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MAHLER: Symphony No. 1, “Titan” – Utah Sym./ Thierry Fischer – Reference Recordings

MAHLER: Symphony No. 1, “Titan” – Utah Sym./ Thierry Fischer – Reference Recordings multichannel HDCD SACD FR-715, 52:55 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

It wasn’t until after the completion of his Third Symphony Mahler abandoned the use of titles. At the time the rage was all for symphonic poems and extra-curricular literary associations, and Mahler was not immune, possibly because of his association with good friend and rival Richard Strauss.  The work under consideration started out as a “symphonic poem” at its first hearing in Budapest, changed to the “Titan” tone poem four years later, transformed again to the “Titan” Symphony a year later, and finally, a full five years after first flowering, the Symphony in D Major in Berlin 1896.

But before that the descriptions were quite involved, and the piece itself had an additional movement, “Blumine”, a theater work adapted for the symphony that featured a trumpet solo. It was quickly tossed and with good reason—nothing about it fits the rest of the character of the piece, though it’s not bad in and of itself. Mahler also soon came to the understanding that no matter what sort of associations may or may not have been present at genesis, ultimately the music survives on pure expression, even when coupled with the exceptional song-like references that he includes in so many places.

The First Symphony stands as a paradigmatic example of Mahler’s developmental processes, which to me are not developments in the form that Beethoven employed, but instead subtle variations on material that serve as the underlying leitmotivs for any given section. This is particularly evident in the last movement where a single theme appears three times, each invested with a different dramatic capability before leading to the triumphant finale. The work remains on one of the three most popular and performed Mahler symphonies, along with the Second and Fourth Symphonies.

This recording celebrates 75 years of superb orchestral work from the Utah Symphony and it is nice to see them back on record. It’s also nice to see an SACD from that bastion of audio excellence, Reference Recordings, who seemed for years to avoid the format. I always knew their embracing it would be a success, and the recordings issued since their conversion have proved the point, taking up the mantle from the late great efforts of Telarc, who have long since abandoned surround sound audiophile issues. Young conductor Christian Thierry also proves himself a fine Mahlerian, though I have yet to hear anyone match the incandescent First Symphony efforts of Bernstein and the Concertgebouw on DGG. Some might also be put off by the opening bars, where the super-quiet harmonics in the strings are a bit on the loud side, much as they were on Andrew Litton’s also wonderful recording with the Bournemouth Symphony on Virgin Classics years ago. Nevertheless this is a very competitive issue done by superb partners on each side of the microphone, and is easily recommended.

—Steven Ritter

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