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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D (1888, rev. 1893)
Royal Flemish Philharmonic/Edo de Waart
rec. deSingel, Antwerp, 2012
ROYAL FLEMISH PHILHARMONIC RFP004 [54:11]

Unless I've missed something, this is Edo de Waart's third commercial go-round with the Mahler First. His first one, with the Minnesota Orchestra (Virgin Classics), never came my way; you could be forgiven for having missed the second, part of his short-lived RCA cycle. In the studio era, such duplications were the unfortunate by-product of commercial considerations; more recently, YouTube and downloads have, paradoxically, made things worse, offering everyone and his Uncle Oscar in multiple, frequently indistinguishable performances of just about everything.

On the RCA issue, the Netherlands Radio orchestra produced a high-powered, hard-edged sonority - and I'm referring to the actual orchestral sound, not the engineering. This newer one, self-produced by the Royal Flemish Philharmonic, is an improvement in that regard. The orchestra is lower-profile, perhaps a desk or two smaller across the string sections, but not substantially lower-powered. The basses seems a little light in the Finale; on the other hand, there's enough tonal weight to support such passages as 14:56 in the first movement. The upper strings dig into the Finale's running figures with spanking articulations and plenty of dash; their attacks in the Lšndler are strong and crisp. The woodwinds form a polished, expressive choir; the solo flute is breathy and diffuse, but I liked the oboe's straightish tone, suggesting an organ stop. The brasses are full-throated and secure, though there's a wrong note in the first movement's penultimate chord - I'm surprised it wasn't patched.

Interpretively the two performances are similar, treating the score as an actual symphony rather than a loose-limbed tone poem. De Waart observes all of the third movement's abrupt tempo shifts, but with moderation - avoiding the manic gaiety some bring to the klezmer episodes - and, in the home stretch, he plays the subito piý mosso with a nice point and bounce. He brings out all the menace and the turbulence of the finale's opening in a single, unified tempo; later, in the movement, he avoids the traditional but unmarked slowing for the quiet brass fanfare at 8:06. The conductor's forthright integrity reminds me of Horenstein (Vox mono, Unicorn stereo, good luck), but de Waart's manner is less severe, more affectionately pictorial.

And de Waart's respect for the music's structure doesn't preclude expressive flexibility. The first-movement exposition unfolds and blossoms with a vernal freshness. The muted return of the Lšndler theme at 2:43 evokes a distant echo; the Trio is fresh and transparent, animated by a gracious rubato that avoids the disjointed extremes of Bernstein (Sony) and his more slavish followers. I also appreciated the conductor's attention to detail: in the same movement, note how the repeated eighth-notes in the stretti precisely align with the violins, instead of smearing.

The recorded sound is excellent, save for my usual complaint: at a level that allows you to savour detail - and de Waart gives us much to savour - the climaxes are harsh and unmusical. In the Finale's opening, the peaks of the cymbal rolls are assaultive; even after I'd twice lowered my volume setting, the prolonged brass perorations of the coda were hard to take. Analogue recordings, which required careful monitoring to avoid distortion, mostly didn't have this problem; with the wider dynamic range of digital recording, I suspect engineers and players alike just let rip, with infelicitous results.

Tentatively recommended, then - but keep an eye on the playback volume.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is Principal Conductor of Lighthouse Opera in New York (lighthouseopera.org)

 




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