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CD: Crotchet


Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D major (1884-88, final revision 1899)
Bamberger Symphoniker/Jonathan Nott
rec. 19-21 December 2005, 1 February 2006, Sinfonie an der Regnitz, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Bamberg, Germany
TUDOR CD7147 [55:25]
Experience Classicsonline

And so the Mahler bandwagon rolls on. David Zinman's cycle for Sony-BMG has reached the halfway point and Valery Gergiev's London series is slowly appearing on LSO Live. Add to that Jonathan Nott's Bamberg cycle for Tudor and Sir Roger Norrington's for Hänssler and it's clear Mahler has never been more popular.

The downside is that with so many fine recordings of Mahler's First in the catalogue – Bruno Walter (Sony Classical), Leonard Bernstein (DG), James Levine (RCA), Klaus Tennstedt (EMI) and David Zinman (Sony-BMG) for instance – any newcomers must be very special indeed. In the SACD stakes they are also up against the excellent Sony-BMG team, whose recordings for Zinman are among the best around.

So, how does Nott's performance stack up? Well, the British-born maestro has certainly attracted much praise on the Continent, his live 'Resurrection' in Baden-Baden earlier this year (2008) being particularly well received. Zinman's recording of the First (see review) has its weaknesses, but in terms of overall conception, orchestral playing and sound quality it remains a very satisfying performance indeed.

Compared with Zinman the sustained high-octave A at the start of Nott's recording sounds less mysterious than usual, that pivotal Wayfarer quotation much too portentous. Nott is inclined to fuss over small details at the expense of overall pulse and structure, which results in a fitful reading and a fatal loss of momentum. And although timings don't tell the whole story it's interesting to see that Nott is marginally slower than Bernstein (16:23) and considerably slower than Zinman (15:32).

Musically it’s not an auspicious start; sonically it’s a bit underwhelming, too, with less amplitude than one might expect from an SACD. On both layers the dryish acoustic is a world away from the richly detailed, three-dimensional sound of the Zinman disc. And while we’re in the debit column the Bambergers aren't in the front rank either, with some very tentative playing and poor intonation at times.

The Scherzo, with its lilting Ländler, seems a little po-faced alongside Zinman's extrovert account. Nott misses the music’s wit and sparkle, not to mention its parodic charm, and the German band don't play with the precision and point of their Swiss cousins. Unfortunately the stop-start nature of this reading becomes more distracting as the movement progresses. A pity, as Zinman and others bind these disparate elements into a satisfyingly seamless whole, finding plenty of colour and nuance along the way. 

The ghostly funeral march, with its ‘Frére Jacques’ tune, must be one of the strangest things Mahler ever wrote. Nott and the Bambergers capture little of this fantastical, twilight world but, to be fair, Zinman isn’t at his best in this music either. Yes, Nott conjures up some spectral moments but there are some disappointing ones as well. For instance the solo contrabass at the start sounds curiously unfocused and poorly articulated, Nott’s overall tempo much too deliberate to sustain either interest or momentum.

The final movement is altogether more promising. At last the conductor loosens the reins a little and allows the music to break into a canter. And not a moment too soon, as this is turning out to be a very dull outing indeed. There is certainly more tension and thrust than before, but I longed for a brisker pace – ohne bremse, as it were. Alas, it’s not to be, and despite some memorable touches – those cuckoo calls that hark back to the opening movement are beautifully played – the final bars have seldom sounded as directionless as they do here, a mad dash to who knows where.

As much as I wanted to admire this Mahler First I’m afraid there are just too many lapses of judgment and ensemble to warrant a recommendation. Our maestro has his sights on the summit, but for now he's still in the foothills.
Dan Morgan


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