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 " 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.


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

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa