Mahler: Symphony No. 1 "Titan" Hybrid SACD
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This Hybrid SACD features a recording of Mahler's First Symphony in D Major, (sometimes referred to as the "Titan"). It was made at the inaugural concert in September 2008 of the highly-regarded Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck as Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Gustav Mahler composed his Symphony No. 1 in D major between 1884 and 1888, but made significant revisions to the work during 1894. It was premiered in Budapest in 1889, where it was presented as a five-movement piece under the title "Symphonische Dichtung in zwei Teilen" (symphonic poem in two parts). In subsequent performances the piece was presented as "Titan," eine Tondichtung in Symphonie-form (a tone poem in the form of a symphony). "Titan" refers to the book of the same name by the German writer Jean Paul. After further revisions, however, Mahler dropped the title, the descriptive movement titles, and the Andante second movement, called "Blumine".
The Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck began his career as conductor of Vienna's Jeunesse Orchestra, which he co-founded, and as assistant to Claudio Abbado at the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in Vienna. Since September 2008 he has been Principal Guest Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in Prague. After several highly successful guest appearances with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, he was appointed its ninth Music Director in 2008.
Personnel: Pittsburgh (Symphony Orchestra), Manfred Honeck (conductor)
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Attention is instantly grabbed by a mysterious, extremely quiet opening. The trumpet fanfares are very well distanced, and played at full ff while still sounding pp in the hall, a magical effect. The main theme itself is taken in a leisurely mode, not as staccato as we sometimes hear it, but mild and soft and extremely lovely. The dreamy atmosphere is maintained unperturbed almost throughout, though the first quiet but marvellously sonorous strokes of the bass drum at #13 give an inkling of other things to come. The movement's climax is joyous rather than spectacular, with dynamic markings very well observed, though at this point the recording seems to have some slightly awkward balancing; I would have liked to hear a little more of the horns.
What follows is an unresistably rambunctious Ländler where everyone involved is audibly having a lot of fun. The saccharine Trio is taken with the same sense of parody, and rightly so (just listen to the cheeky clarinet just before #17). Nor does Honeck make too heavy weather of the March, but the canonic voices, led by a single double bass, do weave a magic spell, every strand audible. Just before "Nicht schleppen" (five bars before #8) there is an interesting little surprise when Honeck substitutes Mahler's slur in the violins for staccato dots, which works extremely well. The trio is nostalgic and dreamy with the pp very well maintained. When the march returns, the final outburst of the Klezmer music is quite subdued, very unlike most recordings - but indeed the trumpet tune is marked no louder than mezzoforte. Just before that, incidentally, there is a bizarre exchange of eighth notes between horns and woodwinds that I had never before registered so clearly as here - a fascinating detail.
It was at the start of the Finale that I felt somewhat disappointed for a bit. It sounds too controlled, not fanatical enough. Surely the playing at #12 is anything but 'wild' as Mahler demands. However, after another perfectly realized cantabile episode the return of the opening material dispels any fear of a flaccid ending to the proceedings. It is very powerful indeed, with a spectacular tam-tam. I loved it how after #28 Honeck has the crotchets played broadly, as Mahler indicates, giving the music a kind of jeering effect. The build-up to the triumphal march that ends it all is thrilling, as is the apotheosis itself - the ovation that bursts out right away is very well earned.
Too many conductors choose to smooth over the rough edges of this work; Honeck allows the PSO to fully explore Mahler's juxtaposition of "coarse" peasant songs and refined melodies, so as to reveal the contextual depth of the composer's polyphonic composition. Also, did I mention that the PSO has a horn section to die for? Did I mention that?
And now, the longer version. First some important background. The Pittsburgh Symphony under André Previn was the first big time orchestra I had a chance to see. The did "Also Sprach Zarathustra". I was in the front row balcony of a great hall for orchestral music and they blew me away. I fell in love with Pittsburgh and have kept an ear peeled ever since for their recordings.
Second, I listen to everything with what I feel is a highly critical ear. I always thought my ears were defective because I was always hearing things no one else could hear. But during some earphone testing at the Shure labs together with some pretty sensitive monitoring gear I discovered that in fact, my ears were just fine. In fact, better than fine because I really could hear things most people couldn't. So, in addition to being a royal pain in the rear when it comes to demanding great interpretations, I also hear stuff that passes by most folks. It is both a blessing (when it's great) and a curse (when it's not).
Lastly, I am a Mahler junkie. Big time. The first Mahler I ever heard was the old Columbia vinyl recording of Mahler's 1st done by Leonard Bernstein and New York back in the '60's. I thought it was the most amazing work I had ever heard. And after many years of listening to many conductors and orchestras do Mahler, it was clear to me that my tastes said that the definitive interpretations came from Bernstein. Not that there weren't others that were great, but to me, his conducting was able to wring every tiny scrap of emotion from every Mahler symphony he put on disc. His Columbia/Sony/whatever cycle is definitely a desert island disk for me. And yes, I know, it's way more than one disk. So sue me. :-)
And then I heard Manfred Honeck and Pittsburgh do the Mahler 1st.
During the 2014/15 orchestra season, Honeck and Pittsburgh were on tour and made a stop in Chapel Hill, NC where they performed this symphony. Fortunately I was able to go. Though I had no real idea what to expect, it was Pittsburgh, it was Mahler, so how bad could it be?
I was stunned. Amazed. Enthralled. Captivated. And probably a ton of other things that I can't think of right now. It was absolutely electric from start to finish. Never in my life did I expect to be able to hear an orchestra do this anywhere close to Bernstein. And in a sense, I didn't. Honeck and Pittsburgh wildly exceeded my beloved Lennie. It was so good, that in spite of the audience being packed with very experienced and somewhat jaded classical listeners, a number of members of the audience broke out into spontaneous applause at the end of the first movement. They just couldn't hold back. I'm still not sure how I managed to not join in. Honeck handled it wonderfully… he took a pause as he was getting ready to start the second movement, then turned his head to the audience, grinned and gave a thumbs up sign. Awesome. No more spontaneous demonstrations for the rest of the night, but I did see in action what it means when one says, 'the audience leapt to their feet', as that is exactly what happened at the end of the piece. It was a brilliant performance and was rewarded by the most enthusiastic audience response I've seen, and I've been to a LOT of concerts.
This recording is almost as good as it was that night. Of course, no recording will ever be better than actually being there, but this recording is as close as it gets. It is now my "go to" performance of this symphony. And since this recording was from a live performance, a lot of that "in person" feeling is present. Certainly the audience response at the end gives at least some idea of the enthusiasm shown at the Chapel Hill performance.
I'll be buying all of the Honeck/Pittsburgh/Mahler recordings. And to the city of Pittsburgh, count your blessings. You are a lucky bunch of folks to have this incredible combination calling Pittsburgh home.
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.
Honeck for me belongs to a grand tradition of Mahler conductors along with Walter and Barbirolli. Yes, his tempi tend to be slightly slower than some, but it is by no means out of the ordinary.
Additionally, Pittsburgh is simply one of the finest orchestras currently performing Mahler. I just returned from Pittsburgh where I attended Honeck conducting Mahler's 6th. Why did I fly from FL to PA to hear Mahler? It was based on the strength of this recording (along with his recording of the 4th with Pittsburgh) - and they were SUBLIME!!!
If you truly love Mahler you will want to own many versions of each of the symphonies and song cycles, etc. However, I cannot imagine being without this recording. If I could have only one version of the Titan...it would be the present disc by the insightful Manfred Honeck!
*others I would recommend are: Eschenbach/HoustonSymphony 1 in D Major Titan, Abbado/ChicagoMahler Symphonie No. 1, Levi/AtlantaMahler: Symphony No. 1 "Titan", Ancerl/CeskaAncerl Gold Edition 6: Mahler Symphony no. 1/ Strauss - Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, Walter/NYMahler: Symphony No. 1 / Brahms: Variations on a Theme By Haydn...only to name my top five - the list could go on and on and on...