Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (XRCD24/K2 review)

Carlo Maria Giulini, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Hi-Q Records HIQXRCD35.

Maestro Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005) was among the most elegant, most sophisticated, most refined conductors the world of classical music has ever known. He was, however, also among the last conductors I would have considered a top choice in the Mahler First Symphony, a youthful, zealous, even ostentatious work. It always seemed to me that Giulini's style better suited the music of Mozart, Verdi, Debussy, Brahms, Schumann, and the like, than to Mahler, and that we were better off leaving Mahler's outgoing music to someone more like Georg Solti. But what do I know? I had never heard Giulini's Mahler First before, so I approached listening to this audiophile-remastered, 1971 EMI recording from Hi-Q Records with some small degree of hesitation, even trepidation. I should not have.

Whatever, let's start with some background on the music itself. As you no doubt know, Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) premiered his Symphony No. 1 in D major in 1889, saying at first it was a five-movement symphonic poem and, at least temporarily, being persuaded to give it the name "Titan." Before long, though, he revised it to the familiar four-movement piece we know today and dropped the "Titan" designation. The work became especially popular in the mid-to-late 1950's, the beginning of the stereo age, probably because with its large orchestra, soaring melodies, enormous impact, and dramatic contrasts the symphony makes a spectacular listening experience, and it became an ideal way for audiophiles to show off their newly acquired stereo systems. And we can't forget that the First is one of Mahler's shortest symphonies, making it an ideal length for home listening.

In the Symphony No. 1 Mahler said he was trying to describe his protagonist facing life, beginning with the lighter moments of youth and proceeding to the darker years of maturity. In the first movement, then, "Spring without End," we see Mahler's young hero as a part of the symbolic stirring of Nature before a long spring. In the second-movement Scherzo, "With Full Sail," we find Mahler in one of his mock-sentimental moods, displaying an exuberance that he may have meant as ironic. In the third movement we get an intentionally awkward funeral march depicting a hunter's fairy-tale burial, which comes off as a typical Mahler parody. It might represent the hero's first glimpse of death or maybe Mahler's own recollection of a youthful encounter with the death of a loved one. With Mahler, who knows. The movement has long been one of the composer's most controversial, and audiences still debate just what he was up to. Then, in the finale, Mahler conveys the panic "of a deeply wounded heart," as his central figure faces the suffering of life and fate. Still, because Mahler was a spiritual optimist, he wanted Man to triumph in the end. Therefore, in the final twenty minutes or so Mahler pulls out all the stops and puts the orchestra into full swing.

Carlo Maria Giulini
So, what does Giulini do with all this? Quite a lot, actually. Contrary to my worry that Giulini's demeanor might sound too polished and sophisticated for the work, his performance is mostly vibrant and alive, though not to excess. Although he keeps tempos on the modest side, he nevertheless creates a healthy degree of excitement in an interpretation as big, bold, and exhilarating as most any you'll find, yet with nothing false about it, nothing done for show alone. More important, Giulini projects the more-sensitive elements of the score with intensity, without over sentimentalizing them.

Giulini's reserved manner serves him well in the atmospheric introductory moments of the symphony, as spring awakens. From there, the conductor's innate poetic vision takes over, and the first movement has a sweet sense of beauty and repose leading to a vigorous conclusion.

Under Giulini the second movement seemed initially a touch slack to me, but it picks up as it goes along, and there's an attractive sweetness in the overall line. The funeral march, too, seemed at first a pinch underpowered, yet as with the second movement it's Giulini's way to build incrementally, and he does so with a satisfactorily mounting tension. Then the conductor opens the final movement with the huge burst of noise we know so well, and it is effective enough in startling us from the melancholy of the funeral march. Furthermore, Giulini again handles the lyrical sections with an easy lilt, the big Romantic melody blooming nicely, and he ends the score on an appropriately happy and positive note.

If I have any small reservation about Giulini's reading, though, it's that from time to time he tends to fall into a fairly conservative, somewhat studied rhythm rather than letting the momentum carry the day. In other words, the flow of the music occasionally seems impeded by Giulini's tendency to become too careful and slow the pace to a rather steady, predictable, and clocklike gait. Maybe the conductor lets his own sense of propriety get in the way of Mahler's exuberance, where a little more spontaneity might have been the order of the day. Despite this relatively small concern, however, Giulini's is an enlightened, heartfelt interpretation, full of passion and zest, if on a slightly reserved scale.

EMI producer Christopher Bishop and engineer Carson Taylor recorded the album at Medinah Temple, Chicago in March 1971. Engineer Tohru Kotetsu remastered the original tape at the JVC Mastering Center, Japan in 2014 using XRCD processing and 24-bit K2 technology. The results are much better than I expected, given that in my recollection of EMI's Chicago recordings of the period, the sound never seemed that great to me. Here, things sound considerably improved.

While the sonics are still a tad too bright for my taste, they are quite smooth, rich, spacious, and resonant, highly dimensional, and extremely dynamic. Indeed, the impact will have you thinking you're in the concert hall, with hushed silences building to huge climaxes before you know it. The sound is not at all hard or harsh as some of EMI's Chicago sound could be. Just don't play it too loudly, or it may appear to get a little piercing. Well, with its wide dynamic range, you shouldn't have the gain set too high, in any case, or the music will knock out of your seat in its stronger parts. If you like the performance, this remastering is undoubtedly the best you'll find, even though I would have welcomed a more-natural reaction from the upper mids and lower treble, a bit more lower range warmth, and perhaps a stronger deep bass response. OK, I'm being petty. It sounds great.

For some of the best prices and availability for Hi-Q products, you might want to visit Elusive Disc at http://www.elusivedisc.com/.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

Pleyel: Symphonies (CD review)

Jakub Dzialak, piano; Riccardo Bovino, violin; Howard Griffiths, Zurcher Kammerorchester. CPO 999 759-2.

If the music sounds like Haydn or Mozart, don't be surprised. Ignaz Pleyel (1757-1831) was a contemporary of those men, and, perhaps surprisingly, in his day people thought he might be greater than Mozart and the successor to Haydn. OK, if you are an enthusiastic classical-music fan, you already know that.

Pleyel was a prominent figure in his time, a French composer and piano builder born in Austria, a pupil of Joseph Haydn, and the prolific writer of some fifty classical symphonies and a ton of other stuff before retiring from music into the world of business. Today he's all but forgotten except in occasional recordings like this one that, alas, I would guess few people will have even heard of. Nevertheless, this 2002 recording could still make Pleyel a few new friends. His music may be outdated but not any the less fun.

Howard Griffiths
The three works on the album are his Symphony in D major, Op. 3; his Second Symphonie Concertante for Violin, Piano, and Orchestra; and his Sixth Symphonie Periodique. These from a man who wrote more symphonies than Mozart. Yet by the end of his lifetime his critics were calling his music old-fashioned, lightweight, and facile, the emerging style of Beethoven having swept the Continent. Well, Pleyel is lightweight, no doubt, but for modern listeners that may be his strongest suit. The fact is, there isn't much going on in Pleyel's music that we can't anticipate before ever hearing it, yet one can say much the same thing of most other composers of the Baroque and Classical periods.

Anyway, of the three works represented here, I preferred the Symphony Concertante best, it being a sort of minor-league Mozart violin-and-piano concerto. It has zip and zest and all manner of wit and humor about it, with violinist Jakub Dzialak and pianist Riccardo Bovino playing their hearts out as if it were, indeed, Beethoven; and Howard Griffiths and the Zurich Chamber Orchestra give them splendid support.

What's more, CPO do their part, too, by providing a good, open acoustic and reasonably well detailed sonics; fairly strong dynamics; a modicum of hall warmth and bloom; and a realistic dimensionality to the presentation. True, the music may sound imitative, but for me it was worth hearing.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Simone Dinnerstein: Broadway-Lafayette (CD review)

Music of Ravel, Lasser, and Gershwin. Simone Dinnerstein, piano; Kristjan Jarvi, MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra. Sony Classical 88875032452.

This is another of those kind of, sort of theme albums, the producers telling us that "the music on this album celebrates the time-honored transatlantic link between France and America through the music of three composers--George Gershwin, Maurice Ravel and Philip Lasser." It suggest also "the French-American connection as the Marquis de Lafayette and his French troops helped the American colonists out against the British during the American Revolution." OK, a tenuous link if you ask me, but it's awfully good music and well handled by American pianist Simone Dinnerstein, conductor Kristjan Jarvi (another in the musical Jarvi family, son of conductor Neeme Jarvi and brother of conductor Paavo Jarvi), and the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra.

The program opens with the Piano Concerto in G major by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). The Concerto has always struck me as one of Ravel's most-imaginative works, full of jazzy bustle one moment and the tenderest grace the next. It's done up not only in Ravel's usual impressionist style but most expressive as well, and unless the pianist is careful the piece can appear merely as a series of clamorous rants and dreamy allusions. One past master of taming this sometimes unwieldy beast was Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, who in a 1957 recording for EMI (now Warners) showed how beautifully crystalline and elegant the music could sound. Now, Ms. Dinnerstein gives it a shot, and she, too, finds joy in the work.

Dinnerstein emphasizes the jazz element in the first movement, perhaps to show the work's connection to Gershwin all the better. Yet she keeps it fairly light and atmospheric, too, never making the music appear too showy. Does it fully capture Michelangeli's magic? No, but it's close. Ms. Dinnerstein does even better in the touching second-movement Adagio assai, which embraces a sweet, Chopin-like quality. In the final Presto, Dinnerstein fully engages the composer's blazing technical displays, yet also manages to find some respite along the way. If the whole is still not quite so coherent as Michelangeli's account, it is nevertheless satisfying, with good support from Maestro Jarvi and the MDR orchestra.

Simone Dinnerstein
Next, we find the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra "The Circle and the Child" by American composer and pianist Philip Lasser (b. 1963). Lasser's work, composed in 2012 especially for Ms. Dinnerstein and here receiving its premiere recording, is a different sort of animal from the others on the program. Lasser says of the concerto that it "speaks of memory, inner voyage and closeness," the circle "a powerful metaphor for life." Fair enough, if fairly vague and ambiguous. He uses as the basis for his composition a Bach chorale, and the piece does possess a delightfully melodious nature. Like most modern music, though, it doesn't rely too heavily on memorable tunes, relying mostly on creating mood, which Dinnerstein provides nicely, along with the orchestra's continual reinforcement.

Things close with the perennial favorite Rhapsody in Blue by American composer George Gershwin (1898-1937). In Gershwin it's hard for me not to think of Bernstein's classic recording for Columbia (now Sony) or Previn's (EMI) or Gershwin's own, reworked by Tilson-Thomas (Sony). Still, Ms. Dinnerstein puts her own stamp on the piece and makes the music a bit more tender than we usually hear it, a bit milder and gentler, though still filled with dazzling finger work. While I wouldn't call it as energetic an approach as the ones mentioned above, it's an interpretation that's easy to live with, and it reveals a sensitive side to Gershwin that is most flattering.

Adam Abeshouse produced and engineered the album, recording it at the MDR Orchestersaal, Leipzig, Germany in July 2014. The sound is warm and smooth, with no rough or jagged edges in sight. Nor have the engineers recorded it too close up; instead, it has a moderate distance involved, making it sound all the more realistic (if at the expense of sounding a trifle soft). Ultimate transparency, therefore, is only so-so, yet that's the case with many concert-hall performances, so one can hardly complain. Figuring into the equation a mild resonance as well, let's just say the sound is pleasingly comfortable.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to pucciojj@recycle.bin.