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Mahler's First Symphony

James Leonard, All Music Guide

Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia's recording of Mahler's "First Symphony" coupled with his "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen" sung by baritone Christopher Maltman is not only the best Mahler's First in decades, it is one of the great recorded performances. Yes, sometimes it is almost a little bit too much. The parody woodwinds in the music do get close to vulgarity in the slow movement, and the sweeping strings of the finale's second theme are just this side of movie music. But surely they are defensible in view of the expressive markings in Mahler's score, and, more importantly, they are justified by the wonderfully expressive lyricism of the opening movements and by the incredibly explosive drama of the finale's development and recapitulation. Indeed, sometimes being a little bit too much is the essence of Mahler's irony and tragedy, and one gets the sense that Zander understands this and encourages his musicians to go beyond merely playing the music to flat-out performing it. This is a full-blooded and fully human performance, ardent, impetuous, brave, sometimes a little silly, but it is, above all, a great performance, a performance with the same compulsive, compelling quality of the classic recordings by Walter, Kubelík, and Tennstedt. Certainly, Christopher Maltman grasps the essence of Mahler's irony and tragedy, and his interpretations of Mahler's youthful song cycle is as expressive, as lyrical, as dramatic, and as occasionally just about but not quite over the top as Zander's. Telarc's sound is ideal: detailed but evocative, warm but cool, big but not too close.


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