Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (SACD review)

Osmo Vanska, Minnesota Orchestra. BIS BIS-2346 SACD.

"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.

Osmo Vanska
Under Vanska's direction, the coming of spring begins very quietly, in part because it's a quiet spring day and in part because the conductor wants shortly to open up the movement to a wide dynamic range. He succeeds on both counts. Some listeners may find Vanska's direction a little too leisurely, too relaxed, and lacking in spark. But the sparks do fly when needed; otherwise, the conductor is more concerned with atmosphere than setting the world on fire. Remember, in this symphony Mahler intended a specific agenda, making the work kind of set of interconnected tone poems, much like Beethoven's "Pastoral" symphony. Vanska does as good a job as anyone in helping us to see and understand Mahler's intentions.

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:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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 Jon 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, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings 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 they 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 Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet DAC/preamp/crossover, Tandberg 2016A and Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

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. --John J. Puccio
The reader will find Classical Candor's Mission Statement, Staff Profiles, and contact information ( toward the bottom of each page.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa