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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 (1888) [53:50]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tannhäuser: Overture and Venusberg Music: (1845-1861) [22:02]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Der Rosenkavalier: Suite (1911) [19:14]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Mahler)
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Erich Leinsdorf
rec. 19-20 April 1971 (Mahler), 14 February 1969 (Wagner, Strauss), Kingsway Hall, London
ELOQUENCE 484 0184 [53:50 + 41:16]

Erich Leinsdorf succeeded Charles Munch as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1962, and during his first season his performance of Mahler’s First Symphony scored a veritable triumph. That performance was recorded and has recently been issued as part of a commemorative 10-CD set (Documents 600551), while there is also a DVD (ICAD5051) that has been in and out of the catalogue for some years.

However, some good judges, including the late great Deryck Cooke, have praised more highly still this LSO performance from 1971. It was recorded using Decca’s then new Phase 4 techniques, the state-of-the-art hi fi sound which was particularly vivid but sometimes drew criticism for putting too much emphasis on the spotlighting of solos while emphasising orchestral colour. A 40-CD collection, no less, of Phase 4 recordnigs was issued in 2014 (review). These remasterings of Leinsdorf's performances by Cyrus Meher-Homji achieve the best of both worlds, since the sound quality and recorded ambience are both remarkable and contribute to the full in making this Mahler issue a candidate for top recommendation, in a symphony which has fared remarkably well in its recorded history.

Leinsdorf’s performance is strong and purposeful, nor is it lacking in clarity and poetry when such are required. The LSO plays heroically, with distinguished solo contributions and a keen sense of ensemble. Details always make their mark and contribute to the overall effect and the symphonic direction of the performance.

At bargain price collectors need not hesitate, though the presence of a second disc means that it is not quite as 'bargain' as it might have been. In 1969, Leinsdorf had preceded this  Mahler recording for Phase 4 with another, comprisnibg his own orchestral suite from Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier alongside the Overture and Venusberg Music from Tannhäuser. These outstanding reissues gain from a substantial and perceptive accompanying essay by Raymond Tuttle. Here, as in the Mahler recording, the performances and the sound here are wonderfully vivid, while the balancing of textures and the sure sense of direction confirm the conductor’s distinguished experience in the opera house, where for example he led German repertoire at the Metropolitan Opera in New York for several years.

Wagner composed Tannhäuser in 1845 when he was music director of the court opera in Dresden, and he returned to the score fifteen years later in an attempt to take the Paris Opéra by storm. While that bold venture proved a scandalous failure, as part of that enterprise he did create some particularly vivid music, most famously the Venusberg Music. The latter is exciting and richly erotic, and Leinsdorf encourages his LSO forces to respond with suitable abandon. More rewarding still is the Overture, which is articulated with subtle attention to dynamics and orchestral balances.

Leinsdorf’s Rosenkavalier Suite is in many respects an improvement on the composer’s own, since it is slightly more substantial and observes the chronology and narrative of the opera in a compelling way. Perhaps the beauty and climactic intensity of ‘The Presentation of the Silver Rose’ might have made a stronger impression, but the listener need only hear the magnificent horns in the opening bars to realise that this is orchestral music-making of real distinction.

Terry Barfoot

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