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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Titan (Tone poem in symphonic form in two parts and five movements for a large orchestra) (Hamburg/Weimar 1893-4 version)
Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
rec. 2018, Philharmonie de Paris; Théâtre de Nîmes; Cité de la Musique et de la Danse de Soissons
Titles from the programme of the Hamburg performance, 27 October 1893.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM905299 [57:04]

This is the third instalment of François-Xavier Roth’s Mahler series for Harmonia Mundi and with it he springs something of a surprise. The two previous issues were excellent accounts of the Fifth and Third symphonies, both set down with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, of which Roth is Chief Conductor. However, instead of recording the First Symphony in Cologne, Roth has gone back to Mahler’s earlier thoughts on that work and, furthermore, has made a recording using his period instrument ensemble Les Siècles.

I think it’s worth just outlining the history of what we now know as the First Symphony and in doing so I draw on the useful booklet essay by Anna Stoll Knecht and Benjamin Garzia. In essence, there are three versions of the score. First came a Symphonic Poem in Two Parts, which Mahler premiered in Budapest in November 1889. Then came a revision, which produced the five-movement score here recorded. That revision was made after Mahler was appointed Kapellmeister in Hamburg in 1893 and he conducted it there in October of that year and, as a four-movement work, in Weimar the following year.

A key aspect of the 1893/4 score is the titles that Mahler gave to the music. The work itself was named Titan after the novel of the same name by the author Jean Paul (Johann Paul Friedrich Richer). In Mahler’s scheme, Part I carried the overall title ‘From days of youth, flower-, fruit- and thorn-pieces’. Within Part I there were three movements, as follows:

I. ‘Spring that never ends’ (Einleitung und Allegro comodo)
II. ‘Flowers’ (Andante)
III. ‘Full sail ahead’ (Scherzo)

Part II had the overall title ‘Human Comedy’ and consisted of two movements:

IV. ‘’Failed!’ (A Funeral march in ‘Callot‘s Manner’)
V. ‘From Hell’ (Allegro furioso)

By June 1894, when Mahler conducted the work in Weimar, it had been reduced from five movements to four - by the excision of the second movement, ‘Blumine’ - and was referred to as a symphony. The next performance of the work, in 1896, was of the symphony as we know it today.

It is not entirely clear from the essay is what musical differences there are between the three versions of the score. We are told that the 1893 Hamburg revision substantially increased the instrumentation as compared with the 1889 score and the authors add: “The score was completely revised so that it might become as far as possible a ‘sound of nature’ (Naturlaut).” Since they make no reference to further textural changes after the Hamburg revision, I infer that the scoring and musical argument remained unchanged apart from the excision of ‘Blumine’. I couldn’t follow the performance in a score but with one exception in the first movement, of which more in a moment, I heard nothing that was unfamiliar to me from performances of the “conventional” Mahler First.

Before talking about the performance, I ought to say a word about the instruments on which Les Siècles play. In comments included in the booklet, François-Xavier Roth makes it clear that the French instruments on which the orchestra has customarily played until now would not have been suitable for this Mahler assignment. Instead, the brass and woodwind players have sought out German and Austrian instruments of the period, all of which are very different from their French equivalents and which require different playing techniques. A full list of the instruments is supplied and I noted that the majority of the brass and woodwind instruments date from the late nineteenth century or from the first decade or so of the twentieth. One interesting anomaly, though, is that almost all of the clarinets date from 1930-1950; I wonder why.

So, Roth’s recording has an interesting back-story even before one has heard it and it’s obvious that, as usual with this orchestra, great care has been taken over the preparation: what is the performance like?

The first movement opens auspiciously. The sounds of nature awakening – bird calls and little fanfares – tickle the ear. As I listened, I was struck by the fact that we now take this opening for granted but what must the work’s early audiences have thought as they heard hushed string harmonics and seemingly disjointed melodic fragments on brass and woodwind? Arguably, comparisons aren’t really appropriate since this period-instrument account of the five-movement score is somewhat sui generis. However, I was keen to hear how Roth would match up against one of my all-time favourite versions of the symphony, the magnificent account conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin (review). Nézet-Séguin’s opening is superb, the air of tense anticipation strong. One interesting detail caught my ear, concerning the quiet little fanfares we hear about a minute or so after the start. Nézet-Séguin has the first one played by clarinets and for the second one the clarinets are joined by trumpets. In my experience that’s usual. In the Roth performance, however, horns take the place of clarinets. I don’t know whether the substitution of clarinets for horns was a change Mahler made between 1893/4 and 1896 or whether the use of horns is an editorial decision by Roth.

Roth’s reading of the first movement is highly persuasive. When Mahler introduces the melody from his song ‘Ging heut Morgen übers Feld’ (4:09), Roth gives the music an ideally relaxed gait. As the music unfolded, I loved the soft grainy sounds of the strings and the piquant woodwind sounds. I can best describe the performance as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed: it exudes freshness. The slow interlude between 6:18 and 9:16 is marvellously atmospheric with gently swooning string portamenti from the strings and effervescent bird calls from the woodwind. The sustained deep pedal note that’s sounded at 7:20 is as softly placed as you could wish. At the end of this episode the music becomes bright and verdant again, leading to a great outburst at 12:49, which presages a jubilant last couple of minutes.

I confess I’ve never been a great fan of ‘Blumine’, feeling that Mahler was right to discard it. I’ll admit, though, that I enjoyed it in the context of this performance. The important trumpet part is made to gleam gently and Roth leads an affectionate and charming account of the music, which is delivered with great finesse. The Scherzo is launched with great vigour – you really do feel that Roth and his players have taken note of Mahler’s title, ‘Full sail ahead’. I like the piquancy of the woodwind and the gut strings make an important difference. I appreciated also the excellent use of dynamic contrasts. In his performance Yannick Nézet-Séguin has a tendency to lay quite a pronounced stress on certain downbeats; heard against Roth, I’m not sure I care for that effect. In the Roth performance, the Trio (2:36) is relaxed and absolutely delicious. When the Scherzo returns (5:27) the music sounds really bracing; the end of the movement is fast and exuberant. In this Hamburg version of the score, that’s the end of Part I.

In the opening pages of the fourth movement Roth integrates very well all the various lines in the ‘Bruder Martin’ canon (or ‘Bruder Jakob’ as it’s named in the booklet) yet clarity of individual lines is retained. The instances of Jewish-inflected music have a nice acidity to them. The ‘Lindenbaum’ section (5:30-6:51) is very soft and gentle and taken at a nice flowing pace. Hereabouts, the woodwinds of Les Siècles voice their countermelodies in a way that is absolutely beguiling. When the ‘Bruder Martin’ canon returns, the listener is made aware – though without any unwarranted exaggeration – that the scoring is different to first time round, and rather darker.

The finale opens with a great outburst and the first few minutes are driven and very exciting, yet Roth doesn’t allow the music to run away with itself; this is controlled frenzy. That said, the strongly committed playing justifies Mahler’s original title, ‘From Hell’. Respite from the tumult comes at 3:58 with the arrival of the wonderful string melody in D flat major. I’ve heard some conductors adopt a very spacious treatment of this passage – some with more success than others – but such is not Roth’s way. Instead, he allows the melody to unfold in a very natural, flowing fashion. The whole episode sounds lovely and I find him highly persuasive. Once that passage is behind him (6:17), Roth engenders great suspense until the music erupts again (6:57). The episode where Mahler revisits the very opening of the work, combining it with reminiscences of the D flat melody (10:25-13:50), is extremely beautiful and gave me another opportunity to savour fabulous soft playing by the orchestra. At 14:59 the violas launch the movement back onto its original turbulent course and from here to the end the performance is thrilling, with the horn section increasingly exultant. At the very end, the sound of the drum roll on period percussion instruments creates a terrific frisson. It was interesting to contrast the Roth reading with the Nézet-Séguin performance. The French-Canadian conductor has at his disposal the full resources of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, playing on modern instruments. They play fantastically for him and, aided by a sumptuous recording, the results have me on the edge of my seat at times. Yet, though his orchestra produces a different sound, I don’t honestly feel that Roth suffers by comparison. Nézet-Séguin is a little bit more lingering in his treatment of the D flat melody: I am equally delighted both by his way with the passage and by Roth’s.

This is a very fine Mahler recording by François-Xavier Roth. Though the interest may lie in the use of period instruments and his reversion to Mahler’s 1893/4 score, I think it’s perfectly legitimate also to consider this as a performance of Mahler’s First with the addition of ‘Blumine’. If you choose to view it from that standpoint then I think it’s a very considerable interpretation and performance in its own right. As is the custom with recordings by Les Siècles, the performance we hear on this disc has been edited from live performances at a number of venues. The recording has been edited together seamlessly and the sound, which is excellent, is completely consistent.

My colleague, Dan Morgan described the last issue in this series as “a game-changing Mahler 3”. I think this new disc might well fall into that category too: I’d certainly call it an ear-opener.

Where next, I wonder, for Roth’s Mahler cycle? Will he revert to Cologne and modern instruments or will the period instruments of Les Siècles have a continuing role to play? There’s a substantial clue, I think, in the very last sentence of his comments in the booklet in response to the question whether he and the orchestra plan to continue with the later symphonies. “This new Mahlerian adventure fascinates all of us, and I can’t wait to direct the forthcoming projects.” It sounds to me as if we may soon hear at least some of the other Mahler symphonies on the period instruments of Les Siècles. Based on this release, the prospect that Les Siècles might continue to explore Mahler on disc with François-Xavier Roth is a mouth-watering one.

John Quinn

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