MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D – Tonkunstler-Orchester Niederosterreich/ Andres Orozco-Estrada – Preiser multichannel SACD 90784, 57:30 [Distr. by Albany] *****:
Well, I certainly had never heard of the Tonkunstler-Orchester Niederosterreich before this release (they are an ensemble of Lower Austria, according to the notes “one of the most important institutions in the Austrian musical scene”) or the conductor Andres Orozco-Estrada (his website biography states that he “was born in December 1977 in Medellín (Colombia). After early studies of the violin he started taking conducting classes in 1992. He came to Vienna in 1997 where he was accepted in the master class of Uroš Lajovic at the Vienna Music Academy, completing his degree with a guest conducting engagement with the Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien at the Wiener Musikverein in spring 2003… in June 2004 – under the auspices of the Wiener Festwochen – Andrés Orozco-Estrada stepped in at short notice in a concert of the Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich performing Richard Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder with Eva Mei and Anton Bruckner’s 4th Symphony (for which he was celebrated as ‘The Miracle of Vienna’ in the Austrian press”). Pretty impressive stuff, this, and I must say that this album confirms every bit of press hype that I have read about him so far, which is considerable.
The short fact of the matter is that this is the finest recording of Mahler’s First Symphony that I have ever heard. This was taken live (and yes, there is the typical intrusive applause at the end which could easily have been edited out) from a concert at the Vienna Musikverein. As a listener, and of course even more as a reviewer, I have heard lots of recordings in this venue, from orchestras to chamber ensembles to pianos, and it is widely regarded as one of the finest halls in the world. But I can honestly say that I have never heard an orchestra so brilliantly captured in this venue as the engineers at Preiser have managed (let’s name them: Florian Rosensteiner, producer and editor; Josef Schutz, sound technician and mastering; Johannes Neubert, proceedings manager). The sound stage is incredibly wide-ranging, as if you were sitting in row ten, while the depth of the orchestra and acoustical values of the hall come across as never before. Preiser has opted to give the surround speakers a natural signal (meaning not full strength) that creates a perfect ambiance. This is truly deserving of some kind of award.
Interpretatively it ranks with the very best (which in my mind is Bernstein/Concertgebouw on DGG) and shows much considered and unmannered playing that allows Mahler to speak his own mind while at the same time allowing the conductor to massage the work’s emotional values for maximum effect. This is not a speedy account—he is slower than Zander, Zinman, and Tilson-Thomas, and even Bernstein with the exception of the third movement. But nothing sounds turgid or lethargic, and everything moves with naturalness that proves the tempo choices. The second movement is for once not an assault on Austrian country peasantry, but instead a moderately paced dance movement that doesn’t overdo the initial string passages. The Frere Jacques slow movement is beautifully paced, as is the opening of the entire symphony, with delightfully mysterious string harmonics setting the scene for an explosion of propulsive joy. The last movement, always the key to the success of this symphony, may not have the absolute out-of-control feeling that Bernstein springs on the unsuspecting Amsterdamers, but it is close, and the orchestra sounds better than the Dutchman were ever allowed. The Tonkunstler-Orchester Niederosterreich—who are these people? Pungent winds, thrilling brass, and glorious strings!
Wherever they hail from, they have a lot to be proud of, and I think we have a definitive winner in the ever-changing Mahler 1 sweepstakes. Grab this one—you won’t be sorry!
— Steven Ritter