Mahler 5 by Wyn Morris and the Symphonica of London

by Glenn on January 3, 2015

awkward tempos in
an abundance of reverb
this was very odd

I was awake early, so I thought I would christen the New Year with a little Mahler. Two nights ago I found a “new to me” Mahler 5 by Wyn Morris and the Symphonica of London in the used section at Music Millennium when I took my nieces to visit two Portland classics: Powell’s Books and Music Millennium.

Cover art for Mahler's Fifth Symphony performed by Wyn Morris and The London Symphonica

I wasn’t familiar with either the orchestra or the conductor and suspected it might be a little risky, but you do try to be mindful of that aphorism, “We don’t see things as they are, but as we are,” so I came with an open mind and expectations in the arena of wanting to exult in a great piece of music and hear a new take on a favorite work.

But this was strange. More in a moment.

The whole transmission process of Mahler’s music is fascinating to me. Mahler put notes on paper and musicians come along and offer a rendering we then hear of what they see and create together. A recording adds a layer to the process so that this morning I heard a facsimile of a 1973 performance of music that Mahler wrote in the early 1900’s.

By way of analogy, ask some people who are good at reading out loud to read Psalm 23. Each rendering is going to be different. For starters, you’ve got accents and pacing and timbre and resonance and the balancing of consonants and vowels. And then each reader necessarily will, in their own way, be between the written words and our experience of hearing them. There’s no way to get past the fact that you are hearing someone read Psalm 23. That person is going to be there, but how they are there is where it gets really interesting and perhaps quite subjective because each reader will read differently and each of us as listeners will, for a variety of reasons, react to each reader and reading experience differently. And then we can have glorious arguments about who read better and worse, which readers were moving and weren’t, who conveyed the meaning and who was in the way. To make things more complicated, listen to recordings of these readers each made by a different person. Now you have a whole other element to deal with.

One of the reasons I enjoy hearing different performances of Mahler’s music is because I like to think about these issues.

I will need to listen to this Wyn Morris Mahler 5 again with a score. I feel like I’ve heard enough performances to have a basic understanding of the broad parameters for the way various conductors and orchestras handle the tempos. This performance feels very much like an outlier.

The first movement isn’t surprising except for the way it is recorded. The strings are very present and clear but the horns sound like they are in a completely different sort of resonance, like they are playing on the other side of the room or at least as though they are in a large room with nothing behind them to reflect the sound back. It seems they are in full throttle mode whenever they are playing. The cellos play with a lot of intensity, too. It sounds like they are nearly buzzing when they play.

(One of the things I wish would accompany a recording is notes from the recording engineer including a map of the recording room indicating where the orchestra was located and where the microphones were set up.)

It was in the second movement that my eyebrows went up and I began to wonder what was going on. The first two movements are meant to be a slow—fast counterpoint to each other. But the faster second movement is just kind of inexplicably ponderous in this version.

The third movement has some tempo choices that I don’t think I’ve heard any other conductor get close to. (It’s too hard to explain. Maybe I can begin to include audio examples. Something to learn in 2015.)

Clocking in at 8’11”, the fourth movement is among the quickest in my collection. This isn’t necessarily bad and may be more historically correct. (His tempos are just slightly faster than Bruno Walter’s 1947 performance with the New York Philharmonic.) For some reason (that may have nothing to do with the conductor) there is a long pause before the last movement.

The fifth movement builds to a noisy and triumphant conclusion, which is what you were looking for when you picked this CD up to listen to this morning. It is full-throated and exhuberant. No complaints here.

I tried to find some reviews to gauge my reactions. I found one here by David Nice:

Not for Adagietto-wallowers: Morris’s passionate sprint through that famous slow movement is the oddest thing in this most commanding and self-willed of performances. The rest burns in slow motion, close to the centre of Mahler’s earth. From a very public funeral (no softer dynamics in earshot) to the ferociously articulate, brink-of-disaster finale, the intensity of the playing is unremitting. Mad and bad, in a sense, but certainly rewarding to know. A special case at any price.

Wyn Morris died in 2010. Here is an obituary.

I can’t recommend this recording (available from here) except to say it is interesting listening. Wyn Morris appears to be the kind of conductor who wants you to know that he is conducting. He’s not grunting and groaning, but he is most definitely in control.