Benjamin Zander conducted a slightly different version of this program with his Boston Philharmonic in October 2003. At those concerts, the discarded “Blumine” movement, played separately from the symphony, was included; I presume it was omitted here due to time constraints. The performance of the Songs of a Wayfarer was marred at the concert I heard by the baritone’s inability to project over Mahler’s orchestra (I won’t blame the splendid acoustics of Jordan Hall).
No such problem here. In a recent New York Times profile written by David Mermelstein, Christopher Maltman’s voice was described as an “inherently dramatic but unfailingly lyrical instrument.” That is a perfect characterization of the voice heard in this performance of the Songs of a Wayfarer. I would suggest that this is the freshest-sounding recording of this work since the classic version by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Rafael Kubelík was released nearly 40 years ago on DG, notwithstanding such recent successes as the Quasthoff/Boulez collaboration. Maltman shares with Fischer-Dieskau an unerring ability to invest the songs with just the right balance of technique and feeling (and, I must say, liberal use of vibrato). This is the first time in his series of Mahler recordings that Benjamin Zander appears as accompanist—a role that we haven’t heard on records since the unfortunate demise of his series with the Boston Philharmonic. In the event, he proves an attentive but far from faceless or reticent partner, matching both the intensity and the sensitivity of his soloist.
I found that, when collecting performances with which to compare this new one, I have very few favorites. Of the few, there are those that really emphasize (some might say exaggerate) the langsam marking of the opening, among them Michael Tilson Thomas and Eliahu Inbal, and those who get things moving relatively quickly, like Rafael Kubelík, Leonard Bernstein, and Mr. Zander. Both approaches can be equally effective, provided that the sense of wonder, of a new world emerging, is captured. The winds need to sound newly minted, the nobility of the brass has to shine through, and the strings must be almost ethereal. The sound on this new Telarc disc is certainly congenial to presenting this sense of discovery: every instrument is clarity itself, and yet the ensemble has natural balance; the bass sound is the deepest and most satisfying of the recordings that I auditioned (a hybrid SACD is also available). The performance of the first movement is at times impetuous, at others almost tentative: the cellos seem to hesitate as they introduce the principal theme, and one has the sense that the music is indeed feeling its way toward the full light of day. I prefer the opening to be slower and more expansive, but Mr. Zander certainly makes a persuasive case for his equally valid vision.
The (ultimately rejected) title “Under full sail” for the second movement aptly characterizes this performance: energetic, almost muscular in its vivacity, yet imbued with the spirit of the dance, as though tossed on waves of sound. The prim little minuet-like second subject is a perfect contrast, foreshadowing Mahler’s dance movements-to-come.
The third movement perfectly captures Mahler’s ambivalence: this movement is both a funeral march and a satire of a funeral march: the opening suggests melancholy without being at all maudlin, while the later klezmer-style music is jaunty and seems to negate the feeling of the preceding music; there is also a certain sense of desperation in its eerie energy. The sound clarifies the texture without sounding too dry, the low tones again making their presence felt rather than heard. The lovely, delicate Trio of this movement couldn’t be any more different than both of the styles heard earlier—no wonder Mahler’s first audiences were confused!
I may be alone among Mahlerites in finding the finale to be overblown and ultimately unconvincing. That said, Mr. Zander and his orchestra play it for all its worth (abetted once again by the excellent sound), from the thunder-and-lightning opening, to the more thoughtful music of the development, and finally, the triumphant ending.
For me, the First Symphony represents an audacious but flawed attempt to shoehorn the elements of the tone poem into the structure of the symphony. This performance is about as good as anyone can hope to hear. If my praise seems muted, it is the music and not the performance to which I’m reacting: only with the magnificent Second did Mahler fully arrive at his own unique synthesis—and that recording by Mr. Zander I await with keen anticipation.
Click here to listen to Mahler’s Symphony no. 1.
Click here to listen to Mahler: Songs of a Wayfarer.