Mahler’s first symphonic exercise had only mixed success; though the premiere in Budapest of his Symphonic Poem in Two Parts in 1889 sported likeability among the three movements of Part I (including the lovely Blumine second movement) , the general public was rather mystified at the last two. The reprise of the finale contained 37 bars repeated intact, while it sounded a full tone higher—in G major. The piece was far from being in its final form in terms of scoring, the composer adding a third instrument to all four woodwinds. There was no three-fold division of the cellos and basses at the beginning of the first movement, no harmonics, and 162 bars missing in the repetition the exposition. Forty-three bars are missing in the second movement scherzo, and the finale feels weakened also due to the elimination of several transitional passages.
The Blumine movement had been substantially reworked by the time Mahler had prepped the piece for performance in Hamburg, and it is this version we get here, the only truly complete score we have of his early thoughts. Mahler adhered to his original program, which is as follows:
From the Days of Youth, Flower, Fruit, and Thornpieces
1 – Spring and No End in Sight
2 – Blumine
3 – With Billowing Sails
4 – “Stranded” – A Death March in the manner of Collot
5 – Out of the Inferno
Part one refers to a marriage novel by Jean Paul (1796) and connected to the novel Titan. Part two refers to Jacques Callot, who was a French painter, and described in detail the atrocities of the 30-year’s War. The last movement of course has allusions to Dante’s mighty Inferno. But after the Hamburg performance, Mahler had a change of heart, and began to be more insistent that the work be completely divorced from its programmatic allusions, despite the fact that his changes had made the work acceptable to the Hamburg audience. So we finally get rid of Blumine, though its ghost lives on in the enhanced trumpet melodies throughout the rest of the work in the final version. When one hears the symphonic poem, it is out of curiosity more than anything else; as the subsequent clarity of the composer’s thoughts leave no doubt that his final decisions were the right ones.
So what of this performance? Not competitive on almost any level, I am afraid. Apart from basic sound considerations (more in a minute) the work is completely awash in an unforgiving reverberation that obscures far more detail than the interest of hearing such anomalies in this piece allow. It is like sitting in the last row of the SuperDome, with only the orchestra present—there is that much echo. Orchestrally it is a rather blowsy performance, lacking shape and detail, though I must admit that the echo makes it difficult to determine whether the lack of definition is Mahler’s fault or not.
This is a dual-disc recording of sorts, a CD with an additional DVD-Video disc that has included the same performance in enhanced audio without the video, i.e., a higher resolution audio signal with a higher sample rate (96 kHz instead of the normal CD rate of 44.1 kHz). I ran into several problems, the greatest being that my Sony DVD/CD player would only play the DVD one time. Each time it came back as unplayable. I had no such problems playing it on the computer, but that system is substandard audio-wise. I can tell you that the CD sounds quieter and a little more constricted, though the DVD advantage seems to be only in a louder, more open sound as opposed to any real quality of sound itself. [Exactly – the 96K DVD was more transparent on my player than the CD option and the reverb less annoying, but when the original recording is poor that makes for little improvement…Some players may also downsample the 96K to 48K, thus offering less enhancement over 44.1…Ed.]
As an aside, this disc also features the Suite of Hans Rott, a composer who had the most awful trouble getting performed, yet remained a friend of Mahler’s. The notes spend many pages arguing that Rott’s Suite served as the melodic basis for the first movement of the symphony, and maybe so; but the suite itself, while not a bad piece, is of little consequence placed alongside its disc mate. The live audience seems appreciative, but the sound is just not acceptable, especially on an “audiophile” disc, and the performance, while good, cannot really be judged because of the detriment of the audio.
— Steven Ritter