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MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D, “Titan” – Budapest Festival Orchestra/ Ivan Fischer, conductor – Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 33112, 55:45 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:

We don’t tend to think of Mahler’s music concurrently with other peoples’; he somehow is so different, so elevated and on an entirely different plain that the vicissitudes of music history don’t touch him, or if they do, don’t matter much. So when told that the young Mahler, who between the ages of 24 and 28 set to work on his First Symphony—or tone poem Titan as it started, based on a book by Jean Paul Richter from the first moments of the nineteenth century, whatever you prefer—we are a little bit startled to hear that Brahms’s Fourth, Dvorak’s Eighth, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, and the Franck D-minor symphonies were are in play about that time as well. All of those works definitely seem to belong to another era, the end of pure dwindling romanticism. Brahms himself couldn’t see anything beyond it; it depressed him to no end, even though the young Mahler spent several consecutive summers visiting the old man, and though Brahms began to see Mahler as the true “insurrectionist” instead of Richard Strauss, he thought him a genius and even saw much of his own philosophy in the pages of Mahler’s Second Symphony. But the connection was severed early—even in the First we sense that something new is happening, that Mahler has jump started music into another dimension, one that would remain outside of even the “new” norms, taking an original path that took years to be accepted, and would always exist in its own milieu.

As hard as it is to believe today, this work was considered an abomination when first premiered, and Mahler went around for days dejected and downstricken, afraid to even confront his friends. We should all keep this in mind when listening to new music today, lest we also place ourselves in the category of the fools who missed it all when down the road finally gets here!

This is the latest in Fischer’s Mahler series for Channel, who had previously released Nos. 2, 4, and 6. Audiophile Audition likes all of them, but Peter Joelson was especially taken with No. 4. I like No. 2 a lot, though I am not quite as enthusiastic about the interpretation as Gary Lemco.

This release under consideration had me struggling for a while mainly because Fischer attempts a few libertine liberties and I am not convinced about, especially a drastic slowdown before the last big climax in the first movement. Bernstein could always make things like this work with his amazing sixth sense, and I think Fischer is trying to do some similar things but with less success. His scherzo is superb, and the haunting melodies of the slow movement have rarely been done better. The last movement is a real barn burner, and even though I am more convinced by Bernstein’s aberrations in this movement, Fischer’s choices are hardly inconsequential or ineffective; when they gel they gel big, and his race to the final bars is about the fastest on record, the orchestra barely keeping up. But it is exciting, and even though I think Bernstein’s DGG recording with the Concertgebouw still the finest on record, this one has much to recommend it.

Perhaps that principle recommendation goes to the sound, easily the best First I have ever heard in SACD format. There have always been arguments about “how” this composer should sound: impressionistic, manicured, rough and ready, you name it. One of the reasons the New York Philharmonic was always considered the perfect Mahler orchestra is because they brought a certain inconclusiveness, a just-getting-by feeling that made the performances so earthy and grounded. This recording is not like that; there are a few moments when the trumpets are just barely making pitch, and a few where the orchestra loses a little cohesiveness, but by and large this is Mahler writ large, all dressed up and ready to prance down the high fashion runway. It is one smooth performance, almost hyper-rich in its luxuriant feeling, and the spectacular surround sound makes us hear things we simply don’t hear in other recordings. The balance is exceptional and palpably deep in scope, an orchestra as it was meant to be heard. Channel is really learning how to record this bunch, and even though there are other wonderful SACD readings of this work—notably the fantastic Zander on Telarc—this one takes the cake in terms of sheer gorgeous sound. For that reason alone I would give it a lot of slack interpretation-wise, but when Fischer is this close in that department as well, the recording becomes something of a must-have.