler than with any program I have read, there are some things to be cleared up about how the symphony should be played. The music is, above all, very human. There is not a harsh sound in the symphony, and it should be played lyrically. In the first two movements, the music is quite phantasmagorical in nature, but that does not mean that it should be played fast and harsh, as is usually the case. The world of imaginative sounds that Mahler has created was meant to be heard and savored, not rushed past our ears as quickly as possible, as in most performances. Even in the loudest passages, Mahler has composed astonishingly finely and delicately differentiated sounds. The orchestra must retain its composure and retain just as much delicacy in the louder passages as in the softest ones. This is not usually the case, as anyone familiar with the currently available recordings knows. The music is usually played as an exercise in how loud, fast, and brilliantly an orchestra can play, rather than in a warmly differentiated manner in which every tone is expressively played with love and understanding. When it is thus played, this symphony becomes one of the greatest, most human experiences ever conceived by man.

In the Fourth Symphony Mahler shows that there really is no heaven as it is usually imagined, and that life on earth is far more interesting and diverse than a disembodied heaven could ever be. In the Fifth Symphony he gives us an idea of the vast possibilities of human experience on earth, from the grotesque and macabre, through the meditative, to the buoyantly childlike.

The first three movements take us through myriad emotional experiences both positive and negative (actually, more "fantastic" than "negative"). The music becomes more and more human, reaching a state of meditative reflection in the slow Adagietto that takes on the almost unbearable sweetness of a truly "caring", attentive human being and turns into the expression of babies at play in the last movement. Interestingly, this progression of expressive attitudes, from those of the adult to those of the ingenuous baby, is essentially that which occurs as the tensions of the adult body relax in their natural order as, for example, in classic meditational disciplines and stress-reducing relaxation techniques. Sobering moments are interspersed throughout the work, warning us to keep our detachment and not to lose ourselves in the proceedings, hinting that something even greater is going to happen. In fact, it almost does happen in the second movement when the orchestra breaks out in a stunning passage which dies down without resolving itself. This passage could almost be experienced as a vision of God, or, rather, a vision of the Divine overseeing His Creation. The same passage returns at the end of the symphony. The last movement is modeled in a very unusual manner after the final movement of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony which is a massive double fugue that extends the possibilities of formal counterpoint to their limits. But Mahler breaks with formality and writes free counterpoint that, in effect, extends the possibilities even further. Interestingly, Mahler does not try to match Bruckner in grandness or seriousness, but makes the movement ingenuously childlike and playful. This ingenuous, baby like quality, which affirms the transcendence of human qualities, is profound and imposing because the ending obviously is a vision of God and one is welcomed into His arms, so to speak, with tenderness, love and real playfulness coupled with a slight tinge of sadness. The very last bars add a "Peck's bad boy" (but lovable) quality.

On recordings, Sir John Barbirolli is the only conductor who has understood this music and managed to achieve the requisite delicacy of expression, even in the loudest passges. The tempos are slower than usual because every note sings and the music unfolds rather than rushing by. The famous Adagietto  achieves complete meditative stillness (which is equaled by only one other recording, that of the Adagietto alone, by Paul Kletzki with the Philharmonia Orchestra, a filler for Das Lied Von Der Erde). The last movement is totally relaxed and as sweet as a baby in expression. When one has digested this performance, particularly the last movement, one will be amazed at how far off-base other conductors have been with their fast tempos and heroic bluster.

The problem with this performance is getting to hear it. There is not the slightest bit of harshness or heroics in the playing, so if you hear anything harshly or heroically there is something wrong. Check your sound-system, your listening habits, or both. If you are already familiar with the symphony in other conventionally misinterpreted performances, you will probably have a hard time relaxing enough to hear the expression in this one. But relaxing is the key to being able to hear it.

The music has to be equalized, if one wants to hear the mellowness of the performance. The equalization is typical: a large cut ca 2000-4000 Hz, progressively smaller cuts ca 600¬1000 Hz and ca 125-160 Hz. A cut in the lower bass will probably also be necessary and some touchup (cut) just below these frequency ranges. Extreme highs (above 5000 Hz) are not overly pronounced and may not need any cut.

Mahler Symphony Number 5
Sir John Barbirolli and The New Philharmonia Orchestra





The Anstendig Institute is a non-profit research and educational institute that studies the vibrational influences in our environment, particularly those of sight and sound, and how they affect sensory perception. Its papers on sound reproduction, problems of focusing in photography, psychology of hearing and seeing, and erratic vibrational influences that affect our lives are widely distributed throughout the world. All are available free of charge.