Out-of-town orchestras offer Mahler symphony blowouts at Carnegie Hall on a more or less weekly basis. This season we're getting two Fourths, two Fifths, a Sixth, two Lieder von der Erde, and a Tenth Adagio. There is no greater bummer than a mediocre runthrough of this most emotionally unstinting of composers, so it was reassuring to hear the excellent Fifth that the Chicago Symphony put out on Saturday night. Daniel Barenboim, not known for conducting Mahler, supplied a freshness of vision that other conductors seldom retain on their twentieth or fiftieth traversal of the score. Tempos were well chosen throughout; the Adagietto was slightly on the rapid side, but rich in feeling. Passages such as "Leidenschaftlich Wild" in the first movement ("crazy horny") packed a lot of force, but didn't go over the top. Barenboim's intelligent handling of dynamics was crucial. So too was the incredible precision of the legendary Chicago brass, who got a well-deserved rock-star reception during the ovation. They still shine like a phalanx in the sun, as they did in the Solti era, but they now have more mellowness and nobility. No coarseness, no blaring. Christopher Martin seems like a worthy successor to Chicago's longtime lead trumpeter Adolph Herseth. Dale Clevenger gave a sustained lesson in truly great horn playing. Pedantic example of the art of control: when, in the return to Tempo I in the first movement, the tuba goes down to a low-low G-sharp, a fade to pp was carefully observed; often tubists can't resist the temptation to blat forth that lowest note. As in every performance I've lately heard, the third and fifth movements sagged in the middle; players need to have more fun with this music, grasp its essential absurdity. The solemn symphonic ritual should turn into a zany pops concert. First half: Schoenberg Variations. Edgy, ungainly, not the velvet-lined Schoenberg that James Levine supplies on demand.
What's the best Mahler Fifth on CD? I guess I'd pick Bernstein's DG recording. But I'm still fond of the disc which was my introduction to the piece, and which was also my first CD — Giuseppe Sinopoli's then brand-new 1985 recording with the Philharmonia. It's now available only as part of a box set.
Clarification: "Crazy horny" is a joke translation. "Passionately wild" would be more accurate, as Daniel Wolf observes.