Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Also Ruckert-Lieder. Christine Schafer, soprano; Christoph Eschenbach, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Capriccio 5026.

The First and Fourth Symphonies of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) are his shortest and most-accessible symphonies; moreover, they are today among the most-popular pieces of music ever written. Thus, we would expect a good deal of competition in the marketplace for recordings of them. And such is the case, given the dozens of alternative discs available. I mean, you know it's going to be tough sledding for any newcomer, like this 2010 Capriccio release of the Symphony No. 1 from conductor Christoph Eschenbach, even at its low, budget price.

How well, then, does the Eschenbach entry stack up against budget issues from Barbirolli, Bernstein, Bohm, Davis, de Waart, Judd, Kubelik, Leaper, Maazel, Mehta, Muti, Rattle, Slatkin, Solti, Szell, Wit, Zinman, and a host of others, all of them priced at or below the cost of this Capriccio disc? I'm happy to report it more than holds its own. And it benefits from a new digital recording that is robust, with dead-silent backgrounds.

Under Eschenbach, the symphony's opening moments--all mists and clouds before the sunrise--doesn't carry quite the mystery that, say, Georg Solti's LSO performance does, but Eschenbach never rushes it, and it unfolds pretty well. Here, Nature bursts forth in Her own good time as the sun eventually rises and shines on hill and dale. Mahler said he never intended his symphony to be another pictorial tone poem like those of his contemporary, Richard Strauss, yet comparisons are inevitable, and people have always liked their own literal explanations for the work.

The second movement has a wonderfully bucolic flavor to it, well projected by Eschenbach. In fact, the conductor probably overdoes the country atmosphere, making it too pronounced, too exaggerated. Still, it comes off pleasantly enough.

Mahler's third movement is one of his more bizarre creations, beginning with the familiar "Frere Jacques" tune but proceeding more slowly than usual in keeping with the mood Eschenbach has established for the rest of the performance. Then, the whole orchestra takes up the tune in overlapping style. I always think of this part of the music as representing a rustic Jewish wedding, but afterwards Mahler follows it with a dirgelike funeral march, representative perhaps a huntsman's burial. Even though it's all a bit weird, it's indicative of the kind of parody Mahler would repeat over and again in later symphonies.

The finale has the unenviable job of bringing all the symphony's divergent parts together, which it does with commendable drama and energy. Eschenbach manages to produce an altogether relaxed reading, comforting and joyous, yet heroic in the end. Combined with the five little Ruckert Songs, pleasingly sung by soprano Christine Schafer, the album makes a worthy contribution to a crowded field.

In terms of sound, the Capriccio  audio engineers captured some good orchestral depth in this 2008 recording, with fairly good definition and detail. There are clear, if slightly hard, highs; deep, authoritative lows; strong impact; and quick transients. There is also a small degree of veiling in the midrange but no more than a person might hear during a live concert.

While Eschenbach's Capriccio disc may not have quite the animation nor quite the transparency of some rival recordings, it displays a good deal of charm and provides an appropriate introduction to the Mahler symphonies to come. Not a bad price, either.

JJP

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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 (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.

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa