The resurging Pittsburgh Pirates - now several games above .500 for the first time in decades - are not alone in rising above the former smoke lines of Steeltown, as the Pittsburgh Symphony is stealing (no pun intended) much of the thunder away from the financially reeling Philadelphia Orchestra. In reality, these two great American orchestras have little in common. While 'Philly' has always had a deep association with Slavic music and gaudy orchestral showpieces, Pittsburgh is frequently referred to as America's best 'German' orchestra. They generally produce a dark, 'chocolate-y' sound with a full-bodied bass response. Granted, much of these rather subjective descriptions have a lot to do with the acoustics of their particular performing venues, and Pittsburgh's Heinz Hall is clearly one of the better ones in America. This is good news for yet another full cycle of Mahler symphonies. What may also prove to be good news, is that conducter Manfred Honeck has had plenty of experience performing Mahler symphonies during his stint as one of the Concertmasters of the Vienna Philharmonic. This new Mahler First shows lots of promising signs, but a couple of red flags as well. My guess is that the 'reg flags' may eventually get ironed out. But for the time being, this new Mahler 1 is a mixed bag - especially for the price.
The finale is excellent, as it doesn't lose any energy over its twenty minute haul - if anything, it picks up momentum. It's as though Honeck had his sites upon the finale all along. Pittsburgh's brass reign supreme here, and the other sections more than hold their own against them. But the first three movements are a more complex story.
In the first movement - after a perfectly lovely introduction - Honeck launches our imaginary wayfaring protagonist at a tempo that's slower than normal. 'He' (or she) sounds rather timid at first, spending an inordinate amount of time to smell the flowers along the way. Then he suddenly becomes the brutish and boisterous Siegfried! In other words, when the brass join in, they're too loud - especially the trumpets. This has the odd effect of dividing our first musical statement into two distinct characters. This is also where my first red flag comes up: the trumpets are sometimes too dominate. After the exposition repeat, Honeck spends a fair amount of time on all of the soft material that will, eventually, lead us to the movement's principal statement from the unison horns. It's here that I feel the influence of Lorin Maazel, who Honeck surely must have played Mahler 1 under in Vienna. But once the music turns loud again, Honeck and the PSO really 'whoop it up', and bring this movement home with a truly exciting ending.
Honeck doesn't take the scherzo movement too swiftly, but - once again - the overly loud brass keep this movement earth bound and 'stiff' sounding. This movement should have lots of lilt to it - it should just swing. It really should have the feel of - let's say - the scherzo from Schubert's 9th symphony (but on mild steroids). Woodwinds should be permitted to cut through a bit more too. In the lovely and lazy sounding Trio section, Honeck is just a tad slow and bit too soft with it. This is a simple melody with very simple accompaniment, and it should be permitted to just flow along its own merry way without interpretive input that draws attention to itself. All in all, not a bad effort in the scherzo, but not the best either. Less is more: Less input from Honeck with less aggression from the brass would have done the trick.
The third movement is an 'almost' as well. Honeck draws lovely playing during the soft funeral cortege ("Frere Jacques" in minor), but at such a slow tempo, there needs to bit more of the 'acid' sound that the tam-tam lends to this procession (the tam-tam joins in after the solo oboe interjections). Once again, I feel the somewhat dark and heavy hand of Lorin Maazel. Everybody does a nice job on the second subject: the East European village tavern music. But towards the end of the movement - the climax - the spot where the tavern music transitions back to the funereal cortege: that all misfires! Again, there needs to be more tam-tam to bring out the sense of irony and, ultimately, disappointment. Also, the third musical component of the slow movement - the lovely "Lindenbaum" melody for strings and woodwinds - is also taken a bit slower than usual, and played too softly as well. It doesn't need the extra interpretive input.
I'd love to say that these are all minor complaints that don't really matter. But they add up! In summary, we end up with three slightly disappointing movements that misfire (although, the end of the first movement is terrific), followed by a finale where everything truly comes together. The finale is the 20 minute span where we hear the promise of greater things to come in the bigger symphonies that will follow. My guess is that those red flags will eventually slip away.