Aug 5, 2020

Overlooked Mahler (CD and SACD Reviews)

Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” (w/Brahms, Symphony No. 4)*; Symphony No. 5.**
*Brigitte Fassbaender, mezzo-soprano; Margaret Price, soprano; London Symphony Chorus; Leopold Stokowski, London Symphony Orchestra. RCA Victor Gold Seal 09026-62606-2. **Hartmut Haenchen, Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra; Pentatone classics 5186 004.

By Karl W. Nehring

There are multitudes upon multitudes of Mahler recordings out there, sometimes even by the same conductor. Mahler fans often own multiple recordings of the same symphonies, but still look forward to hearing new recordings that continue to be released. However, for those fans who can never get their hands on enough Mahler recordings, but perhaps even more importantly, for those fans just starting to appreciate Mahler’s music, I would like to turn your attention to a couple of wonderful recordings that have both been around for a good while but are generally overlooked. Neither recording is by a conductor that most music lovers would associate with Mahler. However, both recordings are musical as well as sonic gems, well worth seeking out both by dedicated Mahlerians and by those just curious to see what this Mahler fellow is all about, anyway. 

Interestingly enough, Stokowski was in the audience in Vienna in when Mahler conducted the premiere of his Symphony No. 8. With the political situation in Vienna deteriorating, Stokowski obtained a copy of the score and managed to smuggle it in his luggage and bring it back to Philadelphia with him, where he was the newly appointed conductor of the at that time relatively unknown Philadelphia Orchestra. He insisted that the orchestra present the work and demanded on staging it with a choral force of 950(!) singers – an expense that the orchestra’s board thought way too financially risky. Through sheer force of will and a magnetic personality, Stokowski prevailed and he conducted the U.S. premiere of the work – leading a force of 1,069 musicians – in  March, 1916. The concert proved such a sensation that it was repeated several times in March and April to standing-room-only crowds and thrusting the orchestra into international prominence. (Stokowski’s life is one of the  most colorful imaginable, if you have never read about this now largely-forgotten conductor, do some web browsing and prepare to be entertained!) 

Leopold Stokowski
Although he frequently conducted Mahler in concert, Maestro Stokowski made few Mahler recordings, but this one is a definite keeper. It was made in 1974, when Stokowski was in his 90s. Always eager to embrace new sound technologies, in 1931 he worked with Dr. Harvey Fletcher of Bell Labs on the original stereophonic (three-channel, BTW) orchestral recordings. (If I may be allowed to insert a personal note, in his later life, Harvey Fletcher was married to my wife's grandmother, and in the mid-1970s, we spent many interesting times with “Uncle Harvey,” who even in his 90s was still fascinated by sound and still working on acoustics research. He loved to tell us tales of his work, and he showed us many pictures of him with Leopold Stokowski from those pioneering recording sessions.) For these Mahler sessions, Stokowski worked with the producers of this recording to capture the proceedings in quadraphonic sound, which was an exciting new technology at the time.

However, quadraphonic vinyl LPs never really established themselves in the marketplace. But with the advent of compact discs and digital surround-sound formats, BMG went back to the original quadraphonic master tapes, mixed them for Dolby Surround and released them on CD. I never did set up surround system in my home, but I enjoyed this CD in two-channel stereo and it certainly sounds excellent in that format. However, sometime in the early 2000s I took this CD along on a visit to the Legacy Audio facilities in Springfield, Illinois. In one of his several listening rooms, Bill Dudleston had set up a multi-channel system for the purpose of investigating various approaches to surround sound for both home theater and music listening. For the heck of it, we stuck the Stokowski CD in to the system and were bowled over by the resulting sound. Not only was the soundstage expansive left-to-right and front-to-back, but there was a sensation of height that was truly impressive. Dudleston had a scope in the system that allowed him to see the way the signal was allocated among the four main speakers – he was amazed to see that the Stokowski  CD yielded the cleanest, purest, most impressive signal division that he had ever encountered.

In terms of performance, Stokowski's Mahler is a bit on the slow side, but very expressive – this is a powerful, moving performance. With its excellent sound and majestic performance, this version of the "Resurrection" is one of the finest I have ever heard. If you are a fan of this symphony but have never heard this recording, well, you might want to put it on your want list.

By the way, Stokowski's Brahms 4th is also powerful, but in the opposite way -- it is performed at breakneck speed! A quick comparison: Mackerras's performances with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Telarc) are generally regarded as fast and lively. In the first movement, Mackerras clocks in at 12:02, Stokowski at 10:48. In the final movement, a set of dramatic theme and variations, Mackerras clocks in at 10:06, while Stokowski comes in at 9:51. Yes, this is probably much faster than Brahms intended (and remember, Mackerras is leading a chamber orchestra, while Stokowski is at the helm of the full LSO). It is hard to imagine this one being anyone’s first choice in the Brahms, but it is fun to listen to every once in a while. Majestic Mahler, manic Brahms. Most of the time, you can just start with Track 5, the opening movement of the Mahler.

When Mahler fans start discussing notable Mahler conductors, the names that usually pop up right away are familiar ones such as Bernstein, Abbado, Klemperer, and Barbirolli. The discussion might then move on to names such as Haitink, Karajan, Tilson Thomas, Abravanel, Jansons, Chailly, or the Fischer brothers. Ivan and Adam. One name you are very unlikely to hear is Haenchen. Who?!

Which is pretty much exactly what I thought some years back when this disc arrived along with a bunch of other Pentatone releases for possible review in my old “More Jazz Than Not” column in The $ensible Sound. For one reason or another, mostly because so many other recordings at the time seemed more appealing to audition than a Mahler 5 by some guy named Hartmut Haenchen (who?!) leading the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra.

Hartmut Haenchen
Alas, that pretty much summed up my reaction to the recording when I received it as part of a box of releases from Pentatone back in 2002 or so when it was first released. I wound up never actually listening to it back then, moving on to other things. I vaguely remember reading a review or two over the years that said it was a nice recording, but I never really generated any real desire to hear it. Believe it or not, it wound up sitting on my shelf, still in its original shrink wrap, until just a month or so ago, when I decided that I wanted to listen to some more Mahler on SACD and remembered that I still had the Haenchen disc buried in my collection.

Oh. My. Goodness…

Both musically and sonically, this is one of the finest recordings of the Mahler Symphony No. 5 that I have ever heard. German conductor Hartmut Haenchen just seems to get everything right. Not too fast, not too slow. Plenty of dynamics, but not overblown exaggerations. The orchestra plays with precision and power, and the engineers have done a remarkable job of capturing a live concert performance in superb. The liner notes state that the recording was made by Polyhymnia, a recording firm that “specializes in high-end recordings of acoustic music on location in concert halls, churches, and auditoriums around the world. It is one of the worldwide leaders in producing high-resolution surround sound recordings for SACD and DVD Audio.” Based on this recording, I am willing to believe them. As I indicated above, I do not have a surround setup, so have only listened to the two-channel CD and SACD channels. Both layers yielded stunningly good sound.

Neither of these recordings ever seems to get mentioned in discussions of Mahler recordings, but both are gems. Overlooked gems. I recommend them both very highly!


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 for 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 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 occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. 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 tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II 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.

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 First Symphony. 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 II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual 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.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

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.

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa