Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Songs of a Wayfarer; Discussion. Christopher Maltman, baritone; Benjamin Zander, Philharmonia Orchestra. Telarc CD-80628 (2-CD set).

One can hardly complain about the dollar value involved here: You not only get two discs for the price of one, you get Mahler's Symphony No. 1, his Songs of a Wayfarer, and a lengthy talk by the conductor, Benjamin Zander.

None of this would be worth anything, of course, if the music wasn't up to par; but those of you who have heard Zander's previous Mahler recordings for Telarc know that he is a competent Mahlerian who knows the music inside and out. The works on this disc are no exceptions.

I'm not a big fan of Mahler's song cycles, but it's nice to have the Songs of a Wayfarer coupled with the First Symphony since the two pieces seem so intimately bound together in Mahler's personal life. Christopher Maltman, a baritone, rather than the usual mezzo-soprano, sings the Wayfarer Songs, but Mahler never specified a voice, and the words of the songs would seem to call for a man. Mr. Maltman renders them beautifully and movingly.

Mahler filled the Symphony No. 1--big and youthful, light and hushed, open and ironic--with all the contrasts that have made the composer a public favorite over the years, especially in the stereo era where the demands for huge ensembles and wide dynamics have brought out the best (and the worst) in home audio systems. Zander's way with the music is fairly straightforward, always affectionate but never pushy. I can't say his interpretation displaced my own favorites--Mackerras (EMI), Horenstein (Unicorn), Solti (Decca), or Tennstedt (EMI), each of whom adds a special element of his own to make the results a little more personal--but Zander's less idiosyncratic performance is certainly welcome in field that invites eccentricity. Telarc's sound is also up to the challenge, with an especially well-focused bass line.

The second disc contains a lecture from Zander that is almost eighty minutes long on Mahler's First Symphony and the Wayfarer Songs. He covers the background and history of the works and uses ample excerpts from his own recordings to emphasis his points. Two minor quibbles: Telarc provide nine track stops for the lecture, but they don't label them anywhere in the booklet or on the jewel box. It would have been nice to be able quickly to jump to a specific part of Zander's remarks. In addition, Zander sounds so knowledgeable and authoritative in his discussion, it's hard to knock his recorded performance in any way. I mean, what mere critic would dare to suggest he isn't right about something he knows so thoroughly? Well, I can, I suppose, finding his performance, as I've said, letter-perfect to a fault but somehow lacking compared to the freer and more individualized interpretations of a few other conductors.

Still, I can hardly do otherwise than recommend this issue to anyone interested in enjoying Mahler's work and, more important, appreciating it all the more through a greater understanding of what it's about.


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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