A Review of Two Recent Recordings of Mahler 1 by Vänskä and Roth

Gustav Mahler

You can easily tell that I’m still struggling a bit with Gustav Mahler by the number of posts I have done on him, so far a grand total of 1 (one!), commenting about very divergent reviews of Mahler’s 9th.

I find many of his symphonies hard to approach, too big, to complex, getting lost in the weeds. The one symphony that I semi-regularly go back to is no. 1. It is to me by far the most approachable, taking many of the beautiful melodies in the symphony directly from his own earlier the song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (and if you read this blog regularly you know I’m a sucker for melodies).

My first recording of Mahler 1 with retrospect is not a reference, but at least a quite decent performance, with Eliahu Inbal and the HR Radio Symphony orchestra (I mainly bought the album initially because it was a so-called audiophile recording by Denon).

SInce then, on Mahler, I’ve been through all the great classics (Klemperer, Walter, Bernstein, Kubelik), but also many new releases of this work (Fischer, Zinman, Janssons), and these days most often go back to Ivan Fischer on Channel Classics, a very nice, if a bit middle-of-the-road performance (again, VERY audiophile, it’s a fantastic test for your speakers, but you may not make friends with your neighboring appartments if you explore the full dynamic range).

So I was very curious when in the space of a couple of months two new recordings of Mahler 1 came out, both by conductors I respect a lot.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 – François Xavier Roth – Les Siècles (Harmonia Mundi 2019)

The first one is François-Xavier Roth with his relatively recent ensemble Les Siècles, which I now very much see on track to become one of the most important French orchestras, particularly for French composers (have a look at their recent Debussy and Ravel recordings).

Gustav Mahler Titan Symphony No. 1 Hamburg Weimar 1893-1894 version Les Siècles François Xavier Roth 24/96

So I was particularly curious how they’d do with German composers like Mahler .

What’s interesting about this recording is that they use a different version, “Hamburg/Weimar 1893-1894”, turning the symphony into a “tone poem”. Well, overall, you’ll still very much recognize most of the symphony, but you’ll notice an less familiar 2nd movement sneaking in, Blumine, making the symphony 5 movements long.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 – Osmo Vänskä – Minnesota Orchestra (BIS 2019)

Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 1 Osmo Vänskä Minnesota Orchestra BIS 2019 24/96

The even more recent new release is a conductor I’ve loved for a long time, Osmo Vänskä, who has done fantastic work with the Minnesota Orchestra. Take for example his outstanding recording of the Beethoven piano concertos 2 & 4 with Yevgeny Sudbin.

Vänskä takes the “traditional” version of the symphony with 4 movements.

Now, are any of these worth getting, you’ll ask?

Well, let me start with the Vänskä. Given how much energy and passion Vänskä typically puts into his recordings, this was a major disappointment. The entire symphony just feels very slow and uninspired. I try to stay away from too drastic words especially when we’re talking about such fantastic artists like Vänskä. But I can’t help it, this recording really isn’t for me.

Roth is already a different story. The Blumine addition already gives you something to look out for, and overall, the tone is much more energetic and joyful in the first three movements, and has the appropriate amount of drama in the fourth movement. Overall, a very satisfying performance, maybe not a new reference, but you won’t regret buying it.

Now I’m curious what you think? Am I completely off? Do you love Vänskä’s approach, and I’m just deaf? Which other versions of Mahler 1 should I check out?

My rating: 4 stars (Roth), 2 stars (Vänska)

You can find them here (Roth, Qobuz) and here (Vänskä, Qobuz)

Update Aug 16: Classicstoday seems to agree with my assessment of the Vänskä, calling it a “CD from Hell” in their recent review.

Update Sep 11: Classics is a bit less positive on Roth, giving it 3 stars.

Youn Sun Nah’s Latest Album Immersion – Really Not My Cup Of Tea

The Borderline between Jazz and Pop Music

Youn Sun Nah, while typically being classified as a Jazz singer, has always been on the borderline between Jazz and Pop. Nothing wrong with that, many great singers like Melody Gardot or Norah Jones successfully navigate both sides of the equation very well, at least in my personal opinion.

Youn Sun Nah’s greatest effort on the Jazz side of things were brilliant albums such as Lento or Same Girl. I’ve mentioned the brilliant cover she did of Metallica’s Enter Sandman on Same Girl in my post on my favourite Jazz covers of Pop songs here.

It is very understandable that artists want to evolve their musical style. Not surprisingly therefore, her previous album was called She Moves On (2017). I didn’t review this one on my blog, already because it really didn’t move me very much. And it is usually much more fun to write about albums I like, hence the large number of 4 and 5 star reviews here.

So why did I make a difference here? Well, it is rare that an album really puts me off and annoys me. I rarely have that (exceptionally for some reggae and rap albums), but typically just move on to something else.

In the Jazz territory, there’s one other similar example of an album that I really couldn’t stand, which was Diana Krall’s Glad Rag Doll, produce by T-Bone Burnett. If you wanted to torture me, you could easily use this album, just put it on repeat.

Youn Sun Nah – Immersion (Arts Music 2019)

Youn Sun Nah Immersion 24/48 Art Music 2019

So, what do we get on Immersion? A LOT of synthesizers first of all. Nothing wrong with synthesizers, I used to own several of them in my high school and student days. I’m just not so convinced they are the best combination for Jazz-type albums. But I presume that’s the point, this is actually not an Jazz album.

You also seem to get quite a bit of drum machines (or if it is a real drummer, he uses a heck of a lot of effects). You also get a lot of sound effects.

One example of the extensive use of synths is the cover version of Leonard Cohen’s beautiful Hallelujah. This is recorded over “carpet strings” (do people still use this expression?) that are just wobbling in the background. This really so completely misses the point of this song.

But the most annoying is a minimalistic ballad version of You Can Hurry Love, where the only instrument is a bell- or gamelan-like e-piano that sounds like somebody has taken the good old Yamaha DX7 out of the garage (or more likely, out of Logic Pro).

OK, I’ll stop my rambling here, you’ve got the point, I just don’t like this album.

My rating: 2 points.

If you still want to try it out, which you should, as I think this album may be a love it or hate it affair, you’ll find it here (Qobuz)

Two Recent Releases I Really Don’t Like

What “Not Good” Looks Like

I’ve been writing a lot about albums I really like, just witness the number of 4 and 5 star reviews (you can click on the link on the side bar, categories to find them) I’ve recently written (for more information about my personal rating scale, see here)

However, for this site to be useful to anybody, I strongly believe I also need to write about stuff I don’t like that much, so you can check if your taste really agrees with mine.

Too many reviewers seem to have their rating scale only between 4 and 5. How do you really separate the good from the bad this way? Obviously, a  big part of this is just selection bias.

I assume, professional reviewers are not too much unlike me and much more prefer to write about stuff they like vs. stuff they don’t  like. Same has happened on my site so far, with few exceptions.

My two main sources of classical reviews, Gramophone (UK) and Classica (FR) don’t shy away from low ratings, that’s what I like about them. Gramophone doesn’t use a rating scale beyond the Editor’s Choice, but you can clearly read from the text whether they are enthusiastic or not.

And Classica really doesn’t shy away from using 1 stars, given the two examples below. And unfortunately, I wholeheartedly agree with their assessment.

Dudamel, Barenboim and Brahms

Classical uses a 4 star plus “Choc” scale, which equals about my 5 star system. However, in their most recent October issue, I’ve seen a new rating of a hollow star which I had never noticed before, for this recent DG release of Barenboim for once back at the piano, with the young superstar Dudamel. Unfortunately, I must agree with Classica here. I really cannot find any positive element to these recordings of the two concertos that I love so much (how weird I haven’t mentioned them yet on the blog).

Honestly, 1 min into the opening of the first piano concerto I had enough; there was nothing at all of the drama and desperation that so much impressed me when I heard this first at the age of 17. I know Dudamel has many fans, but I have yet to hear a recording of him that I really like (admittedly, I’ve only heard a few). And when Barenboim comes in, it doesn’t get any better. I’m really thankful for streaming these days that let’s you listen to recordings without having to buy them, I’d really have major regrets for this one.

Brahms Piano Concertos Dudamel Barenboim 2015

My rating: 2 stars (1 star for me really means un-listenable, and Brahms will always be Brahms, even if butchered like here).

For the Brahms concertos, you have many good alternatives, from pretty much every recording that Georges Szell ever made of them (be it Fleischer, Curzon, or Serkin), to Chailly with Freire for a more contemporary one.

Arabella Steinbacher Plays Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky

Arabella Steinbacher Mendelssohn Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos Orchestre de la Suisse Romande Charles Duitoit Pentatone

Here’s another disappointment: Arabella Steinbacher is a truly great violin player. However, from the opening moments of the Mendelssohn I knew something was very wrong. A very sweet tone with a lot of vibrato, but very little energy behind it.

And in comes the orchestra (let me open a little parenthesis here for fun: Mendelssohn is one of the very few orchestras that starts with the soloist, not with the orchestra, there’s an urban legend that a violinist player was relaxed at the beginning of the concert, assuming he’ll have to play Beethoven. The conductor gives him signal after signal, but the violinist doesn’t get it. Finally, the conductor desperately starts, the violinist after the first second realizes his mistake and raises up the violin literally last-minute. Parenthesis closed. If somebody has a source that this has really happened, please let me know) and it really doesn’t get any better.

The Tchaikovsky is equally uninteresting unfortunately.

Classica agrees with me, giving this recording a rather brutal 1 star and talking about a “lack of engagement” which nicely summarizes my feelings as well.

My rating: 2 stars (again, 1 star would be too brutal, I can listen to this, I just don’t want to).

Excellent alternatives are Janine Jansen on Decca for the Mendelssohn , and Julia Fischer for the Tchaikovsky (like the Steinbacher, on Pentatone).

Nina Revisited… or I’d Never Have Thought I’d Ever Mention Usher On This Blog

Hommage albums are all the rage. After the brilliant Autour de Nina (reviewed here), I was nevertheless kind of curious about the new album Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone.

0886445281262_600

Well, obviously when I saw that artists like Usher participated (who really represents to me everything that is wrong about today’s top 40 radio “soul”), I kind of assumed I’d hate this album, so I declare openly in front of the jury my potential bias.

But then I figured, what the heck, so far every single album review I’ve done was four or five stars, so I finally felt obliged to also show to you what it is I actually don’t like.

Nina Revisited….

This album is a very good example.

Usher’s version of My Baby Just Cares For Me is massacring this song, which to be fair, was never particularly good in the first place (the producers forced Nina Simone at the time to add it as they felt there were too many ballads on her debut album Little Girl Blue), but at least it can be pleasing and swinging. It is nothing like that here, just brainless drum-computer-plus-overproduced-synthesizers elevator music.

Nina Simone Little Girl Blue 1958 Bethlehem

So why bother mentioning this album at all on my blog? Why waste my energy? Well, because there are actually a handful of tracks on this album that are quite enjoyable.

First of all, Ms. Lauryn Hill does a really good job on Feeling Good; this could even become my favorite version of this feel-good (sorry for the pun) song, and Wild in the Wind is also pretty well done. She shouldn’t have done Ne me quitte pas, but then again, Nina shouldn’t have done either. If you don’t know it, please do yourself the favor and check out Jacques Brel’s original. Once you’ve heard this, you’d wish nobody ever bothered to cover this song with a horrible English accent in the first place.

Alice Smith’s version of I put a spell on you is actually quite interesting, although far from Sophie Hunger’s brilliant version on Autour de NinaGregory Porter’s version of Sinnerman is at least as enjoyable as Keziah Jones. And finally, Lisa Simone’s I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl is decent background music.

Overall rating: barely 3 starsEDIT: Nah, the couple of decent tracks on here doesn’t make up for the unbearable garbage of some others: 2 stars. 

Do yourself a favor and only buy individual tracks here!