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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen('Songs of a Wayfaring Lad')
Symphony No. 1 in D Major, 'Titan'
Christopher Maltman (baritone)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Benjamin Zander
including discussion disc
rec. Studio One, EMI Abbey Road (Songs), 11 July 2004; Watford Coliseum (Sym) 12-14 July 2004.
Symphony playable in DSD Surround and DSD Stereo on an SACD player.
TELARC 2SACD-80628 [68.32 + 79.06]

The release of Benjamin Zander's recording of Mahler's First Symphony may be the last in what may disappointingly be an unfinished 'cycle' of Mahler recordings. Certainly there appear to be no further Philharmonia concerts or recordings planned. The previous releases have generally been well-received and this one equally so.

The first disc pairs the tenderly expressed, acutely felt and splendidly articulated account of Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen by British baritone, Christopher Maltman. Am I alone in hearing Die Meistersinger Act 3 'Dance of the Apprentices' pervading 'Ging heut' Morgen übers Feld'? The songs are redolent of youthful passion and reflect a doomed love-affair of the composer with the singer Johanna Richter. Mahler gives these songs a generally light orchestration and tone, so this enables soloist, conductor and the always reliable Philharmonia to establish a recital hall/chamber-like intimacy at times. Also I always find that by and large non-German singers seem to take more care with the words. This is never better illustrated than here as Maltman gives a very dramatically compelling account of the songs.

During the five years Mahler took to compose this First Symphony he was working on his group of four Wayfarer songs. Some of the themes from these songs are also used in the first and third movements of the symphony. This use of song-like material was characteristic of Mahler throughout his lifetime as was the use of folksong and traditional dances. When Benjamin Zander performed this work at the Royal Festival Hall in January 2004 he gave one of his usual carefully balanced pre-concert talks, accessible both to experienced music-lovers and those new to music. He introduces the programme for the whole evening with many Victor Borge-like illustrations at the piano and some memorable quotes such as 'Rubato is to Mahler what tomato is to Spaghetti Bolognese'. Apart from Ländler and Klezmer this symphony most famously contains a setting of 'Frère Jacques' ('Bruder Martin' in German) in an unfamiliar minor key as a funeral march in the third movement.

At his recent study day for the Gustav Mahler Society on 'Mahler and Shostakovich' the music journalist and broadcaster David Nice used this new release of Benjamin Zander's for several musical illustrations. This included playing a substantial part of the obligatory discussion disc that makes these releases invaluable for the listener wishing to explore more of what lies behind the music. Mr Nice was comparing the influences of Jewish music on both these composers but can I add how surprised I am, even after so many performances and so many recordings of Mahler's First Symphony, to find there is still resistance to - or 'shock and awe' at - the idea that the Jewish/Slavonic music in the second movement is anything other than what it sounds like: Klezmer. Even Zander on his discussion disc wants to hedge his bets and goes from describing music that is a 'sad Jewish lament' or from a 'Jewish wedding' to that of 'Gipsy fiddlers'.

To counteract any analysis Mahler said -'It is quite irrelevant to know what is being described - it is only important to grasp the mood of what is being expressed and from which the fourth movement springs precipitately ... It is simply the cry of a wounded heart which is preceded by the uncannily oppressive and ironically close atmosphere of the funeral march.'

Back to the first movement where, from the final cuckoo call on the clarinet and its interval of a descending fourth, the principal theme emerges from the cellos - it is 'Ging heut' Morgen übers Feld' again - and Wagner again? In his discussion Zander paused to ponder how a real cuckoo call - there is one excerpted on the disc! - is a falling third whilst Mahler's is a perfect fourth, musically just right to lead into the song. As Zander explains - 'Like any great artist he (Mahler) changed nature to fit his artistic purpose.'

Originally next in the symphony - and performed at that Royal Festival Hall concert - was a charming, romantic movement 'Blumine'. This was subsequently dropped in an 1899 revision of the score. The music was said to represent the serenade the hero (of the symphony) sings to his heroine on a moonlit night on the Rhine. Mahler believed it to be anachronistically 'sentimental' but it seems to be one of his simplest and least affected creations and worthy of an 'Adagietto'-like life of its own. It must have been sheer economics that prevented a recording of this being released on the CD; I suspect Zander in an ideal world might have wanted the listener to be able to interpolate the 'Blumine' movement into Mahler's four movement final version to enable us to hear an approximation of how his original concept for this symphony might have sounded.

Criticism of Zander's Mahler is invidious because he oozes respect and understanding for the music from every pore and he gives us clean textures and an unidiosyncratic account of the score. What was thrilling in performance and also here on the recording is that it all builds up a head of steam throughout the first three movements towards the epic Finale. Here the stirring brass chorale with its heroic final bars and the widely exultant celebration of the triumph of life over death could never fail in such safe hands and with such a wonderful orchestra as the Philharmonia.

As the music finished, in common with most of the audience, I was on my feet applauding. At home listening to the CD I nearly jumped out of my seat to do the same. However despite the masterly conducting and the vibrant orchestral playing some doubts remained. Firstly the range of recorded sound seemed too wide; by that I mean that occasionally I found the loud moments too loud and the quiet moments (like the off-stage brass) too ... you get the idea? Maybe that was just the DSD recording on my CD player? I had certain qualms that in the discussion Zander explains that Mahler had 'parodistic intentions' for the high solo for double bass at the start of the third movement and that 'Mahler would have expected it to sound quite awful' - so why was it played so well on the recording?

Also since I had more time to reflect on the interpretation I was reminded that Mahler thought of his first two symphonies in this way - 'My whole life is contained in them. I have set down in them my experiences and my suffering ...'. I felt no sense of loss, for me my 'hero' had lived, loved and triumphed but was he dead ... and if not who is there to resurrect in the second symphony?

Jim Pritchard



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