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."
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: