Mahler: Titan review – period instrument insights into a beautiful mind

Les Siècles/Roth
(Harmonia Mundi)
Before Mahler’s First Symphony reached its final form, it was a ‘tone poem’, well revived here on German and Viennese instruments

In 1889 in Budapest, the 29-year-old Gustav Mahler conducted the premiere of his first orchestral score. He called it a “symphonic poem in two parts”, without any more explicit title, even though it quoted from a number of his earlier pieces, including the Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen. But when he revised the work, four years later, it became a five-movement “tone poem in symphonic form”, depicting the life, suffering and final defeat at the hands of fate of a powerfully heroic individual, and acquired the title of Titan, borrowed from a novel by one of Mahler’s favourite writers, Jean Paul. Then in 1896, it reached its final form as his First Symphony; one movement had been discarded and all the titles and programmatic associations dropped from the score.

Gustav Mahler: Titan album artwork
Gustav Mahler: Titan album artwork Photograph: Publicity Image

But it’s the second version, the five-movement symphonic poem of 1893, that Les Siècles play here, swapping their usual French-made woodwind and brass instruments for turn-of-the-20th-century German and Viennese equivalents to make their first recorded foray into the Austro-German repertoire. With the exception of the rather cheaply sentimental Blumine (“Flowers”) movement, which comes second in this scheme, and mostly minor details of scoring elsewhere, the substance of the music is very much the same as it is in Mahler’s First Symphony as we usually hear it nowadays.

Nevertheless, François-Xavier Roth’s performance provides a real insight into the evolution of Mahler’s symphonic thinking, and the sheer refinement of his orchestral writing, even so early in his career. With the strings allowed plentiful portamentos, Roth’s approach is restrained and measured, which pays particular dividends in the outer movements; there is beautifully atmospheric playing as the first movement is unveiled and urged into life, and the backward glances before the finale’s last peroration are intensely wistful. Perhaps the scherzo, placed third here, could be more energised, and the funeral march that follows it more grotesque, but there’s a great deal here for anyone interested in Mahler to relish.

Also out this week

It’s taken a while, but Naxos is now roughly halfway through its cycle of Havergal Brian’s symphonies. The latest issue pairs Brian’s 7th Symphony with his 16th – the earlier one, the last of the large-scale symphonies, completed in 1948, is a four-movement work lasting nearly 40 minutes, while the 16th is a quarter-hour single movement, from 1960, and much the more interesting of the two. Where at times the 7th seems a bit too much like film music (Walton’s score for Olivier’s Henry V especially), the 16th is toughly argued, with a constantly developing flux of thematic material.

Both symphonies have been recorded before, but at a budget price, these slightly rough-and-ready performances by the New Russia State Orchestra under Alexander Walker just about get by.

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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