Mahler’s First is not the “Titan” | Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Lintu

by Glenn on January 16, 2016

This morning, I was able to listen to a new recording of Mahler’s First Symphony, by Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. I enjoyed the experience and was interested in how others perceived it.

I intended to read a review but instead found myself stuck on an internet message board.

To paraphrase the writer of Ecclesiastes: “Of the making of Mahler recordings, there is no end.” Or so it seems to some who wish, perhaps, it wasn’t so. One poster on this SA-CD review site says, “[I]t’s hard to imagine the need for any additional Mahler 1 recordings from any source.”

Interesting question that was being asked (underneath the sarcastic tone): Should more Mahler recordings be made? But being an internet posting site, one feels as though the question is neither clearly asked nor answered. Another poster wrote, “the market is saturated” and believes “maybe recording times and budgets would be better spent on about anything else in the repertoire.” There’s a lot to unpack there. What is market saturation for Mahler 1 recordings? and How may an orchestra better spend its recording budget? and, by the way, Is there a recommendation beyond “anything else”?

You would think the creators of this recording believed there was a market for it. Otherwise, you can make any recording you want if you can subsidize it. This seems to be a (necessary?) trend these days in recorded classical music. One of the treasures on my shelf is the box set of The Mahler Project by the San Francisco Symphony with Michael Tilson Thomas.

Mahler-1

I like it because it’s a work of art even as it’s a representation of works of art. It’s beautifully and uniquely packaged, which therefore makes it not cheap. How can you afford to do something like that? At the end of the large, included book you note this:

“These recordings were made possible by the encouragement and generous leadership funding of the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.
“Additional support was provided by Nancy and Joachim Bechtle and The Buffett Fund of the Community Foundation for Monterey County.”

Which tells me that without some financial help, you don’t have these recordings.

Any argument over whether this or that Mahler recording (or any classical recording for that matter) “should have been made” may soon become moot as it feels like the era of classical recordings is definitely slowing. It’s not gone, but this certainly doesn’t feel like a golden age of recordings. As one manager at Music Millennium told me by way of pre-emptive explanation for why the size of the classical section was being reduced, “People aren’t buying classical recordings any more.” I think that’s probably true as far as they are concerned. The recording process is expensive and the market for the purchase of CD’s is changing.

The Berlin Philharmonic has been attempting to navigate new commercial dynamics. I see them doing a few things:

1. They’ve created their own label, so that if you want actual CD’s, you may buy them directly from them. They are cutting out the middle man.

2. Digital copies of their recordings are available at iTunes.

3. Their Digital Concert Hall offers both live and streamed versions of their concerts.

For me, I was happy to hear this new recording of Mahler’s First Symphony. I seek out new recordings because:

1. Recording technology continues to evolve (I almost wrote, “continues to improve,” but I’m not sure that’s always true.) and I’m fascinated by this process. Sometimes I think we can hear better. Other times I think the devil’s doctrine of “because we can, we must” rears its ugly head with overmediated recordings.

2. I’m interested in hearing a new interpretation. While music is never the same twice (although, ironically, once a recording is made, then it’s always the same) it’s possible for an orchestra to do something new with a piece of music. It’s fun to hear musicians bring music to life in new ways. And many orchestras have their own style. I enjoy hearing the nuance that can be found in familiar works played by different orchestras in different ways.

3. I respect the desire to create something that lasts. Life is fast and fleeting. There’s that old line: “History is just one thing after another.” I like how a recording privileges a moment in time. The people who walk into a recording studio say that this time matters. We want it to last.

4. I also respect the courage it takes to record. There certainly may be other motivations involved—ego, greed, etc. You can’t know the hearts of the people who make recordings, but I try to assume the best of intentions and wonder what the artist wanted to say through this or that recording.

Back to that message board for a moment. The cover of the actual recording reads, “Mahler: Symphony No. 1; Blumine.” This is as it should be. There are two works included on this recording. And yet that thread on that forum calls this “Mahler: Symphony No. 1 ‘Titan.’”

I’m feeling rather protectionist for some reason and offer the following recommendations:

Recommendation: Do not refer to Mahler’s First Symphony as “Titan.” An early version that Mahler offered of this symphony included a written program and the title, “Titan,” a reference to a novel by the German romanticist Jean Paul. Mahler’s final version of the symphony doesn’t refer to “Titan,” neither should we. (A preface to the Revised Edition of the First Symphony (1995) may be found here.)

Recommendation: Do not place Blumine within the four movements of the symphony. I love how this recording includes Blumine as a fifth track after the symphony. It labels it “Blumine (original 2nd movement),” which feels right. (I’ve also heard it as a first track or seen it included on a separate recording.) One poster writes, though, “There are not very many audio recordings that include the Blumine movement, and only half of those put it in the proper sequence with the other movements.”

Blumine is a lovely piece, but to “put it in the proper sequence” would be to remove it. Mahler’s original symphony (which he referred to as “Symphonic poem”) included five moments. Blumine was the second. Mahler removed Blumine and subsquently revised and published the remaining four movements as his first symphony. If you are lobbying to hear Blumine in its rightful place, I think you need to lobby for a performance of the original version of this symphony, which this is not.

Recommendation: Do not comment on recordings you haven’t heard. Someone on the posting site wrote, “It’s not that the recording will be bad …” That’s not quite saying the recording will be good, is it? How can you judge a recording you have not heard? I’m thinking the quality of the recording is not the point this individual is making, though. Probably intended to talk about scarcity. From their perspective there are too few SA-CD’s on the market and they would like more of the music they are interested in.

Here are some thoughts on this new recording.

The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra plays beautifully. They sound to me almost like a chamber ensemble. There is nothing ponderous or heavy. Their playing is light, clean, precise. I may be reading to much into the “radio” part of the name of this group, but it does sound like they play to record and not to fill a hall.

1
The first movement unfolds so naturally, but then with just over a minute left an inexplicable rush to the end ensues. Material we are revisiting here at the end is now played frenetically.

2
My favorite part of this performance of the second movement came near the end of the “B” or “Trio” section where the lightest hint of portamento comes in with the violins. It’s a beautiful moment. Then, here at the end of this movement is another rush to the finish.

3
The third movement is the weakest part of this recording (stylistically) as it fails to capture the absurdity of Mahler’s music. It’s an unironic rendering of incredibly ironic music. The “C” theme is produced stunningly, though. It’s gorgeous, though it doesn’t benefit from a contrast with the rest of the movement—in other words, it’s not relief from what has come before. Most of this movement should sound a little shocking—Why is there a mediocre klezmer band playing in this symphony? Instead the music is produced so beautifully and artfully and musically (treating it as pure music rather than programmatic) that the shock value isn’t there.

Note: I may have run into a conundrum here. The final version Mahler produced of this symphony was not put forth as a programmatic work. The original program, which could be discussed as words/story and heard as music, was set aside. I realize, now, that I privilege recordings that are more programmatic in nature. I want the bird calls in the first movement (with a brief reprise in the fourth) to sound like bird calls rather than notes. And in this third movement, I want the double-bass solo at the beginning to sound unprofessional, like the poorly played funeral procession by bohemian musicians that was part of the original program—a funeral for a hunter and a procession of animals based on an etching by French artist Jacques Callot as as seen here:

One website that linked to that etching made this statement about “The Huntsman’s Funeral”:

“[A] hunter’s coffin is borne by animals and accompanied by other animals bearing torches, dancing or playing instruments. The incongruity in the artwork fits well with such aesthetics as Mahler’s use of an oversized orchestra to play warped versions of simple folk melodies.”

4
It feels sometimes like there are different levels of intensity from the different sections of the orchestra. The brass has to blow a little bit (read a lot) in this movement. In most recordings it sounds like the strings are playing to be heard above the racket, because they are, indeed, having to be heard above the racket (unless the brass is excessively hushed—for example, the Budapest Festival Orchestra strikes me as a band where the lid is firmly on the brass.) On this recording there is no strain. So you have this dynamic of brass in extremis and strings at their relative leisure.

One of the things you experience as you listen to different versions is the thought, “This isn’t how it’s done.” I notice my inner judge (whether or not I am qualified to do so never really appears to be an issue) is always ready to impose itself on what I’m listening to. This hit me at 5:20 in a passage for strings where in, for example, a Bernstein recording, it sounds like the violins are crying—so much pathos in the playing. It doesn’t happen, here. And yet there is a masterly control of dynamics. It’s a wonderful moment, but not the most persuasive in my opinion.

This recording includes some of the best definition in the lower strings I’ve ever heard in the build-up to the fanfare that leads into the finale theme. Wonderfully clean and articulated playing.

At 13:00 minutes the strings in many of the recordings I’ve heard are called upon to sound a little plaintive. Here it’s a sterile, almost emotionless telling.

I enjoyed this recording. Especially I enjoyed the actual sound of the recording. There’s lots of space and great balance. In terms of interpretation, though, this strikes me as a bit cool. If you like your Mahler with a bit of reserve, this may be an ideal performance. I suppose I like my Mahler to knock me over the head a bit.