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CD Review

Gustav Mahler

Symphony #1 in D Major "Titan"

Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Klaus Tennstedt
EMI Classics CDC754217-2
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Klaus Tennstedt was a shy and often ill conductor whose best work is surrounded by a lot of far less appealing documents. His Mahler cycle with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on EMI has admirers (myself included), but no one denies that it's a weak cycle from a technical standpoint. Despite shaky ensemble, the conductor's sheer emotional commitment and connection to his players makes that set worthwhile. Tennstedt never did like his London version of the Symphony #1, and recorded this live version in 1991. Listeners who know the studio version will indeed find surprises, but not always for the better.

The Chicago Symphony roundly outplays their London Philharmonic counterparts, and the sound that EMI provided is also superior to the somewhat brittle studio installment. The Chicago brass are typically excellent, as are the playful woodwinds and well-captured strings. Sections of the work that previously came off as too light or blasé are indeed imbued with more power by nature of the ensemble. There is some truly beautiful music being made here, though occasionally at the expense of tension and excitement. The slower tempos the conductor chooses probably were intended to give the music a sense of increased depth and feeling; that mostly succeeds save for when the music drags. This it does just a touch too often, despite the obvious care that Tennstedt takes to balance the ensemble.

Indeed, if the studio version was a touch too casual, this live rendition almost tries too hard. By 1991, Tennstedt was often sick and looking toward a forced retirement. The slower sections of the work often sag under good intentions that obviously worked better in the conductor's head than in performance. On the other hand, there is a definite increase in excitement elsewhere, especially when the Chicago brass comes roaring in. These aren't sounds that the London Philharmonic could have made in the late 1980s, and so we are fortunate to hear the conductor with such an ensemble. The Scherzo is definitely more interesting and less glossed over, but the Jewish music in the third movement was a bit more personalized in London. That said, this particular section is also very well paced. The Finale is pretty great, certainly hotter than Giulini (also on EMI/Warner) in his own typically warm but occasionally restrained Chicago Symphony rendition. All in all, this is a great disc for fans of the conductor, and a worthy supplement (or even replacement) for his EMI version. The closing pages are quite superior to the earlier effort, not rushed and featuring some stunning brass chorales.

Still, what I miss most is Tennstedt's obvious bond with his London Philharmonic musicians. By all accounts, the conductor enjoyed the artistic freedom that guest conducting in America offered, but he was almost exclusively confined to Europe for the best years of his career. Despite recordings that aren't all that special in places, some of the maestro's work with the Philharmonic is the kind of once in a lifetime experience that makes us see music in a new way, with renewed love for the music at hand. That's how heartfelt his work in London can be, and you miss that improvised fervor here, despite this being a live event.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman

Trumpet