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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Titan: Eine Tondichtung in Symphonieform in zwei Teilen und fünf Sätzen für großes Orchester (Hamburg/Weimar 1893-1894 version, ed. Reinhold Kubik & Stephen E. Hefling)
Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
rec. March and October 2018, Philharmonie de Paris; February 2018, Théâtre de Nîmes; October 2018, Cité de la Musique et de la Danse de Soissons
Reviewed as 24/44.1 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM905299 [57:04]

It must be a sign of age that after decades of listening to music one really starts to yearn for refreshing new takes on old favourites. Enter François-Xavier Roth and his period-instrument orchestra, Les Siècles, who’ve already obliged with revelatory recordings of Stravinsky, Ravel, and, in this 150th birthday year, Berlioz. Not surprisingly, these ear-opening reappraisals have garnered much praise here and elsewhere, with just a few missteps to date (their ‘patchy and perplexing’ Debussy, for example).

Roth has also given us some remarkable Mahler, this time with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, of which he has been music director since 2015. (His contract has now been extended to 2022.) I was very impressed with his Fifth, which I described as ‘old Vienna refracted through a strange new lens’; then came his ‘game-changing’ Third. However, I’ve yet to hear his ‘conventional’ account of the First, recorded with the Baden-Baden orchestra (Hänssler Classic).

As with his groundbreaking Rite of Spring, where he returned to the score played at the (in)famous Paris premiere in 1913, Roth has gone back to an earlier version of what we know as Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. The Budapest premiere, in 1888, was not a success, which prompted a complete reworking of the piece for the next performance, in Hamburg, on 27 October 1893 (the version recorded here). As the extended work title proclaims, this is a ‘Tone poem in symphonic form, in two parts and five movements’. The descriptions attached to each movement, suppled for the Hamburg premiere, were eventually discarded; Blumine was excised, too. However, the ‘Titan’ tag seems to have stuck, even though Mahler dropped it, too; it’s certainly not included in the published score (1898).

Erster Teil: Aus den Tagen der Jugend, Blumen-, Frucht- und Dornstücke (Part One: From days of youth, flower-, fruit- and thorn-pieces)
1. Frühling und kein Ende (Spring that never ends) [14:38]
2. Blumine (Flowers) [5:41]
3. Mit vollen Segeln (Full sail ahead) [6:42]
Zweiter Teil: Commedia humana (Part Two: Human Comedy)
4. Gestrandet! (Failed!) [10:38]
5. Dall’Inferno (From Hell) [19:20]

There are a number of albums that include Blumine; Roger Norrington and his Stuttgart orchestra (Hänssler) make it the second movement, as Mahler intended, whereas others simply add it as an afterthought. However, there are two fairly recent recordings of the Hamburg score, one with Jan Willem de Vriend and the Netherlands SO (Challenge Classics CC72355), the other with the NDR Sinfonieorchester under Thomas Hengelbrock (Sony G010003119344R). The de Vriend is decent enough, although both pulse and playing could be a lot stronger. The sound is fair to middling. Alas, the Hengelbrock is a ponderous affair, Blumine and the finale particularly leaden. Also, speeds and phrasing seem perverse, and the recording gets rough in the tuttis. These performances are just too ordinary, lacking as they do the compelling sense (re)discovery, of curiosity, that animates so much of Roth’s work.

The subtitle of the first movement, ‘Spring that never ends’, seems especially apt in Roth’s relaxed but never lax reading of this alluring opener. There’s a lucent loveliness to both the playing and the sound, the heraldic brass - heard as if from afar - adding to a burgeoning sense of space. This is just the first of many telling touches, bringing to mind the very distant tenorhorn in Roth’s magical Third. The effect is one of wide-eyed wonder, and that’s just enchanting. This idyll is enhanced, in so small measure, by playing of real poise and pliancy. Also, tempos and tempo relationships are beyond reproach, Roth building tension more persuasively than most. And what a glorious burst of light and colour as our young wayfarer steps, blinking, from forested gloom to sun-dappled glade. In short, a winning start that augurs well for what’s to come.

One of my abiding impressions of Roth’s Mahler cycle is that he manages to combine a HIPP-like clarity of texture with a a deep Romantic blush that brings out the best of both traditions. I daresay the composer was right to ditch Blumine, sometimes called a ‘moonlight serenade’, but when played with such charm this open-hearted little number is impossible to resist. I really feel this performance benefits from being assigned to a French orchestra, with its distinctive timbres and playing styles. That said, Roth insisted on German or Viennese brass and woodwinds for this piece. And it certainly helps that the recording, superbly engineered by Jiři Heger and Alix Ewald, offers an ideal blend of warmth, detail and a marvellous sense of space. (I do hope they and Les Siècles will be at the heart of the Fourth.)

Roth’s Scherzo is a model of fine articulation, the hammering timps crisp and clear; the rest of the orchestra, similarly well caught, respond with alacrity to Roth’s sure-footed, direction. And those echt-Viennese tunes have all the lilt one could wish for, adding an unusually wistful cast to this marvellous music. Instrumental and recording balances seem well nigh perfect, too; in tandem, these help to capture all the depth, colour and nuance this score has to offer. As for the confident, striding brass, they’re a joy to hear, especially when pitched with such flair and feeling. And just listen to the soft-treading timps at the start of that strange, half-lit cortège in the next movement; I’ve seldom heard them more subtly done. Yet another of the startling episodes - epiphanies, even - that pepper this extraordinary performance. Factor in the loveliest reprise of that nursery tune - ideally paced and sprung - and Roth’s silky, beguiling strings and it’s hard to imagine this movement more atmospherically done than its is here.

Another bonus - and this applies to Roth’s performances as a whole - is his ability to set up and sustain a strong narrative, free of delays and unnecessary diversions, and that generally makes for a remarkably eventful and immersive listening experience. That’s particularly true of the finale, which, after a suitably arresting start, unfolds with a tantalising mixture of implacability and barely concealed excitement. As ever, the music-making is both disciplined and, at times, there’s a dash of daring. As for the tuttis, they’re proportionate and properly prepared for (no empty rhetoric here). Meanwhile, in quieter moments the strings continue to shine, in every sense of the word. And goodness, the closing pages are worth the wait, Roth heightening suspense with all the skill and confidence of a master. His assembled horns whoop with the best of them, and his transported drummers trump them with a truly storming send-off. Bravo, bravo and thrice bravo!

Quite possibly Roth’s finest Mahler yet; an invaluable addition to the catalogue.

Dan Morgan

Previous review: John Quinn

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