MAHLER: Songs of a Wayfarer; Symphony No. 1 in D Major “Titan;” – Christopher Maltman, baritone/ Philharmonia Orchestra/ Benjamin Zander – Telarc Multichannel SACD + Standard CD 1SACD-60628, 2 hrs., 27:38 *****:

This new version of Mahler’s First is up against quite a few competitors, but offers several advantages.  First, it’s a superb performance and one of the few available in hi-res surround. Next, it provides for an introductory filler the four Songs of a Wayfarer, which Mahler quoted and uses in his First Symphony. The second disc is a standard CD with a 79-minute detailed discussion by Zander of both works, complete with musical examples. Finally, the second disc is a free bonus.

Zander – who was already composing himself at the age of nine, and studied with Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst – likes to deliver illustrated talks before concerts, and in fact has recorded previous talks for most of six Mahler symphonies he has done for Telarc release. [Here’s one example.] The First is a good choice for analysis as an introduction to the world of Mahler’s symphonies – better than the others to my thinking. His approach in the discussions is comfortably informal yet very informative. I found his exploration of the “vernacular material” presented by Mahler in his symphonies – such as the minor-key Frere Jacques theme in the First – to remind me of some of the very accessible talks on music by Leonard Bernstein. He even uses a few examples from other recordings in addition to the examples played by the Philharmonia. One is from the piano roll which Mahler cut, playing his own transcription of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony. He begins his discussion with the songs and how some of them are used in the symphony. Of course, as with Bernstein, the third movement funeral procession of the dead hunter born by the wild animals of the forest (a twisted Austrian attempt at parody) offers plenty of opportunity for commentary.

My favored hi-res recordings of several of the Mahler symphonies so far have been Michael Tilson Thomas’ with the San Francisco Symphony.  Auditory comparison of Zander’s version with that one provides surprisingly little difference. The surround sonics are perhaps just a hair more spectacular in the Telarc version, and it provides a load of bonuses. While Mahler wrote the Wayfarer Songs for a female voice, he premiered them with a baritone and this version employs the rich voice of baritone Christopher Maltman. There is a bit less hall ambiance on the songs due to their having been recorded in one of the Abbey Road studios. The impression of the Watford Coliseum in London is just as strong as that of San Francisco’s Davies Hall in the surround mix.

– John Sunier