By John J. Puccio
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.
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.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: