Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Marin Alsop, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.572207.

I trust this recording of the First Symphony signals the start of a complete Mahler symphony cycle from Maestro Marin Alsop and her Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. If so, we certainly wish her success.

The Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) finished his Symphony No. 1 in D major in 1888 while still a young man in his twenties, and a few years after the composer’s death fellow Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg suggested that it summed up everything Mahler would elaborate upon in his later music. Mahler said he was trying to describe in the work a progression of his protagonist facing life beginning with the lighter moments of youth to the darker years of maturity. Indeed, Mahler initially didn’t even want to call it a symphony but rather a tone poem, giving each movement a programmatic title. Whatever, we would see the same thematic and stylistic elements in his next eight, nine, or ten symphonies (depending on how you view Das Lied von der Erde and the unfinished Tenth).

The first thing I noticed when I picked up the jewel case and read the back was that the timings for the first three movements under Ms. Alsop appeared to be longer than usual and the final movement slightly shorter. Checking with five or six other recordings I had on the shelf confirmed my suspicion. I figured Alsop would probably be providing us something a little out of the ordinary here.

In the first movement, “Spring without End,” Mahler represents his youthful hero in the symbolic stirring of Nature before a long spring. Ms. Alsop handles the clearing of the dawn mists nicely, in addition to carrying off the awakening well when spring finally arrives. Throughout the movement, she emphasizes the rhythmic contrasts sharply, giving us a colorfully characterized, if somewhat deliberate, opening.

Mahler called his second movement Scherzo “With Full Sail,” and it finds him in one of his early mock-sentimental moods, displaying an exuberance that he may have meant as ironic. Ms. Alsop tends to make it sound a bit more ponderous and calculated than usual, which might not appeal to all listeners. It’s as though she wanted specifically to point up the ironies and grotesqueries of the music, making them so obvious there would be no question of Mahler’s intentions. She may have overdone it. 

The third movement, a deliberately awkward funeral march, depicts a hunter’s fairy-tale burial, and it comes off as a typical Mahler parody. It may represent a young man’s first glimpse of death, possibly Mahler’s own recollection of a youthful encounter with the death of a loved one. Ms. Alsop delivers the satirical elements in somewhat straightforward fashion, yet with the familiar Frere Jacques melody sounding more ominous than ever. I enjoyed this section from Ms. Alsop, even though it seemed a tad mechanical to me.

In the finale, Mahler conveys the panic “of a deeply wounded heart,” as his central figure faces the suffering of life and fate. Nevertheless, Mahler, always the spiritual optimist, wanted Man to triumph in the end, even though he left open to question how Man would succeed. In these final twenty minutes or so, Mahler pulls out all the stops and puts the orchestra into full swing, making it an audiophile favorite for home playback. Anyway, I don’t hear as smooth a flow in this section under Alsop as I do from some other conductors. Nor do I hear the passion, the fervor, I hear in other interpretations, despite Ms. Alsop’s enterprising pace. Still and all, she does manage the more-lyrical elements in the movement well, and, overall, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy her rendition of the score. Although it’s a little different, it maintained my interest.

However, I don’t think I’d put Marin Alsop’s recording of the Mahler First alongside those of Sir Georg Solti (Decca), Sir Charles Mackerras (EMI), Jascha Horenstein (Unicorn), Leonard Bernstein (DG), Bernard Haitink (Philips), Riccardo Chailly (Decca), Klaus Tennstedt (EMI), Lorin Maazel (Sony), and others. No, I don’t think so. I rather expect that Ms. Alsop’s account may appeal more to Mahler completests and fans of the conductor.

Naxos recorded the performance live at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, Maryland, in 2008. As with so many live recordings, the engineers miked it fairly close up in order to minimize audience noise. This results in respectable clarity and dynamic impact but not particularly good orchestral depth or hall ambience. So, the midrange especially sounds OK yet flat. There’s a decent bass response, too, necessary in the first and fourth movements, although overall the sound never seems to carry the weight necessary for the music. Mercifully, Naxos spare us any closing applause.

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.

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