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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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.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa