Mahler: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 9 (CD Review)

Gerard Schwarz, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Artek AR-0041-2 2-disc set.

The idea of combining Mahler's very first and very last completed symphonies in the same set seemed pretty appealing to me. After all, you get to hear, contrast, and compare the composer's stylistic progression from beginning to end in one sitting. It might have worked better for me, though, if I hadn't made the mistake of starting with the First Symphony.

You see, on the discs, it's Symphony No. 9 that begins things. No, I couldn't do it that way. I figured the best way to judge these things was to start with the earliest symphony, which begins on the second disc. The problem is that the First Symphony is Schwarz's weakest performance of the two, which may have clouded my judgment for the conductor's reading of the sublime Ninth.

So, what's wrong with Schwarz's First? At first I wasn't sure. Frankly, it sounded too slow to me. So about halfway through the recording, I checked Schwarz's timings against four other Mahler Firsts on my shelf. Schwarz was the fastest of all in all four movements. How could this be? I think it's because Schwarz shows such little expression. His tempos never seem to vary; there is seldom any color or expression anywhere in sight. The First Symphony should begin in hushed silence, which Schwarz carries out well, but by the end (by of each movement and by the finale) it should be exultant. Schwarz misses the exultant part. Put alongside Solti (Decca), Mackerras (EMI), Horenstein (Unicorn), and Tennstedt (EMI), I found Schwarz downright dull and unimaginative.

Then came the Ninth, the crowning jewel in Mahler's symphonic cycle, its expressionistic content interpreted by some conductors as an optimistic journey into the light, ending in sweet and everlasting repose, and by others as a pessimistic look into the world's future where degeneration and decay would be our lot. At the time he wrote it in 1909, Mahler was well aware of his own illness and possibly imminent demise, and he probably foresaw the coming of the First World War and the end of civilization as his generation had known it. Yet under Schwarz, one doesn't quite get the feeling of either of these interpretations. Instead, we get a stately, almost angelic response from the conductor throughout, again with little change of pace and with little emphasis or difference in phrasing, as though somebody or something were holding him back from really expressing himself. Here, try Haitink (Philips) or Klemperer (EMI) or Barbirolli (EMI) or Karajan (DG), and you'll hear the difference. There is a real place for idiosyncrasy in Mahler; otherwise, we get blandness.

Artek's sound, too, is somewhat ambiguous. It is smooth and mellow, yet detailed and natural. At the same time, it's so unassuming it's almost as bland as the performances. Again, a quick comparison with any of the conductors and labels I've mentioned reveals with them a greater opening up of the sound, with greater transparency, dynamics, and impact. So, while some listeners will undoubtedly find this new recording from Schwarz and company gorgeous and serene, it is not exactly a coupling I can support, despite the good intentions.



  1. One of my all-time favorite recordings is the Lopez-Cobos reading of the Mahler Ninth with the Cincinnati on Telarc, which strikes me as a wonderful convergence of fine music, fine performance, and fine sound. I can't quite remember hearing the Haitink, although I may have at one time, but I certainly endorse your support for Klemperer, Barbirolli, and Karajan. I also like the Boulez on DG -- his First is quite good, too.

  2. this post strikes me of a fabulous music from retro time, i cant remember the name though! keep posting

  3. heard some of them they are subtle, soothing or is should say , mellow ,


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
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I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa