Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (XRCD24/K2 review)

Carlo Maria Giulini, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Hi-Q Records HIQXRCD35.

Maestro Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005) was among the most elegant, most sophisticated, most refined conductors the world of classical music has ever known. He was, however, also among the last conductors I would have considered a top choice in the Mahler First Symphony, a youthful, zealous, even ostentatious work. It always seemed to me that Giulini's style better suited the music of Mozart, Verdi, Debussy, Brahms, Schumann, and the like, than to Mahler, and that we were better off leaving Mahler's outgoing music to someone more like Georg Solti. But what do I know? I had never heard Giulini's Mahler First before, so I approached listening to this audiophile-remastered, 1971 EMI recording from Hi-Q Records with some small degree of hesitation, even trepidation. I should not have.

Whatever, let's start with some background on the music itself. As you no doubt know, Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) premiered his Symphony No. 1 in D major in 1889, saying at first it was a five-movement symphonic poem and, at least temporarily, being persuaded to give it the name "Titan." Before long, though, he revised it to the familiar four-movement piece we know today and dropped the "Titan" designation. The work became especially popular in the mid-to-late 1950's, the beginning of the stereo age, probably because with its large orchestra, soaring melodies, enormous impact, and dramatic contrasts the symphony makes a spectacular listening experience, and it became an ideal way for audiophiles to show off their newly acquired stereo systems. And we can't forget that the First is one of Mahler's shortest symphonies, making it an ideal length for home listening.

In the Symphony No. 1 Mahler said he was trying to describe his protagonist facing life, beginning with the lighter moments of youth and proceeding to the darker years of maturity. In the first movement, then, "Spring without End," we see Mahler's young hero as a part of the symbolic stirring of Nature before a long spring. In the second-movement Scherzo, "With Full Sail," we find Mahler in one of his 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 might 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. With Mahler, who knows. The movement has long been one of the composer's most controversial, and audiences still debate just what he 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, because Mahler was a spiritual optimist, he wanted Man to triumph in the end. Therefore, in the final twenty minutes or so Mahler pulls out all the stops and puts the orchestra into full swing.

Carlo Maria Giulini
So, what does Giulini do with all this? Quite a lot, actually. Contrary to my worry that Giulini's demeanor might sound too polished and sophisticated for the work, his performance is mostly vibrant and alive, though not to excess. Although he keeps tempos on the modest side, he nevertheless creates a healthy degree of excitement in an interpretation as big, bold, and exhilarating as most any you'll find, yet with nothing false about it, nothing done for show alone. More important, Giulini projects the more-sensitive elements of the score with intensity, without over sentimentalizing them.

Giulini's reserved manner serves him well in the atmospheric introductory moments of the symphony, as spring awakens. From there, the conductor's innate poetic vision takes over, and the first movement has a sweet sense of beauty and repose leading to a vigorous conclusion.

Under Giulini the second movement seemed initially a touch slack to me, but it picks up as it goes along, and there's an attractive sweetness in the overall line. The funeral march, too, seemed at first a pinch underpowered, yet as with the second movement it's Giulini's way to build incrementally, and he does so with a satisfactorily mounting tension. Then the conductor opens the final movement with the huge burst of noise we know so well, and it is effective enough in startling us from the melancholy of the funeral march. Furthermore, Giulini again handles the lyrical sections with an easy lilt, the big Romantic melody blooming nicely, and he ends the score on an appropriately happy and positive note.

If I have any small reservation about Giulini's reading, though, it's that from time to time he tends to fall into a fairly conservative, somewhat studied rhythm rather than letting the momentum carry the day. In other words, the flow of the music occasionally seems impeded by Giulini's tendency to become too careful and slow the pace to a rather steady, predictable, and clocklike gait. Maybe the conductor lets his own sense of propriety get in the way of Mahler's exuberance, where a little more spontaneity might have been the order of the day. Despite this relatively small concern, however, Giulini's is an enlightened, heartfelt interpretation, full of passion and zest, if on a slightly reserved scale.

EMI producer Christopher Bishop and engineer Carson Taylor recorded the album at Medinah Temple, Chicago in March 1971. Engineer Tohru Kotetsu remastered the original tape at the JVC Mastering Center, Japan in 2014 using XRCD processing and 24-bit K2 technology. The results are much better than I expected, given that in my recollection of EMI's Chicago recordings of the period, the sound never seemed that great to me. Here, things sound considerably improved.

While the sonics are still a tad too bright for my taste, they are quite smooth, rich, spacious, and resonant, highly dimensional, and extremely dynamic. Indeed, the impact will have you thinking you're in the concert hall, with hushed silences building to huge climaxes before you know it. The sound is not at all hard or harsh as some of EMI's Chicago sound could be. Just don't play it too loudly, or it may appear to get a little piercing. Well, with its wide dynamic range, you shouldn't have the gain set too high, in any case, or the music will knock out of your seat in its stronger parts. If you like the performance, this remastering is undoubtedly the best you'll find, even though I would have welcomed a more-natural reaction from the upper mids and lower treble, a bit more lower range warmth, and perhaps a stronger deep bass response. OK, I'm being petty. It sounds great.

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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

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa