MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 in c-sharp minor – Seoul Philharmonic Orch./ Myung-Whun Chung – DGG 481 154-0, 77:00 (9/25/15) [Distr. by Universal] ****: 

South Korean conductor Myung-Whun Chung (b. 1953) seems intent on building a repute for his Mahler interpretation, perhaps a dividend of his having served as assistant to Carlo Maria Giulini in Los Angeles in the late 1970s. This recording of the “fateful” Fifth Symphony (22-23 May 2014) emphasizes the color possibilities of Chung’s Seoul ensemble, beginning with the trumpet solo (Alexandre Baty) that has its own relationship to the climax of the G Major’s Symphony’s first movement. An experiment in strictly orchestral terms, the 1904 symphony marked Mahler’s first real confrontation of his own mortality, which he would often mimic by asymmetrical rhythmic pulses in the course of his musical evolution. The “song-cycle” lyricism has been usurped by a severity in style and tone, and a new architecture emerges often “justified” as “progressive tonality.”

After a grim funeral march that sets the tone for Part I – with its occasional moments of bitter-sweet reflection – we become immersed in a tormented vision of Mahler’s interior life, often as stormy as any descent into Dante’s spiritual abyss. If the “human comedy” has anything “divine” in it, it may lie in the anguished chorale in trombones and trumpets – with hints of “Rheingold!” from Wagner – that emerges near the coda of the second movement. Chung remains alert to the interior and bass lines of Mahler’s labyrinthine canvas, especially when the urges to march and to sigh become relentless. The Scherzo movement assumes a Nietzschean ethos – almost Eastern – in its sense of its synoptic, Manichean embrace of life’s paradox in the form of a cosmic dance, both Austrian laendler and Viennese waltz.  The ensuing combination of grace and vulgarity virtually defines the Mahler sensibility. The transparency of color Chung achieves more than establishes his connection to a tradition that extends back through to Giulini to Walter and Mengelberg. Mengelberg himself would approve of the slick string slide Chung effects in the last ternary section of the Adagietto. We might invoke the names of Konoye  and Akiyama as potent names in the Mahler tradition who share an Eastern sensibility. The brilliant French horn part resounds heroically, courtesy of Martin van de Merwe.

We are reminded that Willem Mengelberg, for all of his devotion to Mahler, only inscribed the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, rather than its entirety.  An exquisite moment of repose, it expresses a love song for the composer’s wife Alma and for eternity itself, in the form of a serenade for harp and strings. In F Major, it alludes to the “gaze” motif from Wagner’s Tristan. The Adagietto and its subsequent Rondo-Finale provide Part III of this huge psycho-drama, in which the last movement celebrates and parodies its own seriousness.  The intensity of Mahler’s counterpoint, his vacillation in tonality – between B and D – and barrage of deceptive cadences testify to a gallows humor operative even in the midst of a pantheistic vision. Chung has embraced the contradictions in Mahler’s character with a glowing sympathy, vividly burnished in sound captured by recording engineer Wolf-Dieter Karwatky.  Highly recommended!

—Gary Lemco