MAHLER Symphony No 1
Because Leonard Bernstein made his only studio recording of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in London, the first American ensemble to set down a complete Mahler symphony cycle was not the New York Philharmonic. First across the line, towards the end of a long association with conductor Maurice Abravanel and Vanguard Records, was the Utah Symphony. And today, after some years out of the limelight, the ensemble is once again in fine fettle, performing Mahler under Thierry Fischer, its Music Director since 2009.
If the present first instalment is any indication, we can expect breezy, forward looking Mahler closer to Abravanel’s relatively objective style than to Bernstein’s grandly emotive give and take. Apart from some less than immaculate pockets of brass intonation, the orchestra acquits itself with distinction. The opening dawn chorus is notable for its hushed strings and attractively rustic, closely observed woodwinds, possibly emboldened by the conductor’s background as a flautist. That the horns are placed some way off works well here, though later the sound stage feels restricted, despite SACD encoding and a generous bass response.
The first-movement exposition repeat is observed and the slow movement mercifully ignores the recent scholarly preference for massed double basses at the start. Less happily, the movement seems deracinated by Fischer’s avoidance of subjective inflection. The finale is again articulate and fresh rather than especially memorable; its dynamic and expressive range could with advantage have been wider. (Not for the first time the final crotchet of its closing two-note slam is reinforced.) On the plus side, the packaging is nicely done, with booklet-notes by Paul Griffiths in a typeface large enough to be read by those who invested in the orchestra’s Mahler first time round.