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.