Mahler: Titan (CD review)

A Tone Poem in the Form of a Symphony. Francois-Xavier Roth, Les Siecles. Harmonia Mundi HMM 905299.

When most of us think of period-instrument performances, I'm betting we're thinking mainly of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and maybe before. By the time we get to the late nineteenth century, though, orchestras had pretty much settled into their place in modern instrumentation. But apparently that doesn't stop period-instrument aficionados from wanting more, which is what this Harmonia Mundi recording is all about.

Austrian-Bohemian composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) originally wrote what was to become his Symphony No. 1 in D major in 1887-88. For its first two performances he called it a symphonic poem or tone poem and titled it "Titan." That didn't last long. Its public reception was anything but successful. So he revised it for its 1893 and 1894 performances and then further revised it before its first publication in 1898.

French conductor Francois-Xavier Roth and the period-instrument ensemble Les Siecles decided to do the present recording of what they say is close to the symphony's 1893 and 1894 performances. Is it? Well, almost but not quite. Working with original manuscripts in collaboration with Universal Edition, musicologist Anna Stoll Knecht, and author and conductor Benjaman Garzia, the team have put together a kind of blended early version of the score. Although you can't really call it authentic in that it doesn't attempt to duplicate any actual performance Mahler gave in 1893 or '94, it does surely come close to what the composer might have intended.

Period instruments? The conductor, Maestro Roth, writes in the booklet notes that "Mahler already had in mind an ideal sound nourished by his collaborations with German orchestras and his studies in Vienna. We therefore decided to use the instruments with which he would have been familiar in the pit of the Vienna Court Opera and the Musikverein, and selected Viennese oboes, German flutes, clarinets and bassoons, German and Viennese horns and trumpets, and German trombones and tubas. These instruments are built quite differently from their French contemporaries! The fingerings, the bores and even the mouthpieces of the clarinets were completely new to our musicians. In the case of the string section, each instrument is set up with bare gut for the higher strings and spun gut for the lower ones. Gut strings give you a sound material totally different from metal strings, more highly developed harmonics, and incisiveness in the attack and articulation."

Francois-Xavier Roth
Then, too, the recording uses Mahler's famous "Blumine" ("Flowers") Andante, a decision the composer reversed after the symphony's first three performances. So here is the movement, restored in full bloom, along with a myriad of tiny altered details in the rest of the score.

Will any of this make any difference to the casual listener? I'm sure not. Most of us will simply be enjoying the music. But it may divide the historically informed performance (HIP) crowd. Half of them will probably embrace the new version fully, while the other half will no doubt complain that the recording still doesn't provide anything Mahler himself might have conducted since it's a fusion of two separate performances from 1893 and 1894.

Anyway, in the work 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. In the restored second-movement Andante, we find peace and repose, Mahler calling the music "a youthful folly." 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. He titled it "Gestrander!" ("Failed!"). Then, in the finale, Mahler conveys the panic "of a deeply wounded heart," as his central figure faces the suffering of life and fate and eventual death. 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 before coming to a relatively self-assured conclusion. He called the final movement "Dall'Inferno" ("From Hell").

So, historical performance aside, how does Maestro Roth do with the piece? He certainly is in no hurry to get through it. He takes his time with the opening "Spring" movement, making it appear more tranquil, more the impressionable youth, than usual. Perhaps spring could have danced more merrily, more joyfully once underway, but close enough. It ends triumphantly in a swirl of color.

The restored second-movement "Flowers" is a serenade, a love song, and as such Maestro Roth imbues it with a buoyant, youthful passion. Still, he maintains an appropriately lyrical mood throughout. By the time of the central Scherzo, Roth has established his tone and cheerfully maintains it. Mahler's young hero is confidently moving forward.

For the start of the Part Two "Funeral March," Roth begins in a gravely earnest temper and then slowly opens it out to something more elaborately sinister and reassuring at the same time. I liked the way he handled it, making it a fitting lead-in to the finale that climaxes the hero's life in a tumultuous conclusion. Roth holds nothing back and then ends the work in typical Mahler ambiguity.

Producer Jiri Heger and engineers Jiri Heger and Alix Ewald recorded the symphony at the Philharmonie de Paris, the Theatre de Nimes, and the Cite de la Musique et de la Danse de Soissons, France in February, March, and October 2018. The engineers do a pretty good job with it. The dynamics are quite wide, so you don't want to be tempted to turn it up too high to begin with, even though it starts very softly. Definition is good, frequency extremes are more than adequate, impact is strong, and left-to-right and back-to-front spatial characteristics sound realistic. Nothing is too bright or forward, nor is anything dull or fuzzy. It's all very natural sounding and lifelike, even if there is little that stands out as overtly audiophile. Maybe that's the way it ought to be.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, 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 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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa