"Wouldn't you just die without Mahler?" --Educating Rita
I've used that quote a number of times because of both its appropriateness (Mahler is a great composer) and its inappropriateness (the world does not hang of one's appreciation of Mahler's music). In fact, Mahler's unique traits are so obvious throughout his music that his nine (or ten or eleven) symphonies might just as well be considered a single, monumental work, something Mahler probably intended, anyway. Some years ago I hadn't played but about two seconds of a Mahler symphony before my wife yelled from another room, "Mahler!" Indeed. "How did you know from only a couple of notes?" I asked. "I'd know his style anywhere," she answered.
So, as you know, Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) premiered his Symphony No. 1 in D major in 1889, called it a five-movement symphonic poem, and temporarily gave it the subtitle "Titan." It was not long after, however, that he revised it to the familiar four-movement piece we know today, dropping the "Titan" business altogether. That's what we have here in this new SACD recording from Maestro Osmo Vanska and his Minnesota Orchestra.
I don't think it was coincidental that Mahler's symphonies became especially popular in the mid-to-late 1950's, the beginning of the stereo age. I'm guessing it was because with their scoring for large orchestras, their soaring melodies, their enormous impact, and their multitude of dramatic contrasts, the symphonies make a spectacular listening experience, and the experience became a perfect way for audiophiles to show off their newfangled stereo systems. In addition, his First and Fourth are among Mahler's shortest symphonies, making them a good length for home listening.
Anyway, in his Symphony No. 1 Mahler explained he was trying to describe his protagonist (maybe himself) 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 second-movement scherzo, "With Full Sail," we find Mahler in one of his mock-sentimental moods, displaying an exuberance that he probably meant as ironic. Whatever, Maestro Vanska plays up the more lyrical qualities of an unhurried stroll in the woods rather than the full exhilaration of the moment.
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 (his brother died a decade earlier). With Mahler, who knows. The movement has long been one of the composer's most controversial, and audiences still debate just what he was up to. Whatever, Vanska's treatment of it seems more straightforward, more seriously solemn, than most interpretations I've heard. Maybe that's as it should be.
Then, in the finale, Mahler breaks the reverie and conveys the panic "of a deeply wounded heart," as his central figure faces the suffering of life and fate. Still, because Mahler was a spiritual optimist, he wanted Man to triumph in the end. Therefore, in the movement's final twenty minutes or so Mahler pulls out all the stops and puts the orchestra into full swing. Maestro Vanska also pulls out the stops as he whips his orchestra into a red-blooded fury. And the Minnesota Orchestra acquit themselves wonderfully, producing a big, rich, radiant, and highly disciplined sound
So, how does Vanska's realization of the symphony compare to some of my favorites from Solti, Horenstein, Kubelik, Mackerras, Haitink, Bernstein, Tennstedt, and others? To me, Solti's first stereo recording with the London Symphony (HDTT or Decca) still holds up best interpretively, and Tennstedt's first EMI recording still makes the best sonic impact. Nevertheless, I've always admired Vanska's work, especially in Sibelius and Mahler, and here it is no different. Although he may convey a more gentle handling of the symphony than the others I've mentioned, there is much beauty in his performance, a beauty often overlooked by other conductors in favor of Mahler's more histrionic qualities.
BIS packaged the disc in a cardboard fold-over sleeve, which they say "is made of FXC/PEFC-certified material with soy ink, eco-friendly glue and water-based varnish. It is easy to recyle, and no plastic is used." So it doesn't have a Digipak-style plastic holder for the disc but instead uses a paper inner sleeve that fits into a side pocket. Very nice.
Producer Robert Suff and engineer Mattheas Spitzbarth recorded the symphony at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota in March 2018. They made it for hybrid SACD and CD playback, so you can play it in multichannel or two-channel stereo from the SACD layer (using an SACD player) and two-channel stereo from the CD layer (using a regular CD player). I listened in two-channel SACD.
As always with a BIS recording, the sound is very natural. The microphone distancing provides a natural, concert hall-like perspective. The frequency response is warm and natural. The detailing is smooth and natural. The dynamics are wide and natural. You won't find an audiophile lovers' close-up definition here nor the clinical accuracy of an old Decca Phase-4 release. As I say, this is simply natural sound, the kind one might actually hear in person.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: