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.


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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa