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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Gustav MAHLER (1850 - 1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D "The Titan" (1884-8, rev. 1893, 1896-8)
Staatskapelle Dresden/Otmar Suitner
Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen (1884, rev. 1892, 1896)
Hermann Prey (bar)
Berliner Rudfunk Sinfonie Orchester/Kurt Sanderling
Recorded 1962 (Sym), 1960 (Lieder)
BERLIN CLASSICS ETERNA COLLECTION 0032532BC
[68'37]



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Every now and then Mahler came out with something, either verbally or in his music, bordering on the clairvoyant. For instance, in the verbal corner we have his oft-quoted comment regarding his Fifth Symphony: "Nobody understood it - I wish I could conduct its première fifty years after my death". The implication was not only prophetic, but uncommonly accurate as well! In the music corner we have Alma accusing him of "tempting fate" by setting Rückertís poems on the deaths of children. The outcome of that now seems as inevitable as it was tragic.

However, Iíd lay odds that, as he was beavering away on the symbiotic First Symphony and Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen, not even for one millisecond did he think, "These might not fill a concert programme, but theyíll make a really neat coupling when CD is invented, 70 years after my death." Of course, if he had (which, of course, he didnít), heíd have been spot-on, because thatís exactly what they do make!

They also make an astonishing example of a composer setting out his stall. This "co-composition" adds up to such an extraordinary coincidence that I often wonder if thatís all it is. We get the distinct impression that Mahler was taking a deliberate stance, effectively declaring to the world, "Right, Iím through with childish things. All my music from now on will be either song or symphony - I will express my thoughts through either the simplest and most intimate form, or the most complex and most public. There will be nothing in between." The case in question seemed to be a conscious decision; he took two seeds out of the same packet, and somehow managed to cultivate a flower from one and a tree from the other!

Mahler, it has to be said, accumulated dichotomies like we mere mortals collect CDs. This is what made the remarkable Das Lied von der Erde all the more remarkable: it was the work in which he consciously bucked this trend, reconciling the song and the symphony, coalescing the two disparate forms into a miraculous unity. But that was to be a whole lifetime hence, and another story.

In the brief booklet note of this recording, Gabor Halász says, "Gustav Mahlerís First Symphony . . . one of the most self-assured, artistically valid first works of its type already clearly reveals the style of its creator." Ignoring my mental mutterings of "What about Das Klagende Lied, then?" this relatively restrained statement exemplifies the opening gambit that has been flogged to death by commentators the world over, ever since we stopped thinking of Mahler as some out-on-the-edge nutcase and started taking him seriously. It irks me no end, not because I disagree - though Mahlerís First would have been a jaw-dropper even if heíd already written a whole hatful of symphonies - but because this statement actually under-plays Mahlerís achievement.

In his second paragraph, Halász says that it "was written in close connection to the Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen" and proceeds to point out several of the cross-fertilisations. Having given himself all the clues, he somehow manages to avoid mentioning the import of his words, namely the point I made above. While Iím at it, I may as well tell you that the English translation is by Danny Antonelli who, judging by the standard of the end-product, canít exactly claim English as his native tongue. Itís not as bad as the installations of a car radio that I once tried to decipher ("For a car with no engine, ..." for heavenís sake!), but it does have its moments. Try this for size: "The eerie grotesqueness is followed by the unleashed frenzy of the finale - which already from its dimensions is the focus of the symphonic cycle of movements - the electrifying final apotheosis, up to the triumphing brass choral at the end." (assume "[sic]" throughout!). Why (other than cost!) donít these people ever give the texts to a native English-speaker for a final polishing before publication? [see footnote] Can anyone tell me, are translations into German, or French, or Japanese, as unidiomatic and confusing? Anyway, that said, once youíve deciphered the meanings the booklet note does manage to be both useful and informative. The entire lack of texts - never mind translations, of any quality - for the songs is perhaps excusable in a budget issue, so please forgive me if Iím not inclined to do so.

The recordings date from the early 1960s, and compared to the phenomenal results being produced at the time by such as RCA, EMI, Mercury, and most notably Decca, are fairly grotty (i.e. not of the highest order). Itís impossible to tell without having a copy of the original recordings to hand, but this may have something to do with the use of the Sonic Solutions No Noise system in the remastering for CD. Now, Iíve no problem with these "noise management systems" per se; used with a bucketful of circumspection they can and indeed do produce pretty impressive results. However, I have a pretty solid impression, born of experience, that they can easily be used (shall we say?) over-enthusiastically, and the consequences can be, to say the least, dire.

So, how do the recordings sound? Well, thankfully not "dire"! In spite of the implied claims of the trade mark No Noise, some residual tape hiss can be heard drifting in and out. The saving grace is that it is only occasional, and not particularly obtrusive. The big risk of the system, though, is that of extracting bits of the baby whilst chucking out the bathwater. Some folk get paranoid about this, lamenting "the irretrievable loss of elements of the priceless recording" Mind you, some people even think that the very "soul" of the music can get lost in the gaps between the bits of a digital recording. Personally, Iíd point to ATRAC, which effectively ditches over 80% of the "substance", the 20% that remains comprising pretty well 100% of the musicís "soul".

However, fascinating as such things can be, I digress. Yes, in this instance I do feel that something is lost. The sounds seem a bit "rounded off", the musicís sharp edges blunted. It may lack much of the translucence of the best of undoctored recordings, but it really isnít so bad once youíve acclimatised - and it will head off anyone whoís itching to complain of the dreaded "digital edge"! At first I thought that this might be losing us some of the details in the sound. For example, in the symphonyís first movement development section the subterranean booming of the bass drum, an important part of the texture, is inaudible. Yet, in the third movementís tender passage for solo strings, up pops a line that I honestly cannot remember hearing before! In view of the fact that most of the time most of the parts are "there" it seems that, at rock bottom, these matters of balance are a consequence of the interpretation.

There are so many recordings of this symphony from which to choose that comparison seems, if not pointless, then a potentially interminable exercise. As one who has concentrated his record-collecting on pieces rather than performances of music, I am quite astonished to discover that I have been so profligate as to amass no fewer than three recordings of this symphony. Two of them are "classics": the famous 60s Decca LSO/Solti, and the 1989 DG COA/Bernstein. The third (thankfully!) can be described as a "freebie", being the fine recording by the BBCSO under Manfred Honeck that came with volume 8 no. 9 of the BBC Music Magazine. Iíd be happy to live with any one of these, though (call me sentimental if you like) my "Desert Island" choice would be the Solti one - he puts a foot wrong on only two occasions, the end of the scherzo (which in spite of repeated hearings still sounds too fast!) and the "boom-crash" percussion in the third movementís bucolic dancing (which nobody ever seems to get right - why are they all so afraid of making it sound crude? Isnít that precisely what Mahler intended?). The last time I looked, Soltiís recording was on a Double Decca coupled with the contemporaneous recording of the Second Symphony, but otherwise youíll find that couplings for the First Symphony are fairly hard to come by.

Otmar Suitner is hardly what youíd call a seasoned Mahler conductor (certainly when compared with the likes of the aforementioned!). Nevertheless, here is where the real good news starts, for this is a fine performance that positively oozes character! Youíll notice I didnít add "and refinement". If refinement is what you seek, look elsewhere - there are plenty of recordings that "ooze" refinement, but precious little else. If it comes to a toss-up between character and refinement, give me the former any day.

Even allowing for his omission of the marked exposition repeat in the first movement, at 51 minutes Suitner doesnít hang about on the street corners. His view of langsam, schleppend eschews the Brucknerian "mist-shrouded pre-dawn stillness" in favour of the purposeful pulse of animate nature, itching to be up and off. This not only ensures that the important germinal motives gel, but also brings not so much a feeling of "release" as of "relaxation" to the emergence of the Ging heutí morgen tune - itís a fine and curious, but very effective distinction. Top marks also for the offstage fanfares, tinglingly articulated by the Dresden players and clearly resounding from the near distance.

In the second movement, Suitner is also - as far as my ears are concerned - far more in tune with the spirit of the ländler than the likes of Bernstein and (particularly) Solti. It put me in mind of the young Philharmonia player* who queried Klempererís dawdling tempo for the Peasantsí Merrymaking of Beethovenís Sixth Symphony. The often acerbic conductor smiled benignly, and replied, "You will get used to it, my boy!" In a similar manner, and with the aid of some gorgeously galumphing basses, Suitner draws out the bucolic bumbling tucked away in the main tune, and heightens the contrast of this pastoral knees-up with the coffee-house sophistication of the languorous central waltz.

Three cheers for the Dresden principal double-bass player! Too often do we hear the Brüder Martin theme at the opening of the sarky third movement played with such ridiculously practised ease that it might as well be a cello. This chap doesnít. He creaks and groans his way through the tune, as though each note was actually painful to produce. Itís infectious, and the atmosphere of mockery is palpable (letís not forget the image of Mahlerís inspiration, The Huntsmanís Funeral, and in particular the attitude of the principal mourners, the huntsmanís former prey). Suitner pulls this off brilliantly, apart from that largely prissy percussion.

Starting with a crash that must have damaged the cymbal playerís wrists, the finale erupts with nerve-jangling vehemence. Suitner takes the stürmisch bewegt marking at face value: Mahler said it was supposed to be "like the cry of a sorely wounded heart", and Suitner makes you believe every word, flinging his players like burning lances into the heart of the storm. The heaven-sent second subject is not allowed to wallow in its own beauty, but pressed ever forward. We may not have as long to savour it, but Suitner reaps huge dividends in passion and urgency, as well as making the emotional relationship between the two main subjects just that bit clearer (draw the second out "molto interminabile" and it sounds like it comes from altogether a different world from the first).

Here as in the rest of the symphony, the playing feels a bit - or even more than a bit - rough-shod, but itís a coarseness that is entirely in keeping with this extraordinary music, that (for me at least) is far more satisfying than any of your super-professional, high-gloss jobs. By the time Iíd got to the rip-snorting finish, Iíd all but forgotten all those reservations about the use of the No Noise sound mincing-machine, and I was past caring about the occasional lapses of balance or ill-considered moments of refinement. This is proper music-making, bloody and raw-knuckled, the sort of stuff that has the blue-rinse set fleeing concert halls in sheer terror.

I had to wonder: with a complete change of personnel, would the Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen come as a (relative) disappointment? The short answer is "no". Herrmann Prey has a fine, rock-solid baritone voice, with a considerable dynamic range. However, when he cranks up the volume, his voice seems to "harden". On a couple of occasions, this effect spills into overload. The problem is that, although the balance between voice and orchestra is well-judged, the singer is too closely "miked". Of course, this isnít a problem when heís singing softly, which is most of the time.

I would say that his expressive abilities are equal to those of Fischer-Dieskau, but with the added advantage that he doesnít "woof" when things get noisy. Down at the quiet end, his voice remains steady of tone, and he puts over with real conviction the descents into morbid, juvenile self-pity that crop up in all four songs - the "decay" from gaiety to gloom in the second song is especially moving, and the blanched quality he brings to the opening of the final song is chilling.

Sanderling and the Berlin RSO do a brilliant job, seeking out and projecting all the important bits. The playing is wonderfully clear and responsive. In the first song, their fine control of rubato is immediately apparent, with some delightful filigree in the nicely lifted central episode. The strings, violins in particular, sound rather thin and wiry, though I think this is another consequence of the recording, because the playing itself is fine. Watch out for the start of the third song, which explodes into the room, spitting vitriol with vicious intent! While weíre at it, listen out for a few uncommon details - Sanderling coaxes some really creepy moments out of Mahlerís score.

Itís a pity that someone like Mark Obert-Thorn hasnít got his hands on these recordings! These are terrific performances, often rough-edged but always bristling with character and individuality. Although the coarseness of the sound can be appropriate in many passages, overall I feel that they would benefit from rather more care and attention in the remastering process. But donít let that put you off! This CD wonít cost you an arm and a leg, but it will cost you some preconceptions, because it contains some truly perceptive and rewarding Mahler performances.

Paul Serotsky

* . . . or so Iíd thought for about 40 years! However, I am grateful to Mr. Anthony Fast who wrote to MusicWeb indicating his belief that it was actually Walter Legge who posed the question. It would, of course, be a far more tasty quote if this was the case, so Iíd be grateful if anyone can point to any documentary evidence to confirm Mr. Fastís belief.

Paul Serotsky

Footnote


My review comments on Danny Antonelli’s English translation of the booklet note provoked an e-mail response that was both fascinating and - if you’re a reviewer - salutory. After reproducing my comments, the writer continued

" . . . Well, embarassingly enough, I am the Danny Antonelli you castigated in that little excerpt from your review, and I can assure you that English is my native tongue. The CD you listened to was probably from the batch [originally] released by Edel about 10 or 12 years ago, at any rate, shortly after reunification. That's when Edel got ahold of the catalogue and hired a bunch of people to translate the booklets into various languages. My job was to translate from German into English. If you were able to read some of the original German texts then you will have noticed that they were not written in clear and concise language - rather in academic-speak that taxed my ability (or my disability!) to the max. Another factor which contributed to poor quality was the time pressure we were all under. Everything had to be done as quickly as possible and there really was no time to set a text aside for a few days and then come back to it and clear up the language. Often it was just as good a first draft as I could manage under the circumstances. I assure you that I have done much better work than that!

"Besides justifying my shoddy work, what I'd really like to do is apologize for delivering something so remarkably unintelligible that it caused enough discomfort for you to mention it publicly.

"Best regards,
DANNY"


Of course, reviewers are used to receiving complaints about what they say, but this one is exceptional for the civility and graciousness of its expression. The gist of my reply to Danny is:

"Your story is a fascinating image of an improbable "cottage industry" creaking under an intolerable strain. It really was very kind of you to set it all down, (dare I say?) in quite reasonably comprehensible English, as an object lesson on how wide of the mark what seemed like a perfectly reasonable assumption can be.

"Far from "justifying your shoddy work", your nugget of history shows that the quality of work cannot necessarily be judged by the appearance of its end-product. This much is plain from what you say: you have absolutely no need to apologise, to me or anyone else. No doubt you'll take some
consolation in the last of my sentences that you quote: in spite of everything, you did at least attain your prime objective.

"For my part, I would like to point out that my comments were rather less than castigation, and I'm sorry if I've made you feel like that. I did start with the words "judging by the standard of the end-product", which at least gives a basis for my conclusion and admits the possibility of error - that's why I said it, and believe me there are plenty of reviewers who wouldn't bother with any such piddling considerations!! [NOW I'll get hammered from BOTH sides!]It is also worth pointing out that my real complaint is with the companies who do not exercise some reasonable degree of quality control."


So, how about it, you good folk of Berlin Classics? Would you like to invite Mr. Antonelli to finish the job he started under such adverse conditions?



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