Mahler: Symphony No. 1 "Titan" (SACD review)

Thierry Fischer, Utah Symphony. Reference Recordings Fresh! FR-715 SACD.

Since 1997 the Swiss conductor and flutist Thierry Fischer has been the chief or principal conductor of the Netherlands Ballet Orchestra, the Ulster Orchestra, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra, and as of 2009 the Utah Symphony. His most-illustrious predecessor in Utah was Maurice Abravanel, who recorded a well-received Mahler cycle that included a particularly good Mahler First. In commemoration of Maestro Abravanel, among the first things Fischer chose to perform was a complete Mahler cycle himself, and this is perhaps why he has recorded this new disc of Mahler's First. One assumes it may be the beginning of his own new cycle of Mahler recordings with the Utah orchestra.

Anyway, 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, giving it the subtitle "Titan." It was not long, however, before he revised it to the familiar four-movement piece we know today and dropped the "Titan" business. The work became especially popular in the mid-to-late 1950's, the beginning of the stereo age, I'm guessing because with its large orchestra, soaring melodies, enormous impact, and dramatic contrasts the symphony can make a spectacular listening experience, and it became a perfect way for audiophiles to show off their new stereo systems. In addition, we must not forget that the First is one of Mahler's shortest symphonies, making it a good length for home listening.

In his Symphony No. 1 Mahler explained 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. Under Fischer, the coming of spring unfolds at a comfortable rate, unhurried but somewhat perfunctory. Then, too, Fischer keeps his tempos on the modest side, but doesn't vary them quite enough to provide a needed contrast. When spring finally does come into full bloom, it seems something of an afterthought. Dynamic levels, while strong, also appear a touch on the same side, so, again, there isn't a whole lot of contrast, even at the end where things should erupt with a bit more passion than heard here. In other words, Fischer's first movement didn't affect me the way other conductors have (Solti, Horenstein, Kubelik, Mackerras, Haitink, Bernstein, to name a few).

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. Things here look up for Fischer, where he seems to be having a little more fun, particularly in the lovely middle segment. Still, there seems a certain element of calculation to the music making, which tends to hold it back from full realization.

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. Whatever, Fischer's rendering of the funeral march is a rather somber affair and tends lack some of the macabre humor we find in other conductor's handling of the piece. Which conductor is more correct or closer to Mahler's intentions in this regard I have no idea; Fischer's approach just appeared somewhat leaden to me.

Thierry Fischer
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. It is only in this finale, though, that Fischer seems to take things a bit too quickly. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly a thoughtful interpretation, the momentary confusions well realized despite the orchestra all aswirl, the whole thing ending in an appropriate triumph. Again, however, I didn't hear enough gradation in the volume of various parts of the score to emphasize the music's differences. So it all tends to come at the listener in a slightly unvarying, slightly humdrum manner.

The Soundmirror production team of producer Dirk Sobotka, recording engineer John Newton, and mixing and master technician Mark Donahue made the recording live at Maurice Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah, in September 2014 as a part of the Reference Recordings Fresh! series. Soundmirror chose 5 DPA 4006 microphones as their main array, supplementing them with "spot mics" to clarify the detail of the orchestration. Moreover, they made the recording for hybrid SACD playback, so you can listen to a two-channel or multichannel SACD layer if you have an SACD player and a two-channel CD layer if you have only a regular CD player. I listened to the two-channel SACD layer.

The sound is good, with the only fly in the ointment for me being the "live" part of the recording. As I keep repeating in these pages, I have seldom heard a live recording I didn't think would have sounded better recorded in a studio or without an audience present. That goes for this one, too.

Of course, the miking has to be relatively close in order to minimize audience noise, yet here it is not so close as it is in many other live recordings. The result is a fairly natural perspective if you're sitting close to the orchestra. Unfortunately, there are times when individual instruments appear too close for realism's sake, even though there are other times when a lifelike sense of orchestral presence seems evident. Dynamics are strong, frequency response reasonably wide (with a solid deep bass), and transparency good without being bright or hard. Overall, the sonics are round, warm, detailed, and natural, as though heard from a moderate distance instead of so close up.

The audience, by the way, is very quiet; you won't hear a peep, a cough, or a rustle from them. And the disc's producers have mercifully edited out any closing applause.

JJP

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


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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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa