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 (


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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.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

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