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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D (1898) [55:25]
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Jonathan Nott
rec. Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Bamberg, December 2005, January 2006
TUDOR 7147 [55:25] 
Experience Classicsonline

Even more than in these same forces' account of the Mahler Fifth (see review), what we have here is an excellent interpretation undertaken by a fair-to-middling orchestra.

Interpretively, Jonathan Nott's approach to Mahler recalls that of Jascha Horenstein - the highest compliment I can pay. It's not that Nott adheres to the Horenstein paradigm in every detail, although he does so, intentionally or otherwise, on a surprising number of points. But his way of playing the music has a similar sort of integrity, in that word's root sense of "wholeness": the conductor lays out each passage with an eye, or ear, on movement-long coherence, rather than playing up moment-by-moment effects. Paradoxically, the clear structural framework allows Nott the scope to hone and highlight a surprising amount of detail. 

Nott's no-nonsense musicality particularly benefits the symphony's latter two movements, which get pulled about mercilessly in some other performances. Thus, the third movement's klezmer episodes pick up speed, but the conductor treats the change as an adjustment to the established pulse rather than a sudden, unrelated forward "kick," so that the movement is all of a piece. Similarly, the opening of the Finale, which can suffer abrupt Punch-and-Judy shifts between the ominous brass calls and the turbulent violin runs, emerges the more powerfully for maintaining a steady forward impulse. It's good, too, to hear the brasses' piano version of the big motivic fanfare (8:08) stepping strictly in tempo - played thus, it neither breaks the momentum nor diminishes the power of the forte statement shortly thereafter at 9:32. 

In the opening movement, Nott doesn't go out of his way to disturb the "standard" interpretation, but he finds room for nice touches within it. The exposition's unfolding is easy and relaxed, perhaps too laid-back for some. The initial pianissimo statement sounds a bit withdrawn - I'll discuss that further in a bit - but registers more strongly and clearly on the exposition repeat. It's good actually to hear the descending string figure at 5:36 as it moves from the violins down to the violas and cellos, where it usually disappears. The flute soloist actually finds expression in the little repeated motif at the start of the development, and the timpani strokes shortly thereafter are ominous. At 11:27, where usually either the oboe or the violins are subordinated, both motifs register clearly. 

Lean, rustic basses launch the Scherzo, playing off incisive upper strings. The woodwinds are nicely poised and evenly balanced in the opening theme; the control is good at the Vorwärts marking.  It's in the Trio that Nott diverges most conspicuously from the Horenstein model, emulating Bernstein (Sony), Païta (Lodia), and Segerstam (Chandos), among others, in inflecting and punctuating the theme with a "Viennese," bar-by-bar rubato. He does so without disturbing the ongoing line - the music still moves forward with direction and purpose. The playing is shapely, though the theme's dotted figure starts out double-dotted, and the oboe keeps going that way for a while. The "seizing" of the original tempo at 6:48 is effective, and the Vorwärts again launches with good control, though the brasses sound a bit scrambled towards the close. 

As indicated in my review of Nott's Mahler Fifth, the Bamberg Symphony has improved since their early-stereo outings for Vox, producing a focused, powerful ensemble sound in tutti. But the playing, while always capable, sometimes lacks presence and character. The strings have trouble maintaining intensity when playing quietly, a flaw underlined by Nott's otherwise commendable attention to the softer dynamics. The Finale's melting second theme, for example, is pale here - the tone gradually fills out, but the demeanour remains reticent until the final few bars. Even the brasses aren't immune: in the first movement, the trumpet at 4:08 and 6:17 and the muted horns at 9:56 are unduly bashful - as is, for that matter, the third movement's famous bass solo - and the trombone at 2:13 of the Scherzo is clear, but hardly commanding. Note that such passages are the exception, not the rule - generally the playing is full of life and color - but they're a let-down. 

No complaints about the sound quality. Even in plain frontal stereo, the sense of "presence" and attack is most convincing, without the occasional harsh edge that bothered me in the Fifth. The big brass chords reproduce with marvelous depth, and there's a rousing impact in the big bass thwacks. Still, with Horenstein's sonically refurbished mono recording (Vox) theoretically still available - the Unicorn stereo remake with the LSO may well be in permanent digital limbo, alas - the general collector might as well go for the original.

Stephen Francis Vasta 

see also Review by Dan Morgan




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