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Music-making of the highest caliber, March 29, 2006
Reviewer: Mike Goist (Cincinnati, Ohio)
Ironically, it takes a very mature musician/conductor to perform correctly Mahler's most youthful symphony. When compared to later symphonies, this first one has quite a large scope of musical material being presented in such a short amount of space. The sheer amount of colors, characters, styles, and emotions presented in this symphony may be daunting to a beginner, and even in the hands of a trained professional a performance could easily be doomed beyond repair even before the first movement has concluded. The problem with most interpretations is that this supposed mish mash of musical ideas eventually becomes either a writhing mass, lacking any clear structure or form (the average performance), or in rare cases the opposite - a work so structured on the micro level, so filled with show-stopping moments, that the elementary idea, the internal binding that is supposed to hold this music together, falls apart, and we are left with much the same thing as in the first scenario. Bernstein's Concertgebouw performance on DG is my favorite example of this second kind of disaster. Such a performance will no doubt become a popular success because all of the music seems to be there and in your face; the listener can grasp it easily. But in all actuality, such a rendering is nothing more than a series of moments crammed together, as if someone forced a whole bunch of unusual foods and household condiments into a blender and made a smoothie out of the mix - cool idea, but the taste would most likely be revolting.
Now back to the actual recording. Zander's rendition of Mahler's 1st is without a doubt the recording that MOST successfully integrates all of Mahler's singular ideas into a whole that makes complete sense from start to finish. I finally felt after listening to this recording that Mahler's idea had come across, that I had been given the correct information. Of course, this idea is rather abstract and each listener will interpret it differently, but it is there nevertheless, for all to see. Zander doesn't contrive anything and doesn't pull any tricks. In fact, he keenly observes and executes nearly all of what we see written in front of us. Dynamics, articulations, tempi - they're all there. On the rare occasion that Zander may stray from the score in any way (he honestly does not do it that often; I can only pick out a few places), it is always to satisfy the larger picture being presented, so the final word is essentially coming from Mahler anyway. (When Bernstein alters the score it's only to add another ingredient to his smoothie.) This isn't to say that there aren't laudable individual spots in the music - quite the opposite, in fact; this performance is chock-full of them. Just to name a few: the build-up to the climax at the end of the first movement is impressive (what a difference the ppp makes!), and the sheer brilliance of rustic artistry in the Klezmer band sections of the third movement is amazing. It's nice to hear the scherzo performed at exactly the tempo given (it says Kräftig bewegt anyway; you'd be crazy to perform it slowly). Additionally, Zander uses a good deal of rubato and flexibility of tempo (very authentic Mahlerian style) in appropriate places. As Grady Harp mentioned, this performance may seem over-the-top in its expression, but in Zander's eyes just the right amount of expression has been given as has been demanded by Mahler of the ensemble and of the music. And of course, the sheer versatility and flexibility required of an orchestra to pull off this symphony is daunting, so kudos to the Philharmonia Orchestra for once again pulling off a performance that is flawless technically AND musically. When the final product is turned in the effect is staggering beyond belief. I realized that I was finally hearing the sounds that had been resting dormant in the back of my head only the day before. I was finally hearing Mahler's symphony as Mahler possibly might have heard it (we will never know of course). At the end of my first listening I was moved to tears, partly because I had finally heard accuracy, but mostly because I had just been smacked in the face with such a powerful musical statement. I recommend this recording without hesitation. Now stop reading this pretentious essay and go give it a listen.

A Mahleresque Mahler First!, February 5, 2006
Reviewer: Grady Harp (Los Angeles, CA United States)
Benjamin Zander continues his survey of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler with an all stops out performance of the 'Titan', Mahler's great first symphony, which has been less recorded in the past decade than most of his other symphonies. Zander obeys all of Mahler's score markings, which means that when Mahler calls for extremes in dynamics or manipulation of phrasing, Zander is right there with him. For some this may feel excessive and too blatantly showy, but then consider the fact that this was indeed the first work of a composer who dwelled on passion and eruptive emotions and the concept makes great sense. The Philharmonia Orchestra plays its heart out for him and the recorded sound displays this highly theatrical, and for this listener, successful approach.

Zander couples this performance of the Titan with the 'Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen', beautifully sung by Christopher Maltman. Again, Zander goes for the angst and the drama and at times the emotion seem overstated, but just examine Mahler's notes on his score and realize this is the way the master instructed the work to be performed.

For a Mahler version of Mahler works, this CD is a breath of fresh air form the more transparent, underplayed, dignified approaches of some of the other fairly recent recordings. It is a pleasure to the senses. Highly Recommended. Grady Harp, February 06


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