Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Sir Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Decca Originals 475 8230.

At the moment, my favorite Mahler First Symphony is still Sir Charles Mackerras's rendition on EMI Eminence, but certainly this remastered 1984 Decca "Originals" recording from another "Sir," Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony, can't be far behind. It has all the control, symphonic structure, intensity, and atmosphere of the very best versions, including Mackerras, Horenstein, Haitink, Kubelik, Bernstein, and Solti himself in an earlier recording with the London Symphony.

When CDs first became popular in the early Eighties, it was Mahler whose symphonies were most quickly represented in the catalogue. In spite of a late start (but thank you maestros Walter and Bernstein), Mahler has become the darling of the classical music-loving set. His works combine good, old-fashioned nineteenth-century Romantic melodies along with bizarre, often chaotic, experimental twentieth-century modernism. These characteristics are no better displayed than in the composer's Symphony No. 1, where the opening movement begins with a mysterious "Awakening of Day" or Spring or whatever, followed by fanfares and then several lush and rhapsodic, if rustic, melodies, leading to a Funeral March that only Mahler would have dared, part parody, part wistful musing, and entirely peculiar. The Finale starts with a thunderous series of orchestral crescendos, followed by bits and pieces of the first movement's themes, settling into rich romance, and ending in strong, solid affirmative concluding outbursts, tying up all the disparate elements of the Symphony as a whole.

Solti handles all of this easily. He does not project the opening mists as eerily as he did in his LSO account (also on Decca), true, but I'm not sure it isn't because that earlier recording had a touch more background noise adding to the atmosphere. Solti had Mahler in his blood, so it's not surprising that he controls everything so well, the conductor never overstepping the bounds into melodrama or sentimentality as Bernstein sometimes did in his last, DG account. While it is Horenstein (Unicorn) who always seemed to me to suggest the broad symphonic picture of the symphony better than anyone else, finding links among the varied movements rather than just playing them as separate and entities, Solti is again close behind. Solti always judges the tempos well, too, never overly fast or breathless. And, of course, Solti is as exciting as anyone in the big moments.

The 1984 sound in this 2007 "Originals" reissue, which Decca appear to have taken directly from their 2001 "Legends" remaster, is fairly robust, although it hasn't as pronounced a bass output as Tennstedt's LSO recording has (EMI); otherwise, the response is quite nicely balanced. However, this was an early digital release, and there is some slight brightness in the upper midrange. Still, it is offset by the clarity and brilliance of the overall sound picture.

Bernard Haitink once remarked that he believed Mahler should be played straight and the dramatics would take care of themselves. Solti, sometimes known for overemphasizing matters, observes this dictum in the First Symphony, and proves that the music of Mahler can be just as powerful on its own, without any added histrionics from the conductor. Remastered in Decca's "Originals" series, this Solti CSO recording makes a welcome addition to any Mahler library.

Adapted from a review the author originally published in the $ensible Sound magazine.


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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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa