Mahler • Symphony No.5

The New Philharmonia Orchestra; Sir John Barbirolli conducting
EMI Angel AA8681-82/Esoteric ESSE 90057
Hybrid SACD



by Roy Gregory | March 2, 2012

arbirolli’s Mahler 5 was recorded for EMI at Watford Town Hall in July 1969, a scant year before the conductor's death, a fact that brings added poignance to his compelling and deeply personal reading. Add in superb sound from engineers Stagg and Eltham and you have the ingredients for one of the most enduring monuments of the recorded classical repertoire. Almost universally well regarded to this day, it was originally released on two separate LPs [EMI ASD 2518 and 2519], the second one backed by the five Rückert songs (with Janet Baker as soloist), although it’s most often seen as a two-record box [EMI SLS 785] from the Stereo Library Series, the version I have. A hugely successful recording that remained in the full-price catalogue for years, decent secondhand copies are not hard to find, although early pressings are scarce and can command high prices.

Nice then to see an equipment manufacturer putting their money where their mouth is and getting behind some quality software: Esoteric, long-time champions of the SACD format and hardware, including their own high-end transport mechanism, have been quietly reissuing great classical recordings on a limited-edition basis. The vast majority of the hybrid discs are snapped up in Japan, which doesn’t share the Western ambivalence towards SACD, putting these discs firmly in the grab-them-while-you-can category. Richard Foster reviewed their reissue of the brilliant Mravinsky/Leningrad readings of the Tchaikovsky Symphonies back at the start of 2011 and loved what he heard. That was a case of great performances where previous releases were marred by poor recording or pressing quality. They may not have represented Deutsche Grammophon’s finest hour, but Esoteric more than rose to the challenge. You might not be able to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but at least you can clean it up and give it a close shave!

The Barbirolli Mahler 5 -- much loved, even revered -- offers an entirely different challenge. The risk lies in disappointing the legions of fans who already own the original on vinyl and want a decent digital copy, or own the CD and are expecting better. So what have Esoteric wrought? Well, sadly the content is limited to the symphony itself and doesn’t include the Rückert-Lieder, but other than that it’s hard to criticize. Barbirolli eschews the bombastic drama that typifies so many performances of the Fifth. With all that brass and percussion firepower on call, it must be hard to resist using it, but his more measured tempi bring a reflective, expansive quality to the work, which is all about restraint and power in reserve. The massive crescendos are all the more towering as a result, and this recording captures them perfectly.

The SACD might not match the LP for sheer body and presence, but the massive forces and complex orchestral layering might have been written for the format. The ghostly black, grainless background reveals texture and detail that escapes the LP. Right from the opening fanfare, the way it echoes back from the far wall of the hall, you are never in any doubt about the size, shape or extent of the acoustic space. The bass is room-shakingly powerful, but again it enjoys greater separation and definition than it does on the LP -- perhaps reflective of the playback hardware as much as the software itself.

This is a mightily impressive sonic performance that does so much more than simply justify Esoteric’s faith in the SACD format. This is magnificent music, wonderfully served and worthy of a place in any collection. Like I said, grab it while you can!

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