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MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 – Vienna Philharmonic Orch./ Leonard Bernstein – DGG (2 vinyls)

MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 – Vienna Philharmonic Orch./ Leonard Bernstein – Deutsche Grammophon 479580-7, 64 mins. remastered vinyl (2 discs), (3/25/16) *****:

Mahler’s Fifth spread over two 33 vinyls…

If you’re a vinyl freak and need massive orchestral recordings to show how loud you can play without exploding your portion of the known universe, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is a good place to start. And Leonard Bernstein’s live performance with the Vienna Philharmonic in September 1987, which was always like mainlining the whole Mahler experience in just over an hour, is even more so a mind-bending experience now that the grooves have expanded onto two 180g vinyl LPs.

Everything is bigger than life, dynamic range is wider, textures are denser and more Technicolor, and in the pivotal first movement, the terrifying Funeral March with the trumpet of death playing what Tom Morgan’s excellent liner notes call “a repeated tattoo,” Bernstein is two to three minutes slower than any of the competition, like a beast slouching from the Opera House in Frankfurt am Main, where the performance took place. It is immense.

Curiously, Bernstein’s speeds, first movement apart, and general joyous yet angst-ridden demeanor match the essential outlines if not the heavyweight emotional investment of modern, less emotionally-drenched inheritors like Gustavo Dudamel, whose recording with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela comes only on CD.

The sound on the LPs, despite having tremendous size and impact, sound after a while as if they were digitally sourced, which they were. It is a perplexing dilemma. There is a competing vinyl set on Audite from Rafael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. It is a completely different experience which I value highly for its broader, more relaxed and yet more simply beautiful take. It doesn’t, however, have the visceral impact of the Bernstein – for systems that can handle it.

The 2 LPs come shrink-wrapped in the double fold sleeve that was customary at the time, wth “Digital Recording” tipped in at the top right corner of the front cover. The surfaces were reasonably silent, and benefited marginally from a cleaning machine; there was what may be ambient noise from the hall. As an added bonus, the LPs come with a voucher entitling the holder to download “the digital audio files of the full album for free.”

I listened to this at Venice Audio with Peter Selesnick on a Rega RP10 turntable fitted with an Apheta cartridge and Aria phono stage; a Naim Audio NAC 272 Streaming Preamp (streamer/DAC/ preamp) and NAP 250 DR power amp; and Harbeth Super HL5 Plus speakers.

—Laurence Vittes

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