Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (SACD review)

Sakari Oramo, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. Exton EXCL-00034.

Although I continue slightly to favor Sir Charles Mackerras's rendition of Mahler's First Symphony (EMI Eminence) above other versions, there are certainly a number of other conductors who aren't far behind. Among them are Jascha Horenstein, Bernard Haitink, Rafael Kubelik, Leonard Bernstein, Klaus Tennstedt, and Sir Georg Solti. New recordings seem to come out every month, though, like this Super Analogue CD from Maestro Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic on the Japanese import label Exton.

Mahler has been the darling of the music-loving set for decades now, thanks to some of the aforementioned gentlemen. Maybe it's also because Mahler's music, especially his symphonies, combines good, old-fashioned nineteenth-century Romanticism with bizarre, often chaotic, experimental twentieth-century modernism. Mahler displays these diverse characteristics in his Symphony No. 1 "Titan," first performed in 1889, which the composer described as a "symphonic poem in two parts." The opening movement begins with a mysterious "Awakening of Day" or "Awakening of Spring after the Rigors of Winter," or whatever you want to call it since Mahler himself later erased his initial descriptions, followed by fanfares and then several lush and rhapsodic melodies, leading to a rustic 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 outbursts, tying up all the disparate elements of the symphony as a whole.

In his LSO account (Decca) Solti projected the opening mists as eerily as any other conductor, so it's to his account that I compared the first movement of Oramo's version. Maestro Oramo never oversteps his bounds or falls into the melodrama and sentimentality that Bernstein sometimes did in his last, DG account. And while it is Horenstein (Unicorn) who always seemed to me to suggest the broad symphonic picture of the symphony best, finding links among the varied movements rather than just playing them as separate entities, Oramo is close. The conductor meticulously follows Mahler's markings for "slow, dragging, like a sound of nature...always very leisurely," the opening section moving along smoothly and refreshingly, if without some of the excitement Solti brought to the occasion. Nevertheless, by the end of the movement Oramo brings a good deal of energy to bear, and it finishes with an appropriate fury.

The second movement is a landler, an early German-Austrian folk dance, which Mahler marked as "vigorous but not too fast" in the beginning and then "very leisurely" as it concludes. Again, Oramo follows the markings to the letter. Indeed, the contrast between the two divisions is almost too severe. Still, it works well enough and conveys a fine rustic charm.

Mahler identified the third, slow movement, a huntsman's funeral procession, as "solemn and measured, without dragging." It appears to be a parody of a village funeral march. Here, Oram seems most at home, with a genuinely amused attitude noticeable in the music.

The finale Mahler characterized as "tempestuous" and "energetic." Under Oramo, and thanks to Exton's HQ-SACD sound, this movement practically brings down the house. Oramo attacks the music with a vigor and enthusiasm that would surely have pleased the composer. There is a yearning middle segment here, too, well set off from the eruption of the initial moments and the jubilation of the ending.

Conductor Bernard Haitink once said that if he played Mahler straight, the dramatics would take care of themselves. Oramo appears to follow Haitink's dictum. The performance grew on me; the more I listened, the more I liked it. By the final movement, it totally drew me in. Whether for me Oramo's rendition will join the ranks of the conductors I mentioned at the outset or not, only further listening will reveal. In the meantime, Mahler fans may want to investigate it.

Exton recorded the symphony in September, 2009, at the Stockholm Concert Hall, and according to the booklet notes they recorded at least parts of it live. (The notes say "Session & Live," whatever that means.) In any case, there is a natural concert-hall ambiance about the sound, with plenty of bloom, depth, dynamic range, bass, and impact. As this is a hybrid HQ-SACD, I assume it may be in multichannel; however, the booklet notes never mention anywhere (in English) what the two layers contain. I listened to the regular stereo layer and to the SACD layer in two channels, and both sounded fine. If there is any small snag to the concert-hall acoustic, it's that it tends on occasion to envelop the midrange somewhat, getting a little thick and heavy. Even so, at other times there is a pleasing openness about the sound that is hard to resist.

If you have trouble finding the Japanese Exton label, it's imported by the Allegro Media Group (http://www.allegro-music.com).

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.

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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