Classical CD Reviews

MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D Major – Baltimore Sym. Orch./ Marin Alsop – Naxos

A strong reading of the Mahler First Symphony from Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony should convince us of her sympathy for this ambitious composer.

Published on September 24, 2012

MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D Major – Baltimore Sym. Orch./ Marin Alsop – Naxos

MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D Major – Baltimore Sym. Orch./ Marin Alsop – Naxos 8.572207, 54:55 ****:

I must confess that prior to this, the release of the 1888 Mahler First (rec. 26-28 September 2008) with the Baltimore Symphony under Marin Alsop (b. 1956), I had not been singularly impressed by any of her work, including the Brahms cycle with the London Philharmonic, most of which I find fussy and mannered. And having just auditioned for my own edification the exquisite Mahler First by Ivan Fischer for Channel Classics (CCS SA 33112), with their respective performance length differential of 50 seconds, I still find Alsop’s musical efficiency superior to her poetry.

Still, given that Alsop is the first woman ever to record a Mahler symphony (the Fifth) with a major orchestra (the LSO), she deserves more than a perfunctory glance or listen. The Baltimore Symphony certainly provides a responsive Mahler instrument, the horns, strings, harp, and percussion alert and resonant throughout the composer’s invocations of pantheistic lyrical outpourings. Alsop allows the first movement Langsam, schleppend a spaciousness requisite to mix or childlike wonder and lyrical nostalgia, especially as the song allusions from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen deal exclusively with unrequited love. But after having been raised on the likes of Walter, Bernstein, Mitropoulos, Kubelik, Horenstein, and Kletzki in the D Major Symphony, I find the bright coloration and bravura execution thin on passion.

Alsop’s A Major Scherzo, swaggering and explosive, speaks more authentically, the brass and tympani jarring the sensibilities with a Beethoven menace, while the strings and winds invoke folk and klezmer sensibilities into the fertile mix. The lilting trio section assumes the most Viennese pose Alsop achieves in this performance, the combination of Schubert and sentimental parody quite effective.  The bass fiddle opens rather distantly at first for the D Minor version of Frere Jacques, but the counterpoint and clarinet color soon compel us toward the raucous Bohemian dance that ensues, music that anticipates both Weill, Bartok, and Shostakovich. A resigned intimacy pervades the musical quotation from Die zwei blaue Augen that sends the narrator of the Wayfarer cycle into an indifferent universe. The final movement, stormy and agitated, moves at considerable speed under Alsop, a showpiece for the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall acoustics. A combination of grand, heroic and anguished gestures, Mahler called this F Minor movement “the cry of wounded heart.” Alsop permits some portamento into the strings over a pedal tympani, true to the Mahler style. Calls from the first movement, from the discarded Blumine movement, and from the mortal storms that would wrack Mahler in the course of his creative life, converge most powerfully; and by the last resounding chords, even the most skeptical of Alsop’s auditors should be convinced that Mahler suits her own multifaceted temperament.

—Gary Lemco




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