RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D major Titan (1887/88, rev. 1893, 1896, 1898) [57:59]
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
rec. 26-28 May 2008, Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh, USA
EXTON SACD EXCL-00026 [57:59]
Something wonderful is happening at the Pittsburgh Symphony under the stewardship of Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck. I have heard several of their recent recordings and have witnessed the fruits of this astonishing resurgence at first hand at the Berlin Musikfest 2011 in September. It was the tenth anniversary of 9/11. I was in the audience at the Berlin Philharmonie for the Pittsburgh orchestra’s Mahler 5. They delivered “a musical tour de force … awe-inspiring playing.” At the time of writing the actual performance can be viewed free of charge on the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra website.
Based in Pennsylvania State, the Pittsburgh Symphony has a long and fine tradition. I have numerous excellent recordings made mainly in the 1950s and 1980s most notably from William Steinberg, André Previn and Lorin Maazel. Under Manfred Honeck they have produced recordings that delight and inspire both for their excellence of performance and for superior sound quality.
The First Symphony has a rather protracted history. His friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner wrote that Mahler completed the workin Leipzig in the spring of 1888 although it almost certainly originates from some years earlier. It was Mahler himself who introduced the score at the Vigadó Concert Hall, Budapest in November 1889 whenit was described as a ‘Symphonic Poem in two Sections’ with no programme explanation provided. It was poorly received and Mahler said that he felt like an outcast and that friends avoided him. He consigned the five movement score to the drawer. Later he had a change of heart and began to undertake major revisions prior to a performance given in Hamburg in October 1893. For this Hamburg performance Mahler provided an extensive programme note describing the score as the Titan a ‘Tone Poem in Symphonic Form’. This time the reception was more approving. In March 1896 for a concert in Berlin the programme title was dropped and the Blumine movement omitted. The score, now in four movements, was now plainly titled ‘Symphony in D major’. It seems that more revisions were made in 1898 prior to its publication by Weinberger, Vienna.
In the first movement Langsam, Schleppend (Slowly, dragging) Honeck takes the listener to a shimmering woodland glade at dawn. The scene teems with the sights and sounds of nature. An iridescent glow and pastoral mysterious feeling provide a convincing atmosphere. A woodwind fanfare, hazy trumpet work and piercing cuckoo-calls on the clarinet all signal the awakening of spring. Exultantly martial fanfares herald the fortissimo brass which often convey an irreverent quality. To close the movement boisterous, heavy percussion exhibit a strangely dark, almost mocking childlike humour. Honeck unfolds the orchestral canvas allowing it to breathe and expand. It all feels so youthful and fresh. I was struck by the emphasis accorded to the brilliant detail of Mahler’s remarkable imaginative scoring.
The unique and extraordinary Scherzo is suffused with the rustic rhythms of the ländler and the refinement of the waltz. It is taken by Honeck at a pace that feels just right. One senses that the colourful woodwind and vibrant brass are having the time of their lives with much yelping and clucking. In the trio an elegant and feminine waltz feels so evocative of a Viennese salon. Honeck ensures that the weighty ending has a wild and restless quality. From the joys of spring in the third movement we are transported to a lumbering and gloomy funeral procession. Mahler’s klezmer band of Bohemian musicians is delivered in a distinctive manner feeling suitably tawdry and mocking. Later the playing of the klezmer becomes even more irreverent - a sense of inebriation after the wake.
Mahler once described the Finale as Dall’ Inferno al Paradiso. It suggests the journey from Inferno to Paradise. Beginning with a terrifying roar of anguish, the stormy introduction prefaces highly dramatic and often thrilling music.
Honeck’s interpretation of the epilogue is highly and reverently moving and tinged with sorrow. The second Victorious motif is given a wonderfully dramatic and especially triumphantfortissimo - real power. Between the development and the recapitulation, the slow section - complete with bird calls - has a spiritual quality with everything sounding as if it comes from the far distance. Maybe this is a depiction of paradise. Honeck asks for and gets a terrific weight of volume. You can hear this in the exhilarating coda that ends the work in triumph. The effect is both awesome and intensely triumphant.
I have collected a number of fine recordings of this work. The most satisfying of all the accounts I have is that from Rafael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra on Audite 95.467. Recorded live in November 1979 at the Hercules Hall, Munich-based maestro Kubelik demonstrates naturalness and a deep perspective. The live Honeck performance is up there with the best available versions. Recorded in super audio sound the Exton CD offers marvellous sonics: vivid and well balanced. The audience in the Heinz Hall was hardly noticeable apart from the thunderous applause. I enjoyed every minute, everything was entirely convincing and the overall effect was awesome. Manfred Honeck is on course to be a great Mahlerian.
see also review by Gavin Dixon
Manfred Honeck is on course to be a great Mahlerian.