Gergiev has been a learn-as-you-go conductor of Mahler, and despite his immense gifts, in the early stretches there were rough spots and a general sense that as a Russian, he was an outsider to this music. This live Fifth Sym. is a late arrival in the LSO Mahler cycle from two years ago -- now we have only the Ninth to go on CD. Lately Gergiev's approval rating has soared in this repertoire, with raves from even once-doubtful London and New York critics. The problem with being a ubiquitous, inexhaustible superstar like Gergiev is that it gives some reviewers pleasure to knock you for no good reason. What one hears on this CD is intense, varied, and totally engaged Mahler of the kind I love when it comes from Bernstein and Tennstedt. They both gave the impression of complete involvement, and as a result, the music means something.
This performance also means something. Not a bar is played without passionate attack. Having heard the work under Gergiev in concert, I can testify that it's an experience that leaves the audience exhausted. One can only imagine the cost to the conductor to stay this focused for an hour (and in his guise as superman, Gergiev has lately taken to scoring a second Mahler symphony after intermission). The LSO plays with virtuosity and astonishing communication; the sound form LSO Live is close up, with resounding bass and an overall visceral impact to rival any other Fifth I know.
As far as outlining the interpretation, what makes Gergiev stand out isn't anything unusual in his tempos or balances. He captures the funereal quality of the first movement with dramatic astuteness. the Adagietto is given a quiet, reflective reading, neither fast nor slow at a timing of 10:34, but made effective in contrast to the tumult that came before by being so inward and nuanced. We need this break in order not to be completely wrung out before the finale, and one is reminded that Gergiev is at his very best when phrasing soft, slow musicThe finale itself has always been a puzzle, with its seemingly light-hearted (or shallow?) exercises in counterpoint. Gergiev doesn't try to make more of it than t is, and here perhaps he could have displayed more imagination. I hear more from Rudolf Schwarz, Claudio Abbado in his remake from Berlin, and Simon Rattle, also from Berlin. Yet Gergiev's lighter, more frazioso approach is lovely on its own terms.
This is a gripping, very personal Mahler fifth that ranks among the very best; if you have never heard Gergiev's Mahler, there's no better place to start.