Review: Tour of Mahler's 'Symphony No. 1'
MARTIN STEINBERG, Associated Press Writer, Oct 24, 2005
Benjamin Zander, Mahler "Symphony No. 1", "Songs of a Wayfarer" (Telarc)
One down, three to go.
Conductor Benjamin Zander's recording of Mahler's First Symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra brings him one step closer to completion of his unique cycle of Mahler's symphonies.
Many other conductors have recorded them, but Zander stands high above the Alpine clouds. His series includes an explanatory CD in which he unshrouds some of the mysteries behind the tormented composer's revolutionary music. Like recorded walking guides at art museums, Zander's ear-opening commentaries take the listener on a tour.
In this recording, Zander couples the symphony with the "Songs of a Wayfarer", whose themes are incorporated into the larger work. The songs, sung by baritone Christopher Maltman with exceptional clarity and great feeling, tell of the composer's failed romance with a singer who was noticed more for her striking blond hair and blue eyes than for her voice. In the first song, for example, the composer laments about the saddest day of his life — the day his beloved married someone else.
Despite the wayfarer's despondent themes, the symphony ultimately is a journey of triumph. It starts with the nothing less than the dawn of creation, depicted by an amorphous seven-octave A, the note to which orchestras tune. "It is the tuning of the universe", Zander says. "It's as if at the beginning of the symphony God turns up the volume just a tiny bit."
The listener soon encounters the sounds of the forest — a cuckoo, hunting horns — before the cellos play the joyous theme of the second song. Other denizens of the late-19th century Austro-Hungarian Empire later appear — military bands, gypsy bands, klezmer musicians, street musicians. The third movement sets the folk song "Frere Jacques" in a minor key, depicting a funeral. The final movement, Zander says, is a great battle against the status quo. It opens with a dissonant chord that Mahler called "an outcry of a deeply wounded heart", not unlike Beethoven's "cry of terror" that opens that composer's Ninth Symphony, Zander says.
Mahler's task, Zander says, "was to tell the truth about himself without compromise, without flinching. And from an abundance of creative energy and a life lived to the full to a degree that probably few people have ever known, he revealed himself as the most human of heroes, struggling relentlessly against the philistinism of the commonplace, transporting all those with the ears to hear into a world of musical beauty, truth and idealism unlike anything that had existed before him."
After the CD is released Tuesday, all that's left for Zander's series is the Second, Seventh and the mammoth Eighth. Zander says he may skip Mahler's unfinished 10th, but he does hope to record "Das Lied von der Erde."
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