For years, I had resisted getting into Mahler's music despite being so fond of the music of virtually all of his contemporaries in the late 19th/early 20th centuries (Sibelius, Nielsen, Strauss, Suk, Rachmaninov, etc.). I now realize that there is something in many Mahler performances that, though clearly part of Mahler's musical language, need not be emphasized: mania and angst. It is precisely these two elements that have not appealed to me and, due to their understated presence in this recording of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, this is what has endeared me to this recording. Conductor James DePreist, who died in 2013, was the nation's leading African-American conductor, but he needs no special pleading since his musicality speaks for itself. Here, with the great London Symphony Orchestra at his disposal, he leads a polished, refined and Romantic reading of this great symphony (Mahler's purely musical, non-programmatic symphony) that will have its fan and detractors. Count me among the fans.
DePreist does not exaggerate Mahler's expressiveness; he lets the music speak for itself. The first two movements boast stunningly virtuosic playing by the LSO, and the second in particular is enormously exciting. Anyone who tells you this is a dull performance has not listened to the entire thing. The third movement scherzo, though taken slow, is actually quite beautiful. I enjoyed its entire duration, and did not feel that it dragged too much. (Compare that to Michael Tilson Thomas's account.) The famous slow fourth movement is as moving as I have ever heard it. The LSO strings really shine here. The finale brings us back to the terrain of the second movement. The brass section in particular really shines here. The coda is not in any way hampered by DePreist's retard that some have complained about.
This Naxos CD also features some of the most vivid sound quality I have ever heard on a compact disc, irrespective of price point. The LSO is in truly top form throughout, and DePreist's decision to underplay the angst and not highlight the mania pays off for those who, like me, don't feel that Mahler needs those elements to be underscored. (But of course they are still present even in DePreist's reading: that was Mahler's compositional style, and it is just a matter of emphasizing it or not.) So for those who have been on the fence about buying a Mahler recording for the reasons I outlined, you can do no better than this recording. You may decide to pursue Mahler further after enjoying this CD.