Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symp hony No. 1 in D major (1888, final revision 1899) [52:53]
Utah Symphony/Thierry Fischer
rec. live, 2014, Maurice Abravanel Hall, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
The Utah Symphony occupies a proud position in the tradition of Mahler recordings for they were the first American orchestra to set down a complete recorded cycle of the nine symphonies plus the Adagio from the Tenth (review). Those recordings were made between 1963 and 1974 under the leadership of Maurice Abravanel (1903-1993), their Music Director from 1947 until 1979. The achievement of Abravanel and the orchestra in making those recordings should not be underestimated for that pioneering cycle was made by an orchestra that was far less well-known or well-endowed at the time than several more illustrious US ensembles. It’s good that Abravanel’s name lives on in Utah. The concert hall in Salt Lake City, for which he so long lobbied, opened in 1979 a few months after he retired from the orchestra on health grounds. It was renamed in his honour in 1993. It’s there that this present recording was made. It’s good, too, that over the two seasons 2014-15 and 2015-16 the orchestra has elected to mark its 75th anniversary season in 2015-16 by performing all the Mahler symphonies, championed so strongly by Abravanel.

I came to this recording unsure of what to expect. Thierry Fischer became the orchestra’s Music Director in 2009. Prior to that he was well known in the UK. He was the Principal Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (2006-12) and before that he led the Ulster Orchestra (2001-06). I may be wrong but I don’t recall that he programmed much Mahler while he was with the Welsh orchestra; maybe he’s coming freshly to the Mahler symphonies.

I was in a bit of a quandary in selecting a comparative recording. It had to be a ‘live’ one. I thought about Bernstein’s 1987 DG recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (review) or Klaus Tennstedt’s 1980 traversal with the LPO (review), both of which are among my favourite versions. However, I decided both were a bit too volatile and instead I opted for Bernard Haitink’s 2008 performance with the Chicago Symphony, which I admired when I reviewed it, although not without some reservations.

Fischer’s opening seems to lack mystery. The woodwind interjections sound too ‘present’ and the distant trumpet calls aren’t nearly distant enough. When I compared Haitink’s opening there’s much more hush and atmosphere and the trumpet calls really are distant. Haitink seems to generate more of a sense of expectancy too and I don’t think this is just a question of volume. I don’t know why the Utah recording sounds more ‘present’. It may be that the orchestra isn’t playing sufficiently quietly – though I doubt that. More likely either the recording is rather too closely balanced or the disc has been cut at too high a level – or a bit of both. After the pregnant opening, suggestive of dark woods and the noises of birds and animals in those woods – at least in the case of the Haitink performance – the music moves out into the brightness of daylight, Mahler quoting from one of his Knaben Wunderhorn songs – ‘Ging heut Morgen übers Feld’. Here the tone of Fischer’s performance is bright-eyed and positive, as it should be, and he’s backed up by alert playing. Haitink plays the music more steadily and with much more legato. The playing of the Chicago Symphony is very beautiful but I sense a lack of edge. For me, it’s advantage Fischer here, though when Mahler revisits his introductory material the pendulum swings back Haitink’s way for a while. I suppose if I were to sum up the movement I would say that Fischer convinces in the bright, outdoor music but is less good in the more shadowy passages.

The main material of the second movement is marked Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (‘Moving strongly but not too quickly’). Haitink is observant of the doch nicht zu schnell qualification and his tempo is markedly slower than Fischer’s. Haitink’s pacing is right, I think, for a sturdy Ländler. However, Fischer’s livelier tempo has more of a feel of rustic gaiety to it and I rather like it. His way with the trio is affectionate and at first I felt it was a good contrast with the Ländler. However, as the trio unfolded I came to think that Fischer is a bit too fleet. By contrast, Haitink is more relaxed and, crucially, there’s much more ‘give’ in his phrasing, the mark of a highly experienced Mahler conductor. As a result his way with the trio sounds far more idiomatic. The abbreviated reprise of the scherzo culminates, at Fischer’s swifter speed, in an exultant, driven end to the movement. Haitink is steadier but that enables him to add important weight in the closing pages, especially with the Chicago Symphony at his disposal.

There’s a divergence of views at the start of the third movement. Haitink has the ‘Brüder Martin’ tune played by all the double basses, getting the players to mute their instruments. Fischer opts for the conventional solo. In the opening pages of the movement, as the subdued canon develops among the various bass instruments, the ‘present’ sound of the Utah recording rather robs the music of hush and ambience. To me the performance just seems a bit lacking in atmosphere: the music-making is a rather straightforward. Haitink has the confidence – and the Mahlerian experience – to mould the music more subtly and persuasively. Partway through, in the ‘Lindenbaum’ episode, the Utah bassoonist, followed by several woodwind colleagues, decorate the tune most attractively. Here the music flows nicely in Fischer’s hands though Haitink, with the help of the silken Chicago orchestra, makes the music sound even sweeter. When the ‘Brüder Martin’ reappears I like the sardonic commentaries from the solo clarinet and violin in Utah and Fischer lets the movement wind down nicely.

The finale opens strongly in the Fischer performance though one can’t deny that the Chicago performance has greater weight and heft. This extra amplitude means that the music, though similarly paced, has a bit more thrust in Haitink’s hands compared with Fischer’s opening. The music winds down until Mahler ushers in a wonderful broad melody in D flat, played by the strings. Here, I’m afraid, Fischer strains my patience for his unfolding of the tune (track 4 from 3:22) is disappointingly straight. Admirers might regard his treatment of the passage as ‘direct’ but I find it superficial and utterly lacking in character. By contrast, Haitink not only prepares for the melody superbly – unlike Fischer – but treats it more expansively, without ever wearing his heart on his sleeve. Once again, too, he makes the most of the phrasing. This is top-drawer Mahler conducting and in this very important stretch of the finale I’m afraid that as far as Fischer goes it’s no contest. Thereafter in the finale Fischer delivers the stormy passages strongly, obtaining committed playing from his orchestra, but it’s Haitink who makes more – much more - of the several relaxed passages. Overall I think there’s little doubt that Haitink displays more imagination in his conducting of the finale, especially in the more ruminative sections.

Having decided initially not to use Bernstein as a comparator I’m afraid I couldn’t resist the temptation to make some final spot comparisons. He generates fine tension at the start of the symphony and his playing of the main body of the movement is extrovert. In the third movement he follows Haitink in adopting a steady tempo for the Ländler and he defines the music in a very sharp profile but it’s in the finale that Lennie really seals the deal. His opening sweeps all before it, like a musical torrent, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra playing as if their very lives depended on it. No accent goes to waste, even in the quieter passages. And as for that D flat melody, it’s gloriously sung with Bernstein staying – just staying at times – on the right side of indulgence. This is great conducting, not least in terms of Bernstein’s instinctive understanding of rubato.

I think if I’d been at one of the concerts in Salt Lake City in September 2014 from which this recording derives I’d have gone home feeling pretty satisfied. Whether this performance is strong enough for repeated listening under domestic conditions, when one can’t see the performers and be caught up in the occasion, I’m much less sure. The performance is well played and has some good interpretative features but also several things that give me pause for thought, as I’ve indicated.

I think listeners’ reactions to the recorded sound may vary. The recording has been made by the American company, Soundmirror and licensed to Reference Recordings. I’ve encountered several Soundmirror recordings in the past and they generally get very good results. The sound that they’ve achieved here has plenty of impact and lets lots of detail through. Some collectors may like the up-front sound. The snag is that the recording isn’t ideal for some of Mahler’s soft, atmospheric passages. In fairness to the engineers I should say that I’ve not heard any previous recordings from this venue and it may well be that the acoustic properties of the hall dictated the approach to recording. However, the recording may well reproduce differently according to your equipment. This may be a classic case where audio streaming in order to sample before purchasing may be advisable.

In a pleasing gesture this recording is dedicated to the memory of Maurice Abravanel. That’s a most seemly acknowledgement of the man who did so much to put this orchestra on the musical map of America.

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan

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