Mahler: Symphony No. 1

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Mahler
LABELS: Exton
WORKS: Symphony No. 1
PERFORMER: Pittsburgh Symphony/Manfred Honeck
CATALOGUE NO: Exton EXCL-00026 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Mahler’s First Symphony is now so frequently performed, broadcast and recorded that it is difficult to imagine how strange, even discomforting, it must have sounded to its early listeners. It has that opening of disparate fanfares and birdcalls, those ‘vulgar’ intrusions into the third movement funeral march, and the edgy openness of so much of the scoring from which the usual late-Romantic filling-out was simply missing. Yet in this new recording something of that freshness is recaptured through observing, for once, Mahler’s enormously detailed markings, to the letter.

It helps, no doubt, that after years as a viola player in the Vienna Philharmonic, Manfred Honeck began his conducting career as assistant to that great Mahlerian Claudio Abbado; it helps, too, that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is currently in particularly fine form with a wondrously brazen horn section. Accordingly, where Mahler marks the launch of the main theme of the first movement pianissimo, or where he asks for a minute tightening of tempo five bars into the second movement, those are exactly what we hear. Just occasionally, as in the approach to the first movement climax, Honeck is over literal, slightly losing momentum; but the inner movements are intensely characterful.

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In the recording, edited from live performances for the Japanese label Exton, the strings sometimes seem a little lightweight relative to the winds, and there’s a hint of compression in the frenzied opening pages of the finale, but for the most part the sound has real vividness and bite. In short, a reading to surprise even the most jaded Mahlerian. Bayan Northcott