Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (HDCD review)

Christoph Eschenbach, Houston Symphony Orchestra. HDTT HDCD283.

The folks at HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) usually take recordings that are either out of the catalogue or out of copyright and transfer them to CD from commercial tapes or vinyl discs in audiophile sound. This time they did something slightly different, taking 16-bit Betamax master tape and converting and processing it for compact disc. The results are up to HDTT’s typically high sonic standards, and the performance by Maestro Christoph Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony, heretofore commercially unreleased, is quite good.

Gustav Mahler wrote the Symphony No. 1 in D major in 1888, premiering it in 1889, calling it at first a symphonic poem rather than a symphony and temporarily, at least, giving it the nickname “Titan.” Within a few years, however, he revised it to the four-movement piece we have today and dropped the “Titan” designation. The work’s popularity soared at the beginning of the stereo age, along with that of the Fourth Symphony, possibly because the composer scored the First for a very large orchestra, and with its soaring melodies, enormous impact, and dramatic contrasts it makes a spectacular impression on the listener. Plus, the First and Fourth are Mahler’s shortest symphonies, making them ideal for home listening.

Anyway, you’ll recall that for the Symphony No. 1 Mahler said he was trying to describe a protagonist facing life, with a progression beginning with the lighter moments of youth and proceeding to the darker years of maturity. In the first movement, “Spring without End,” we see Mahler’s youthful hero in the symbolic stirring of Nature before a long spring. In the second-movement Scherzo, “With Full Sail,” we find Mahler in one of his early mock-sentimental moods, displaying an exuberance that he may have meant as ironic. In the third movement we get an intentionally awkward funeral march depicting a hunter’s fairy-tale burial, which comes off as a typical Mahler parody. It may represent the hero’s first glimpse of death or maybe Mahler’s own recollection of a youthful encounter with the death of a loved one. The movement has long been one of the Mahler’s most controversial, with audiences still debating just what the composer was up to. Then, in the finale, Mahler conveys the panic “of a deeply wounded heart,” as his central figure faces the suffering of life and fate. Still, Mahler was a spiritual optimist and wanted Man to triumph in the end. In the 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.

Maestro Eschenbach has proved himself a sturdy conductor. Expect no idiosyncratic or revelatory performance here but a good, solid, serious-minded, highly refined one. Of course, I suppose a person could question the need for yet another straightforward interpretation of Mahler’s score with so many emotionally charged recordings already available from the likes of Mackerras (EMI), Horenstein (Unicorn), Solti (Decca), Kubelik (DG), Bernstein (DG), Walter (Sony), Haitink (Philips), Tennstedt (EMI), Luisi (WS), and others. There is, however, something one can say for a performance that is all Mahler, with few excesses or exaggerations, and a recording that sounds as good as this one.

In the first movement Eschenbach takes his time with the morning mists and the coming of spring. Mahler marked the opening “slowly, sluggish or dragging,” and while “sluggish” and “dragging” can seem somewhat derogatory, I’m sure the composer didn’t mean them that way, nor does Eschenbach “drag” anything out. But, yes, Eschenbach’s account of the music does appear more leisurely than most other accounts. When the main theme enters some five or six minutes in, it has an appropriately youthful bounce. Eschenbach also shows a propensity for emphasizing contrasts by bringing the orchestra down to a whisper in quieter passages, making those big Mahlerian outbursts appear all the more earthshaking. So, even though Eschenbach may be a tad more relaxed than many other conductors here, you can’t say the performance lacks requisite thrills.

In the second movement the conductor moves implacably forward, not too quickly yet with enough momentum to keep listeners on their toes, so to speak. Then he introduces some heady tempo changes to keep everyone just a little off balance. Even so, the music is lovely in the Landler section especially.

The third-movement funeral march could have advanced at a little faster pace, and this is the only part of the performance where I thought Eschenbach’s reading seemed a touch undernourished and under characterized. Be that as it may, the music comes off as bizarre as ever, particularly in the second half.

In the finale, Mahler appears to ask if life’s upheavals truly come to a resolution in the hero’s victory over life’s tribulations, or if the triumph is illusory, a temporary conquest, as ironic as the earlier funeral march. You’ll hear nothing undernourished about Eschenbach’s reading here. He unleashes his Houston players in a flurry of power and excitement. Mahler wanted a stormily agitated and energetic feeling from the music, and the conductor provides it in aces, aided by a bass drum that sounds as though it could do some serious woofer damage if played too carelessly loud.

In all, Eschenbach offers up a more cultured, more lyrical Mahler First than we often hear. Although he lets the music speak eloquently for itself, there is much refined beauty in the conductor’s rendition of this familiar score.

HDTT transferred the music from an original 16-bit Betamax master, using a Sony PCM501ES digital processor feeding an Antelope Audio Eclipse converter and transformed to 24/96 resolution. With minimal miking (two Neumann KM83 microphones across the front of the orchestra), the recordist made the Betamax tape live at Jones Hall, Houston, Texas, in 1987.

Betamax?, I hear some of you asking yourselves. Yes, Betamax, which was quite a good recording format, even if it didn’t yield the bit rates of today’s digital masters. Regardless, the folks at HDTT do such a good job transferring it for today’s home use, it doesn’t matter where they got it. Believe me, it will satisfy most demanding audiophiles. The giant bass whacks alone will please most listeners; then add in a wide dynamic range, a very smooth, very extended frequency range, sharp transient attacks, and a broad stereo spread, and you get some pleasing effects. What’s more, the recording exhibits a good sense of orchestral depth and a fine, natural-sounding midrange transparency, making it all the more lifelike and attractive. But it is a live recording, so expect an inevitable outburst of applause at the end. That said, the audience is generally quiet during the performance, even when the music fades into almost silent intervals. In all, excellent sound.

For further information about the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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