Mahler: Symphony No. 1, "Titan" (CD review)

Yoel Levi, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Telarc DSD CD-80545.

"Wouldn't you just die without Mahler?"  --Educating Rita

I love Mahler, but I'm going to be a little sacrilegious here and say I'm not convinced there is as much to him as people generally ascribe. He has been the darling of the stereo age with his up-and-down surges of passion and eccentricity, but I think maybe the initial reviews of his Symphony No. 1 were close to the point when they called it "...an accumulation of of extravagances." That doesn't make the music any the less enjoyable, however, because what we all need from time to time is a little extravagance.

Anyway, Yoel Levi's 1999 recording of the Mahler First sounds typical of much of the conductor's work: smooth, polished, refined, nonchalant, and a little detached. It's also not a little sluggish, marmoreal, perhaps even lethargic. And by including the Blumine Andante as a second of five movements he doesn't help matters. Mahler dropped the Andante shortly after the symphony's premiere, reinstated it briefly, and then dropped it again in his final revision. It is certainly a sweet piece of music, but it doesn't really fit in with the other slow movement, the next-to-last one with its quirky parody of "Frere Jacques" in the funeral march; nor does it fit in with the turbulent opening of the finale. If, as Bruno Walter said, the First Symphony is a "triumphant victory over life," then why include such repose so early on?

Yoel Levi
Anyway, Levi's interpretation is fine, if a little underwhelming, especially in the Scherzo, which is really too tame for my taste. Certainly the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra play with grace and refinement, though, and they provide a proper oomph when needed.

I can't say that Telarc's year 2000 sound helped much any, either. They used DSD, Direct Stream Digital, which they called at the time of this recording a "new and improved method of converting music into the digital domain, sampling a 1-bit word at 2.8224 MHz per second. This results in a frequency response from 0 Hz to beyond 100K Hz, and a dynamic range greater than 120 db. Much of the added resolution afforded by the DSD process is retained in standard CD production by using Super Bit Mapping Direct, a dedicated DSD conversion processor." OK, most of us know that by now.

DSD does often provide good sound, but I didn't hear a lot of improvement in this recording over what Telarc had been doing earlier. I only noticed that Telarc engineers started miking their projects a little closer by 2000, providing a bit more detail at the expense of overall, realistic imaging. The bass drum is without a doubt a contributing factor to the impact the music makes, and Telarc as usual captured it strongly, forcefully, dynamically, but without excessive exaggeration. The rest of the sound is similar to Levi's interpretation: smooth, polished, refined, nonchalant, and a little detached. I am still of a mind to prefer Horenstein on Unicorn, Solti on Decca, or Bernstein on DG or Sony for overall performance or Tennstedt and the London Philharmonic on EMI for sonics.

JJP

To listen to brief excerpts from all five movements, click below:


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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 over 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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa