Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Mariss Jansons, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. BR Klassik 900179.

By John J. Puccio

During his career, the late Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons (1943-2019) made a slew of recordings, many of which were recordings of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies. Maybe we don’t always think of Jansons as a Mahlerian in the way we think of, say, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Leonard Bernstein, Georg Solti, Bernard Haitink, Simon Rattle, or Klaus Tennstedt as Mahlerians in the stereo era, but Jansons recorded the Mahler symphonies several times over with different orchestras and labels, and he often programmed Mahler on his concert schedule. The disc under review is from his last batch of Mahler recordings, this time with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Being his last recorded set, you might think it was his last word on the subject. That may be true, but it’s only his last word in the sense that it’s among his last recordings. Whether it’s the best of his Mahler recordings or the last word on the subject of Mahler performances in general are other, more open questions. In other words, although this interpretation from Jansons may be just fine and quite serviceable, one should not consider it definitive or “the last word” on the subject. The aforementioned conductors might have had more to say.
 
Anyway, 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 and dropped the "Titan" business altogether, which is what we have here.

Mahler explained that in the First Symphony 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. 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. 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, so in the final twenty minutes or so Mahler pulls out all the stops and puts the orchestra on full throttle.

Now, how does Jansons handle all of this? As I say, in a serviceable manner. He creates a nice, leisurely opening as a long winter finally closes out and spring, the youth, enters. However, for me it’s a little too leisurely and tends to wear out its welcome before long. It may be an omen of things to come in Jansons’s reading. The movements start well but tend to get routine thereafter fairly quickly. If there’s any irony in the Scherzo it seems lost on Jansons, who plays it so straight-arrow he drains it of any significance. And so it goes.

Mahler said that his music was “a metaphor of the world in tones.” Fair enough. So the conductor should give the listener enough musical cues to relate the music to the real world, as in a tone poem. Jansons, however, doesn’t seem so interested in having his listener interpret Mahler as he does letting the listener know how beautiful the music can be. This approach wears out its welcome pretty fast. The parodic funeral also seems more than a bit flat. It’s only in the first half of the finale that Jansons appears energized enough to pull off some flair, yet even here he is restrained, and what should have been big and splashy sounds, instead, rather reserved by the end. That big victory chorus at the conclusion where Mahler wanted the horn players to stand up “to achieve the most powerful sound possible” doesn’t measure up to what we get from some of the best recorded performances, and the applause at the end of this live recording doesn’t improve things.

In the last analysis, I’d say this Jansons recording is an also-ran. It’s a good try, but it fails to compete with the conductors I mentioned in the opening, who provide the score with more color, more imagination, and more passion. Jansons, on the other hand, gives us a straightforward account of Mahler’s music, in a way taking it as Haitink always did, without adding much of his own personality and letting the music speak for itself. Yet Haitink was able to make the music come alive more than Jansons does, who doesn’t just let it alone but lets much of it lie inert. On a more positive note, the keep case comes with a cardboard slipcover, for whatever that’s worth.

Producer Wilhelm Meister and engineer Peter Urban recorded the symphony live at Munchen, Herkulessaal (Munich, Hercules Hall), in March 2007. For a live recording, it’s all right, a little close but not bright, hard, or edgy. Although there isn’t much depth to the orchestral sound, it is warm and smooth. OK, maybe too smooth as it leans toward the soft side as well. With dynamics that are a bit limp, the whole affair is less than audiophile; and, as I’ve said, the closing applause doesn’t help.

JJP

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 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, 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, 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, Contributing Reviewer

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 that 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. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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