Site review by ramesh June 11, 2007
|This is a very high ranking second tier [ not second rate, however ] interpretation which is made to sound outstanding by virtue of the glorious orchestral playing and recording. Or, to put it another way, this is an excellent performance of a goodish interpretation of a great romantic symphony. Jansons is not a conductor I have heard often, either in the concert hall or on record. Away from his expertise in the Russian repertoire, I have found his interpretations of other schools more variable. Nevertheless, his undoubted technical skills and ability to enthuse an orchestra mean that I have never heard a dull performance from him.
Mahler's First Symphony has been nicknamed 'the Titan'. This refers not so much to its stature, the way Mozart's last symphony is ennobled as the 'Jupiter', but to a novel of the same name by the now forgotten German romantic writer, Jean Paul. The original manuscript had a brief second movement, the 'Blumine', which was excised in a revision. This movement can be heard on some discs, including the new Mahler 1 SACD from Zinman on BMG. Mahler originally entitled this work as a 'symphonic poem in two parts', rather than as a symphony. He supplied a programme to this work, as he did to the Second and Third symphonies, although he shortly disavowed all of these interpretative pointers. A favourite category of the German romantic novel was the 'Bildungsroman', a work relating the psychological evolution typically of a young male protagonist, usually involving hefty dollops of love, friendship, death and sadistic schoolmasters. Although Mahler's programme for this symphony is a chaotic farrago, it has left deep imprints in the score. Many of Mahler's early works were songs, their piano or orchestral parts replete with military band fragments, cuckoo calls and barnyard impressions. The words are mirrored in the music. Many of Mahler's orchestral movements have their genesis in these songs. The words have been excised, but their physical presence resides as aural ghosts.
It is this vocal palimpsest which gives many of Mahler's symphonic movements their particular texture. The nature calls, the band fragments, either observed straight or as grotesque parodies, pull the Mahlerian symphony in the direction of symphonic poem, whereas Mahler's mastery of symphonic architecture exerts the opposite, classicising, non-programmatic tug. How a listener prefers their Mahler depends on whether they prefer the balance evenly poised, or skewed in one direction.
The broad strokes of Janson's interpretation are fine, but it is his ambiguity in the finer details which raise small questions for me. The finest interpretations of the Mahler First I have heard are : Bruno Walter [ stereo ], Kubelik, Abbado Chicago and Berlin, Haitink Berlin, and Bernstein NY and Concertgebouw. In all these performances, one gains the impression that the conductor knows how much the rustic and nature sound effects are to be 'placed' and integrated into each movement. Moreover, the four movements form a coherent and convincing psychological trajectory. This isn't easy to perform, for each movement has an individual texture distinct from the others, and the first movement has two, the extraordinary seven octave A for strings in the opening, and then the movement proper.
Jansons' pacing of the symphony falls as a happy medium between the equable to sluggish and low temperature Tilson Thomas San Francisco SACD, and the volatile but thrilling Bernstein NY Phil SACD. Only in the slow movement is Bernstein slower than Jansons in the movement timings. Jansons doesn't actually do anything egregiously wrong. His ländler second movement doesn't have the sly swing and finesse of Bernstein; instead, he increases the energy level, something which he's very skilled at throttling up whatever type of music he's conducting. The default Jansons conducting style seems to be to ratchet up the excitement level if there's any doubt. In the third movement, the symbol of death in the muted double bass has a deliberate gauchery which is effective, yet the parody band music in the body of the movement seems to accelerate or vanish too quickly : a parody which is too obviously a parody loses subtlety and effectiveness. The finale starts off with a perfect storm, but there is a short loss of momentum and purpose in the middle of this massive movement before the thrilling modulation to D and the final home stretch, all of which is as exciting as one could wish for.
For the vast majority of listeners, my points will be nitpicking. There is no doubt of Jansons' skills as an orchestral showman. The orchestra respond magnificently to his direction. The 88.2 kHz PCM recording has more presence and brilliance than, say, the earlier RCO live DSD recording of Haitink in Bruckner 8, although there was a rightness of the timpani sound in the Bruckner 8 which isn't captured here. The famous Concertgebouw acoustic aligned with the wonderful translucency and intonation of the strings is ravishing. When I bought the Tilson Thomas SACD, I thought it gave the most beautiful Mahler 1 sounds I had heard, bar the sound of once hearing the Vienna Philharmonic live in this. The Jansons SACD still doesn't displace the San Francisco SACD for beauty, yet, the Dutch strings, especially high up the stave, are purer than the San Franciscans. The Concertgebouw brass are magnificent, full of panache without blare, as exciting as Bernstein's New Yorkers but with greater beauty of sound.
All in all, a fine achievement.
Review by nickc May 12, 2007 (12 of 15 found this review helpful)
|Had audiences in Budapest in 1889 ever heard an opening like they heard that November in Gustav Mahler's 1st., perhaps the greatest 1st. symphony ever written (apologies to Brahms and Shostakovich!)?
The first three or four minutes are an evocation of coming to life in spring, sinuous violins creeping upwards, punctuated with startled bird sounds. Then we have the violins sing the main melody out, but at first it is chaste and restrained, a new awakening rather than a full-on assault. About 13 minutes in we have a glorious full statement finishing the movement off with a bang.
The secong movement is what will become one of Gustav's favourite devices, a gawky Landler, here rustic and halting. The trio is a beautiful and balmy melody before the landler comes trundling back in.
The third movement would have been a real shock to the audience. Funereal drumbeats and a gloomy cello solo, but the tune is a nursery rhyme, Frere Jacques! After that shock we have a real slap in the face: a sarcastic presentation of suave cafe music, presented with a sneer. I had never noticed as much as here that we have what seems a premonition of the adagietto from the 5th. when the harp comes in at around 5'25". Around 7' the melody is underpinned by some of the deepest, almost subterranean bass I have heard on my system.
The final movment explodes off the blocks and is played at white heat. My neighbour was out today so I just played this movement full bore and from about the 16' mark I could just feel my whole block shaking with waves of bass, deep brass and string!
The booklet says it is only 88.2khz, but if it didn't know you'd have no idea. I swear if you turn this disc up full volume you could endanger walls and windows with the magnificent rolling and thunderous bass. We are fairly close in but it is just another Concertgebouw classic.
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