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.

Ivan Fischer’s Mahler 9 or What To Make of Album Reviews

Reviewing music

Before we get to Mahler, let me start more general. You’ll see that I often recommend albums that have also been recommended by major classical magazines such as Gramophone and Classica. Sometimes it gets a bit extreme, when Gramophone recently came up with a list of the Top 10 Schubert recordings, in my handful of reviews so far I’ve already mentioned 2 out of the top 10 (Schiff and the Pavel Haas Quartet)

That is obviously no coincidence. I read several magazines to keep me posted on new releases and to get a hint on which ones are worth a closer look. So you could kind of ask, why bother reading my blog and not go directly to the original source. Well, obviously I strongly encourage you to read the original source. Our ailing classical press is probably even worse off than the rest of the music industry and needs every paying subscriber they can get.

That said, I simply don’t always agree with the critics, and you’ll always find my own personal  opinion here. I’ve described here how I come up with my ratings, which are obviously absolutely subjective.

The thing is, I’m not the only one being subjective, everybody else, including the professional reviewers, are. There simply aren’t any objective standards to say why one recording is good, another one is bad, beyond simple technical faults (and even here, many prefer an Artur Schnabel playing Beethoven in spite of his many objective playing mistakes).

Ivan Fischer’s Mahler 9

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This recording is a case in point. Gramophone names it among the Editor’s Choices of the month, and calls it “a potential Gramophone award winner”, Classica in this month’s issue calls the very same album “disappointing”, and gives it one star, the worst ranking out of 5. They even just bring it up in the “Egalement réçus” (also received) page, which I usually don’t even bother reading (it’s very text heavy and not easy to read). Doesn’t get more extreme than this. (Footnote: Overall, I like this approach, these day too often every single review is positive, and positive review ONLY make sense if there’s also stuff you don’t like at all).

So who is right? The problem is, I don’t know. I’m not a big Mahler fan overall. I like the 1st and 4th, and the 5th up to a point, and struggle with the rest. The 9th I’ve only started partially appreciating recently, 1-2 years ago (with Abbado), and so I simply don’t know the work well enough to make a proper judgment. I really liked Fischer’s approach to Mahler 1 and 4, which I feel comfortable judging, but on the ninth all I can say I haven’t found any obvious flaws yet.

What I can say is that the recording, like pretty much every single album by the Dutch Channel Classics label, is extremely well recorded, and is a pleasure listening to just for that. With a good hifi system you’ll be in for a treat. I recommend download a high resolution version directly from their website or buy an SACD if you have a compatible player.

If you’re a Mahler aficionado, and you’re reading this, I’d very much appreciate your opinion in the comments section on this rather controversial approach to Gustav Mahler.