Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 1.
Christoph Eschenbach, cond; German SO Berlin;
Christine Schäfer (sop)
CAPRICCIO 5026 (78:49
Text and Translation)
Christoph Eschenbach recorded a Mahler First with the Houston Symphony for Koch in 1998. In
22:2, Benjamin Pernick was very impressed, while
I was more equivocal, finding that the performance was good but lacking in personality and fully committed orchestral execution. I have no such qualms about this newer performance, but the real news here is the accompanying set of Mahler songs, about which more anon.
The opening follows Mahler’s markings with admirable fidelity: “slowly, dragging” and “like a sound of Nature”; this awakening is interrupted by fanfares that aren’t distanced enough—the only negative in an otherwise impressive first movement. The horns are especially noble sounding, and the theme based on “Ging heut morgen” is fresh and lilting (Eschenbach observes the repeat). In the development, a sense of longing or caution is cultivated until the more positive energy of the return to the main theme; the recapitulation and coda are very quickly paced.
The Scherzo opens in a firm but methodical fashion: After an assertive first measure, the volume drops, only to return by degrees to the opening level, a very interesting effect. The Trio is highly contrasted and mannerly in its graceful inflection. A melancholy, slightly sour bass solo opens the third movement at a pace that flows steadily forward. This is a very ominous sounding march with prominent tam-tam, and it is essentially dry-eyed and stern of countenance—the perfect straight-faced satire, at least until the lovely
quote, which is everything the march isn’t: delicate, sensitive, understated. Neither the oompah-band nor the jaunty klezmer music, however, can summon any relief from the relentless gloom of the march. Great stuff.
The opening of the finale with its “lightning bolt” is forceful and atmospheric. The pacing is urgent but not hurried, a true crisis for the symphonic hero. The slowly emerging triumph from adversity is reminiscent of this conductor’s “Resurrection” recording on Ondine: dramatic, sensibly paced, and very effective. The first, false victory is so convincing that one can sympathize with the bafflement of the work’s first audiences—what’s going on here? The extended return to the first movement themes sounds especially fresh. The final triumph rings out with splendid aplomb.
The attractive if unlikely companion to the symphony comes from a different world, and I wouldn’t recommend that listeners follow the performance of the symphony with the songs. Christine Schäfer’s lovely, lyrical voice with its pure tone is ideally suited to the less romantic nature of these Lieder. Her performances range from playful and teasing in “Blicke mir” to ardent in “Liebst du um Schönheit” with its almost Straussian orchestration (by Max Puttman). For “Um Mitternacht,” Schäfer’s delivery darkens appropriately, yet her ringing affirmation at the end is entirely convincing. “Lindenduft” returns to the lighter textures of the first song, and then we enter the rarefied atmosphere of “Ich bin der Welt.” Minus the added heft and gravitas of a mezzo voice—Ferrier, Baker, Ludwig—Schäfer must rely on her unerring ability to characterize the text; the result is one of the most convincingly heartbreaking interpretations I’ve heard. Eschenbach accompanies flawlessly. Though it may be unlikely that listeners will purchase this disc for the songs, they are much more than just a makeweight and an ample sweetener if the symphony isn’t enough of a lure.
FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
Christoph Eschenbach has evolved into a heavily mannered, interventionist, even perverse interpreter, and it's very nice to be able to report that those qualities are never in evidence here. His occasional moments of rhetorical emphasis, in the outer sections of the scherzo or in the finale's second theme, remain attractive personal touches that never check the music's onward flow. Elsewhere, this is simply a lovely, fresh, and youthful-sounding Mahler First, abounding in idiomatic feeling and atmosphere.
The first-movement introduction wakes up perfectly, the offstage perspectives ideally judged, and the main body of the allegro has the bracing vigor of a spring day. The scherzo, as just mentioned, gets a little help in the "rustic lilt" department, but it's interesting that Eschenbach shows a welcome touch of restraint in the trio, never letting incidental detail get in the way of the long lyrical line. His funeral march third movement is spectacular: truly spooky thanks to minute control of dynamics, with even the Jewish dance episodes perfectly integrated into the overall mood like some troubling vision. It's wonderful. And if the angry opening of the finale isn't quite as crazy as others have made it, I can only applaud Eschenbach's lively tempo for the concluding chorale. In short, a great job!
The Rückert-Lieder are less impressive, partly because they really do need a darker vocal timbre than Christine Schäfer's bright soprano offers, and I'm not sure that the transpositions to the orchestral parts that she requires show the music in the best light. This is particularly true of the two big songs, Um Mitternacht and Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, despite the fact that she's an excellent singer who projects the text with unfailing clarity and emotional aptness. And that incredibly slow tempo for Liebst Du um Schönheit really is a drag. Still, for the symphony alone this disc is worth considering. The sonics are very good, perhaps a touch dry, but vividly present and well-balanced.
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 1 in D major "Titan" by Gustav Mahler
Venue: Haus des Rundfunks, großer Saal
Length: 56 Minutes 2 Secs.
Rückert Lieder (5) by Gustav Mahler
Christine Schäfer ()
Written: 1901-1902; Vienna, Austria
Venue: Haus des Rundfunks, großer Saal
Length: 21 Minutes 27 Secs.
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