MAHLER: Symphony No. 1, “Titan” – Les Siecles/ Francois-Xavier Roth – Harmonia mundi 

by | Jul 9, 2019 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D Major “Titan” – Les Siecles/ Francois-Xavier Roth – Harmonia mundi 905299, 57:01 (5/31/19) [Distr. by PIAS]: ****:

In certain respects the “authenticity movement” has come to embrace the music of Gustav Mahler, given the ambitious 2018 effort from conductor Francaois-Xavier Roth and Les Siecles to reproduce the original version of Mahler’s 1893-94 manuscript edition from Hamburg and Weimar of his First Symphony, his Eine Tondichtung in Symphonieform, a tone-poem in the form of a symphony.  Les Siecles has sought out the period instruments available to and preferred by Mahler in Budapest, the venue of the premiere. The potent sonority of German and Viennese instruments: oboes, clarinets, flutes and bassoons; the Viennese horns and trumpets, particularly, differ from the French equivalents in their bores and mouthpieces to produce a slower but bolder articulation. The strings alternate bare gut and spun gut for the higher and lower registers, respectively. The harmonics and attacks, therefore, achieve a unique color.

The epithet “Titan” derives from Mahler’s affection for author Jean-Paul Richter – no less admired by Robert Schumann – though the scope and “literary” ambition of the title could well extend to the “Promethean” ideal set as an archetype for the Romantic Era. The opening movement, Fruehling und kein Ende, the Spring Without End, invokes harmonics to draw upon Nature’s bounty and solace to the eternal wanderer, a mix of song and fanfare, the motif derived from Mahler’s own song-cycle Leider eines fahrendes Gesellen. The woodwinds depict cuckoos in a descending fourth, and the distinct tone colors of clarinet and English horn add to the sibilance of pantheistic impulses. At the exalted climax, nothing “effeminate” marks Les Siecles’ explosion of cosmic immanence.

Portrait Gustav Mahler by Moritz Nähr

Gustav Mahler,
by Moritz Nähr

The so-called Blumine or Flowers Movement first appeared as a sentimental Andante to Mahler’s inamorata Marion von Weber. The music evolves in the form of a hazy serenade to love and ontological mysticism. Plucked strings and warbles punctuate the meditative procession, whose bass line soon expands into a fine aria for the oboe and strings. The horns illuminate the tender emotion without sacrificing its intimacy. With the Scherzo, Mahler indicates that the odyssey resumes, triple meter, Mit vollen Segein, in full sail.  Here, Les Siecles proves itself a match for some classic readings of this acerbic, energetic, pre-Shostakovich sense of personal volition from such masters as Horenstein, Walter, Bernstein, Kubelik, and Mitropoulos.  The Les Siecles trumpets and tympani quite assail the heavens, only to relent for the delicate, Schubertian laendler of the middle section.

Now, Mahler intones his Second Part, “The Human Comedy,” with all deference to Honore de Balzac, with a funeral march parody, Totenmarsch based on a child’s storybook in which a deceased hunter’s body demands an entourage of cats, rabbits, crows and assorted woodland beasts. The eerie litany of the high double bass over a tympani ostinato gives us Bruder Jakob (Frere Jacques) in growing minor-mode polyphony. This morbid juxtaposition of childlike naivete and Death continue to haunt Mahler just as the themes beleaguered Poe. The middle section has something of klezmer, though the heartbreaking anguish released any narrowly “ethnic” character. Mahler entitled his treatment of Callot Gestrandet! The German for failed.  Once more a song from Leider eines fahrenden Gesellen appears, a wistful desire for forgetfulness under a linden tree.

Mahler’s original designation for his last movement reads Dall’Inferno, “From Hell,” marked Allegro furioso. Everything in this titanic expression of love’s anguish and personal doubt explodes in huge periods: marked Ausbruch der Verzweiflung eines im Tiefsten verwundeten Herzens: the paroxysm of despair of a gravely wounded heart. As rendered by all the great Mahlerites, this music proffers an epic, contrapuntally Manichean battle of the life principles, ending perhaps with the death of the Hero, who has become apotheosized in the course of the conflict. Mahler calls for “Bells in the air!” for the brass to pulverize all obstacles to the triumph of his artistic and erotic will. That Les Siecles and conductor Roth have well obeyed Mahler’s directives has ample testimony in this fine document, Jiri Heger and his team responsible for the brilliant sonics.

—Gary Lemco




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