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Mahler Symphony No. 1

Reviews from

Music-making of the Highest Caliber by Mike Goist, (Cincinnati, Ohio), March 29, 2006

Ironically, it takes a very mature musician/conductor to perform correctly Mahler's most youthful symphony. When compared to later symphonies, the first has quite a large scope of musical material 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 even a trained professional, and many performances have easily fallen apart beyond repair even before the first movement has concluded. In most conductors' hands 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.

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 (it's remarkable how similar this recording is to Bruno Walter's classic accounts). I finally felt after listening to this recording that Mahler's idea had come across convincingly, that I had been given the correct information, in a sense. Of course, the idea that the symphony conveys 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 is written in the score. Dynamics, articulations, tempi are all there. On the VERY rare occasion that Zander may stray from the score in any way (honestly, it hardly ever happens), it is always to satisfy the larger picture being presented, so the final word is essentially coming from Mahler anyway. 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 realization of the ppp makes!), and the sheer brilliance of rustic artistry in the Klezmer band sections of the third movement is amazing. It's also nice to hear the scherzo performed at its rightful brisk tempo, as given. Additionally, Zander uses a good deal of rubato and flexibility of tempo (very authentic Mahlerian style) in appropriate places. As Grady Harp mentioned below, 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 I agree with Zander completely. 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 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 apologize for only touching briefly on the Songs of a Wayfarer. Christopher Maltman turns in a fine rendition, comparable to classic accounts from Fischer-Dieskau and others, as well as any modern renditions. Zander provides a balanced and colorful accompaniment, and he is very successful in presenting the symphony and the song cycle as kin, the way they should be.

Telarc provides excellent clear sound and balance, and the normally priced CD is well worth the money. I recommend this recording without hesitation.

Do we need another Mahler 1st? by Bryan G. Leech (Australia)

The years have seen possibly dozens of Mahler firsts, many outstanding (for example, the Chicago Symphony/Georg Solti - admittedly showing its age sonically), so do we need another? Recorded as an SACD, the answer is, most certainly YES! Mahler, amongst the greatest of composers, wrote with a mixture of great subtlety and great complexity, both of which can only be fully revealed by the tremendous clarity of good SACD recording, this clarity being aided by the expanded sound field of the six channels an SACD makes available (at a higher quality than DTS sound!).

We are faced with two entrants into the field: the performance under review, and another by the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas. Each recording is part of a continuing series that will culminate in a complete set of the symphonies of Mahler, and each recording, like the others already released, is an outstanding performance, superbly recorded.

To properly review this release would require a lengthy, detailed analysis of the performance, which would not be appropriate here. So all I can do is summarize and say that it represents a truly worthy entry into the SACD arena. The performance is up amongst the best. Zander has clearly thoroughly researched the score, fully understanding Mahler's intentions, and conveying this to his orchestra, one of the best in the world.

The trouble is, one can say much the same about the San Francisco performance. This orchestra, normally an excellent but parochial ensemble, has been raised by its conductor to top international level and virtually matches the Philharmonia. Although there are subtle differences between the two performances, both approaches are always valid. And the engineering is so similar in both clarity and discreet use of the available sound field, one could almost suspect that both recordings were made by the same production/engineering team, sonic differences being attributable to the slightly different acoustic of the recording venue.

So how do you choose between these performances, to both of which I can give an unreserved recommendation?

To the die-hard Mahlerite, I would recommend sampling both to find which one more closely matches your ideas about how the work should be performed.

But for most purchasers, the choice is easy. The Telarc release, as well as having the marginally better orchestra, includes, at no extra charge, a free 79 minute CD where the conductor discusses and analyses the work, with many musical illustrations.

Also, and this is a major also, the recording includes a complete performance by the same forces, accompanying the baritone Christopher Maltman, of 'Songs of a Wayfarer'. Although this is not the absolutely best performance available, it is still a very good one that would satisfy most listeners (including me). So, the choice becomes simple (although it wasn't for me: I'm buying both series!)

In summation: buy this and you will be getting an outstanding performance; oustanding engineering and outstanding value for money well spent.

A Mahleresque Mahler First! by Grady Harp (Los Angeles, CA), February 5, 2006

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.


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