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Two Takes on Mahler 1

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Mahler, Symphony No. 1, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, G. Solti
(remastered June 12, 2007)
We have reviewed the National Symphony Orchestra in two concert performances of Mahler's 1st symphony (with Roberto Abbado in 2004 and Leonard Slatkin in 2007), and Jens has recommended Rafael Kubelik's recording with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Sometimes known as "Der Titan" (see the essay by Henry-Louis de La Grange), this symphony was described by Mahler as the story of "a powerful, heroic man," whose burial is commemorated in the Resurrection symphony. The work was a dismal failure at its 1889 premiere, with the composer at the podium of the Budapest Philharmonic. In several stages, Mahler revised the symphony extensively, most importantly cutting it from five to four movements by excising the second movement, an Andante allegretto now called Blumine (recently reviewed at Ionarts in a performance by the Baltimore Symphony).

Georg Solti made a landmark recording of the Mahler first symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra in the 1960s, following it in 1983 with a second one with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. That second recording has recently been reissued by Decca, prompting me to revisit it. Unlike the Kubelik, in which Der Titan was paired with the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, the symphony stands alone on the Solti disc. Solti's reading is most remarkable in how he pushed the sections of the Chicago Symphony in the fast and loud passages. The players, especially the brass, respond with everything they have. There is little bend or subtlety, however, except in the third-movement funeral march, where there is some unwarranted stretching that strikes me as against Mahler's tempo specification, ohne zu schleppen (without dragging). The things one hopes to hear in Der Titan -- the mystery of consciousness awakening with spring in the first movement, the Musikanten irreverently interrupting the "Callot" scene in the funeral march -- are a little bland. Still, the audible edge to this performance does suggest the sinfonia ironica epithet attached to this symphony by Viennese critic Max Kalbeck.

Decca 430 8042

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Mahler, Symphony No. 1 (and Blumine), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, D. Zinman
(released on March 13, 2007)
This new recording by David Zinman and Zurich's Tonhalle-Orchester inaugurated a complete Mahler cycle from these forces, followed closely by their Resurrection Symphony, which we are also listening to right now. It is a shame that an American orchestra could not have kept Zinman here (well, except Aspen, that is) after his lauded time on the podium of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, but his recordings in Zurich have been successful. It is surprising that Zinman's track times for Der Titan are almost identical to Solti's, as the two renditions sound rather different. Only the funeral march is markedly different in length, with Zinman coming in almost 40 seconds faster than Solti, due at least in part to Zinman's much less square Musikanten and more characteristic sense of folk rubato. The spring forest in the first movement is distant and hazy, with the hungry calls of the cuckoos under a veil, and the trio of the second movement is suave without being oily.

The Zinman recording has a final detail to recommend it, the inclusion of the Blumine movement as a fifth track. It is slightly odd to listen to the final version of Der Titan, in which the final movement reviews the sounds of the preceding movements (a gesture taken from Beethoven's ninth symphony). Among those themes is the gentle lilt of Blumine, originally in the second position, like the phantom itch of an amputated hand. (See these further essays on Mahler's first symphony.) As Thomas Meyer notes in a perceptive article in the liner notes, modern sound technology allows each listener to program the playback of this disc as he wishes, reinserting Blumine or hewing to Mahler's ultimate plan. All in all, worth a listen.

RCA Red Seal (Sony BMG) 82876 87156 2

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