MAHLER: Symphony No. 5
Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich/Sir Georg Solti
Decca: 475 915-3

This was Solti’s last performance in a concert hall. It dates from July, 1997. Solti died just a few months later. It was released last year to commemorate the tenth anniversary of his death. Fittingly, Solti’s first-ever recordings as a conductor had been made with this same Swiss orchestra in 1948.

Solti had a well-deserved reputation as a Mahler conductor and this is a fine performance. Even in his eighty-fifth year Solti was a wonderful conductor. Some of the old intensity was somewhat reduced in his later years but for many listeners that was an asset. In his prime Solti was apt to overwhelm the listener with volume and over-emphasis. As the years went by this feature of his music-making became less pronounced. To the end Solti was an exacting taskmaster with the orchestras he conducted but there was often more subtlety and relaxation too, especially where it was needed and appropriate.

The Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich has always been a first-rate orchestra and under its current music director David Zinman it seems to be enjoying a golden age. For Solti they play with the greatest expression and commitment. The principal trumpet deserves special recognition in the first movement. The only real problem with this recording is that it is Solti’s third recording of the work and the other two were made with the Chicago Symphony. Just seven years earlier, in November, 1990, Decca recorded Solti and the CSO in concert in the Musikverein in Vienna (Decca: 433 329-2). The playing is so good it almost defies description.

In all three recordings Solti’s approach to the piece is essentially the same in matters of tempo and phrasing. Compared to some other conductors (e.g. Karajan or Bernstein) Solti tended to favor quick tempos. He didn’t indulge himself even in the Adagietto. And in the finale he took an ideal tempo for Mahler’s marking: Allegro giocoso. Frisch. It should be fun and it should be exhilarating, and in Solti’s hands it truly is.

To my mind most orchestras and conductors run into trouble in this last movement in handling the admittedly very complex contrapuntal episodes between statements of the chorale tune. These episodes are fiendishly difficult, especially for the strings, and it frequently happens that rhythm falters and the momentum is lost. There is a touch of that in the Tonhalle performance. It is hardly the same piece as played by the CSO under Solti. The most demanding passages are mere child’s play for these musicians. The rhythms are crisp, intonation near-perfect, and the virtuosity incredible. And the climaxes when they come are overwhelming. I would prefer Solti to pull back the tempo a little more for the final statement of the chorale after letter 33 – it is marked Pesante after all – but again the quality of the playing is so good one should only sit back in open-mouthed amazement.

I have recently been watching the 4-DVD set issued by Decca under the title Sir Georg Solti: the Maestro. This box contains mostly performances by Solti and the CSO from the 1970s. They are fantastic and capture for posterity one of the great conductor-orchestra collaborations. But Solti and the CSO playing Mahler in Vienna in 1990 are equally memorable and not to be missed. Solti admirers will welcome documentation of his last concert but one of the best Mahler Fifths any conductor and orchestra ever gave is the 1990 concert from Vienna.

Reminder: A Solti Discography is included in my book Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. IUniverse, 2006.