I have to take issue with Mr. Redfearn in his review below. "Barbirolli not really renowned for his Mahler interpretations"? Sir John was more responsible than any other conductor (pace Bernstein and Horenstein) for the renaissance in interest in Mahler's music through the 50's and early 60's. Under his aegis, the Halle had all the symphonies with the exception of No.8 in their repertoire before any other orchestra in the world - with the possible exception of Mengelberg's Concertgebouw. I first heard Nos.1, 5 and 6 under his baton and vividly remember early performances of Nos. 2, 3 and 7 from those days, too. Recordings - all of them worth hearing, some of them definitive - exist of all the symphonies bar No.8, plus Das Lied plus all the major song-cycles. No, Mr. Redfearn, Mahler's current high reputation would probably not exist were it not for the committed proselytising of Sir John when it was deeply unfashionable to support, never mind play him.
As for this recording of the Fifth, it has long been a classic of the gramophone. And deservedly so. Despite being, these days, probably the most popular of all the Mahler symphonies, it is not at all easy to bring off well. Mahler' music was in a stage of transition from his Wunderhorn period to the bleaker world of Symphonies 6 & 7. Here in No.5 he was trying out his new-found confidence in counterpoint and fugal writing. Here, too, is a newly won ability to play amazing sleight-of-hand tricks with his harmonic modulations, especially in the infamous Adagietto.
Barbirolli has a matchless ability to combine passion and the full weight of Romantic angst with intellectual rigour. The centre of gravity in the two linked first movements in Sir John's hands is the intense Kindertotenlieder derived funeral march rather than the trumpet and brass flourishes of the opening. He reveals how close its kinship is with all those other Mahlerian funeral marches from the First Symphony's slow movement through to the profound development in the Ninth's opening movement. The Scherzo is just glorious in this recording - impertinent, quirky, idiosyncratic, rumbustious, stompingly pesante by turns. The Adagietto is perhaps a little self-indulgently broad by modern standards, but Sir John is a master of all its conjuring tricks of enharmonic modulation from key to unexpected key. The final rondo, like so many of Mahler's finales, is the toughest movement to bring off. Barbirolli manages its tricky combination of Wunderhorn sarcasm with contrapuntal dexterity and fugal rigour perfectly. When the main theme of the Adagietto reappears here in Till Eulenspiegel style dress, Sir John catches just the right note of perkiness. And, as the chorale - so rudely cut off in its prime in the second movement - bursts through to the electrifying coda, it seems no less than the fitting end to this glorious performance.