> Mahler Symphony No 1 Muti CDE5749632 [TD]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.1 in D (1884-8)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Ricardo Muti
(Recorded in Memorial Hall, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia in February 1984)
EMI CLASSICS ENCORE 5 74963 2 [56.25]


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When this recording was first released in 1984 a lot of publicity was generated by the choice of venue for the sessions. EMI had just begun working with Ricardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra in their, then new, long-term partnership, but with time running out before the sessions for their first release they had despaired of finding a studio to use instead of The Old Met or The Academy both of which were unsuitable. Then a chance conversation with a gardener at Fairmount Park just outside the city by engineer Peter Dix led them to an indoor baseball court in one of the wings of the parkís Memorial Hall that, after some imported acoustic panels had been pressed into service, proved ideal for recording. The sound of this great orchestra here comes across with a bloom and depth that never gets in the way of important details that themselves emerge in an almost ideal perspective. In fact it is the playing of the orchestra that most impresses on first hearing. There is no part of this wonderful score that they are not on top of. The pleasure of hearing what was then and still is one of the greatest orchestras in the world playing this music is as good a reason for buying this recording as any over and above what qualities Muti might bring.

Of course Ricardo Muti is not known as a Mahler interpreter. You could say that with this recording of the First Symphony he was just a visitor to the Mahler canon. Indeed Iím not aware he has ever performed any other Mahler symphonies since this recording. But there is no need for that to put us off giving it a fair hearing. Of all the works in the Mahler canon this is the one that is most likely to yield up fine results from such a visitor. Taken in isolation from the works to come, the First can still be viewed a great big nineteenth century romantic symphony with lots of big tunes and big moments and this is generally how Muti treats it. No special insights, therefore, no impressions of this as first chapter in a musical biography, just superb playing and faultless execution in near-ideal sound. The distant atmospherics of the first movementís introduction are floated beautifully before us, for example. It is a rather still landscape, however. Not one that shimmers as evocatively as it can. A landscape without figures, you might say. I also feel that once the main material of the exposition gets underway the introduction appears much more detached from it than usual. A sign of Mutiís Mahlerian inexperience, perhaps. Later on the development has superb poise but note the careful portamenti on the cellos. These are correct rather than idiomatic: the score being obeyed rather than read and understood. Listen to Horenstein recorded in Vienna in the 1950s on Vox (CDX2 5508) for the real Mahler experience here though the contrast in sound could not be greater. The great orchestral outburst prior to the recapitulation with horns whooping like bridling stallions is built to and delivered with great sense of power in reserve at first then a real feeling of release. This is the first time in the recording that you have the chance to hear the fine acoustic of Memorial Hall playing its part and Iím sure it will impress you as it did me. In the second movement the superb lower string articulation is a good example of the stunning orchestral playing to be heard throughout the performance. Perhaps Muti does just see this movement as only a jolly set of dances, though. In many ways this is what it is, but others can find far deeper resonance, especially in the sickly trio. In the hands of a Kubelik or a Horenstein or a Bernstein it really pricks at the imagination more where Muti is a little too cultured and refined here to get beneath the skin. Is he perhaps still in the first flush of excitement at standing before such players and wants to show them to their best advantage?

The third movement begins very subdued and veiled. The lack of any real character and grotesque in the solo double bass opening again suggests to me that Muti is really skating the surface of this music, again just obeying the score rather than understanding and probing it. As the movement progresses that dapper refinement I noticed in the second movement is still to the fore. In a movement that is one of Mahlerís most early distinctive creations this is certainly a loss. One wonders how these sessions would have emerged if they had been in the hands of Kubelik or Barbirolli. However, again I cannot but praise the beautiful playing of the orchestra and the excellent balance of the sound and likewise all through the last movement. Though here itís now a case of a great virtuoso orchestra simply being given its head to revel in that new acoustic and the obvious confidence they have in their new Music Director. Here is all the power and depth of sound that you could wish for in a performance of this movement. But I was also impressed that never in the big romantic tune this movement contains does Muti ever become self-indulgent. He certainly has enough grasp of what is going on not to divorce such a wonderful melody from what surrounds it and pull it about like some ham actor reciting romantic poetry. At the very end the coda towers and storms but is likewise never coarse, never shouts at us and loses its temper. There is real eloquence at the end with the horns especially well recorded to round off a performance I was glad to get to know again, even though it can never be a front recommendation. In the final analysis Mahlerís First Symphony is much more than the eloquent showpiece for great orchestras that Muti and the Philadelphia deliver. However full marks to EMIís engineering team for capturing them on the wing and for reissuing this superb recording.

For what I think may be the first time on a recording of this work EMI have resisted the temptation to call it "Titan" on the front cover. This is a title that Mahler discarded when he submitted his first symphonic work to revision and which has no business on the same billing as this work but which record companies and concert promoters still insist on pinning on to it. A pity, therefore, that this good practice is ruined by the anonymous liner notes writer who informs us that Mahler added the title "Titan" after he revised the symphony. A case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, I think.

A performance to stress this symphony as a stunning orchestral showpiece, with sound recording and playing of the highest order.

Tony Duggan


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