Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:

MAHLER: "Titan - eine Tondichtung in Symphonieform" *(1893 Hamburg Version of the First Symphony) Piano Quartet in A Minor **(movement)   *Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ole Kristian Ruud  **Mats Jansson and Members of the Holmen Quartet Simax PSC 1150

Save around 22% with



As the only recording currently available of this earlier version of what we know as Mahler's First Symphony this is an important release. The First had a difficult birth. It underwent a number of revisions before reaching the version usually performed and recorded today. The precise history need not detain us since it's a complex and by no means completely solved puzzle, but suffice it to say that what we have here presents broadly the penultimate stage in the work's development heard in Hamburg in 1893. It carried the title "Titan, Symphonic poem in the form of a symphony" and had five movements organised in two parts.

In the event it was not a success so Mahler submitted it to one final revision which consisted in the expansion of the orchestration, the dropping of the title (so recording companies and concert promoters note that the First Symphony should never be called "Titan") and, most important of all, the discarding of the second movement, an andante entitled "Blumine" to then give us the First Symphony with which we are most familiar today. Occasionally recordings do appear of the final version with "Blumine" dropped back into its old place, but this practice should be stopped as it creates, in effect, a hybrid never intended by the composer. If "Blumine" is to be played as part of the larger work in which it originally featured it should only be done, as it is here, "in situ" with the original orchestration from the version prior to the one we know best.

There are many more questions raised by this recording, of course. Not least the accuracy of the published orchestral parts that would have been used and their relationship to the manuscript at Yale University to which provenance is claimed. The latter is itself by no means a clean set of documents either, a fact the notes fail to mention. But discussion of all these fine points are beyond the scope of this review. Having made these caveats clear I think we can rely on this recording taking us close to what Mahler presented in Hamburg in 1893, though it cannot be said with confidence to be exactly what he conducted.

The differences between the First Symphony we are familiar with and this 1893 Hamburg version may not seem all that great on first hearing but they are significant. If you know the First Symphony well I recommend making a direct comparison between your favourite recording of that and this one under discussion. The performance itself is not one filled with special insights, however. Were it not for the fact that this is the only recording available of the 1893 version it would not deserve to make much of a splash at all. No composer quite exposes the second rate in orchestral playing like Mahler and the Norwegian orchestra never rises above that level as they give us a workmanlike, but ultimately uninspired, performance with strings rather undernourished, brass on the thin side and woodwind failing to really make any great impression.

The first movement gets a straightforward performance but with a reasonable stress on the lyrical rather than the dramatic. No bad thing when performances of this music are often weighted down with too much emotional baggage. Note that, unlike the symphony's final version, this earlier version carries no exposition repeat in the first movement. The performance of the second movement, "Blumine", is dreamy, slight and nowhere near the deep analysis Benjamin Britten submitted it to in its first modern performance at Aldeburgh in 1967. In the third movement there is a nice slowing down for the Trio where the use of clarinet with horn is one of the changes in orchestration you will notice. The fourth movement, the familiar funeral march with the "Frere Jacques" canon, is conventionally paced and with the slightly thinner scoring you can perhaps hear why it was this movement that so shocked Mahler's first audiences. The inability of the orchestra to really rise to the occasion means the last movement doesn't bring the high voltage it can boast in recordings of the more familiar final version. The big string theme is rather four-square too but I think you can hear well enough the differences that exist between this and Mahler's final thoughts which will be, after all, the principal reason for wanting to own this recording.

This is a release that ought to be on the shelf of anyone interested in this composer's work. While we continue to await a recording of the score by one of the great orchestra/ conductor partnerships it will serve us well enough. It also carries an appropriate coupling in the only movement that has survived of one of Mahler's very earliest works, his Piano Quartet. This receives a fine performance, especially the opening of the piece which contains its most striking music. Not really any hint of greatness to come but a fragment from the master's workshop that is always of interest and adds value to the disc.


Tony Duggan


Tony Duggan

Reviews from previous months

Reviews carry sales links but you can also purchase from:

Return to Index