> Gustav Mahler - Richard Strauss [PJL]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No 1 in D major (1889) [54.24]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Don Juan: Symphonic Poem, Op 20 (1889) [15.49]
London Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Gaetano Delogu (Mahler)
London Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Karl Anton Rickenbacher (Strauss)
recorded 1-3 February 1976 at Fairfield Hall, Croydon, England: ADD (Mahler)
recorded 2-3 April 1985 at Walthamstow Assembly Hall, England: DDD (Strauss)
CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE 7243 5 75141 2 5 [70.03] Superbudget


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With the big names pulling out all the stops to score points over Naxos, well-filled reissues these days often include interesting bonuses and fill-ups. My first thought on encountering this CD was to doubt the wisdom of coupling such different pieces, however generous the timings. But oneís second thoughts were bound to be different. Don Juan was Straussís first real success, or at least the earliest piece for which he is widely known: likewise Mahlerís First Symphony. Both pieces date from 1889. Theyíre both hugely impressive orchestral showpieces. And each, in its very different way, is profoundly characteristic of its composer.

Musicologists (or rather music-lovers) like to gather composers into contemporary pairs. We so often talk of Handel and Bach, Mozart and Haydn, and Debussy and Ravel; and such marriages persist in our imaginations despite the contrasts far outnumbering the similarities. Likewise Strauss and Mahler, who were in truth opposites. Don Juan is almost overpoweringly energetic, dashing, flamboyant music; music which seems to have no time to pause for breath. On the other hand, Mahlerís First Symphony (which the composer referred to as a "symphonic poem in the form of a symphony") seems to have all the time in the world to make its point. From its mysterious dawn-like opening to its emphatically defiant closing pages, everything unfolds at an evolutionary pace. Of course there are parallels to be drawn also Ė the ghost of the Viennese classical past in Straussís sonata-like structure and in the dance rhythms of Mahlerís inner movements; both composersí fondness of obviously vocal song-like episodes; and the virtuosity, colour and weight of orchestration which both pieces share.

This Don Juan is a swaggering and dazzling performance in first-rate digital sound Ė brightly lit rather than weighty, but in a wide-open acoustic which allows plenty of detail through. Be warned that Rickenbacher takes everything at a cracking pace (but how well the orchestra keep up with him!) even to the extent of foregoing the traditional slowing down into the recapitulated horn theme: if youíre used to a more expansive approach here, you may find this a bit of a let down!

The Mahler isnít quite in the same league, though I couldnít possibly describe it as routine. The orchestral playing and the sound (analogue, but you really canít tellÖ) are both admirable, and thereís plenty of warmth and excitement. But I miss the sense of complete involvement, of personal identity with Mahlerís subtext which comes across so compellingly in (say) Bernsteinís live reading with the Concertgebouw, where every phrase and gesture is pregnant with meaning. In the opening pages of Deloguís LPO performance, by comparison, Mahlerís birdcalls seem little more than mere musical fragments: and, although the strings are undoubtedly expressive in the finaleís two passionately lyrical episodes, you wonít hear much of Mahlerís pain or yearning.

So an interesting coupling, but Ė though the Strauss is a winner Ė I canít honestly give the Mahler reading an unqualified thumbs-up in such a competitive market, even at bargain price.

Peter J Lawson


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