Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Sir Charles Mackerras, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI Eminence 0 7777 64508 2 7.

When I first heard this 1992 recording, I couldn't remember listening to a more wholly satisfying Mahler First Symphony in quite a while. Indeed, after comparing it to a handful of distinguished Mahler Firsts in my collection, I was convinced it was among the best of the lot in terms of overall control, symphonic structure, intensity, atmosphere, and sound. That initial opinion still stands.

When CDs became popular in the early 1980's, it was Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) whose symphonies became quickly represented in the catalogue. In spite of a late start (but thank you maestros Walter, Bernstein, Klemperer, Solti, and others), Mahler became the darling of the audiophile music-loving set, and for good reason. His works combine good, old-fashioned nineteenth-century Romantic melodies alongside often bizarre, chaotic, experimental twentieth-century modernism. The results were perfect for musical enjoyment and pure sound.

No better are these characteristics displayed than in Mahler's First Symphony, where the opening movement begins with a mysterious awakening of Day or Spring or whatever, followed by fanfares and then several lush, rhapsodic tunes. The Scherzo is Brucknerian in concept, leading to a Funeral March that only Mahler would have dared: part parody, part wistful musing, and entirely peculiar. The Finale starts with a thunderous series of orchestral crescendos, followed by bits and pieces of the first movement's themes, settling into rich romance, and ending in strong, solid affirmative concluding outbursts.

Sir Charles Mackerras
Mackerras handled all of this with the ease of one who had been conducting Mahler all his life, which he may have been doing but not necessarily recording. He doesn't quite project the opening mists as atmospherically as Solti in his LSO account (Decca), but it's close, and then Mackerras launches into the most tightly controlled Mahler tune-making possible, a control that never oversteps the bounds into melodrama or sentimentality as Bernstein sometimes does in his last, DG, account.

To me Horenstein (Unicorn) always seemed to suggest the broad symphonic scope of the symphony better than anyone else, finding links among the varied movements rather than just playing them as separate and disparate entities. Well, Mackerras does much the same thing, with tempos that are quick but never fast or breathless. He presents a cogent portrait of the work as a whole, heightening our awareness of each movement's significance without the symphony ever losing internal cohesion or global unity. Needless to say, the conductor is also quite exciting when called upon, as in the onset of the final movement, and as rapt and mocking as needed. As I say, it all seems to work pretty well together.

It's a shame that EMI only made the 1991 performance available on their Classics for Pleasure and Eminence labels, which get a fairly limited distribution now that Warner Classics have taken over the label. It is for this reason that I only stumbled upon it about a decade after Mackerras recorded it (and that was more than a decade ago that I even found it). The sound is not so robust in the bass as Tennstedt's LPO recording, but it is otherwise detailed and well balanced.

Bernard Haitink (whose last rendering with the Berlin Philharmonic on Philips) is also quite good, once remarked that he believed one should play Mahler as straight as possible and the dramatics would take care of themselves. Mackerras observes this dictum and proves that Mahler can be just as powerful on his own as he can with any added histrionics from the conductor. Obviously, I recommend the disc highly.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:


  1. Is this available as a download>?

  2. I have no idea. You might Google it or contact Virgin or Warner Classics. Incidentally, the disc itself so cheap, I can't imagine why anyone would want to download it.


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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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