Daily Bytes | Music

The Utah Symphony and Thierry Fischer slide into the Shadow of Mahler

mahler cover
Utah Symphony Recording, Mahler’s Symphony No.1 | Reference Recordings | Release Date: September 11, 2015

The Utah Symphony has a Mahler performance tradition, one that began when Maurice Abravanel became its third and most influential music director in 1947. This tradition helped to place the orchestra on the national and international map of major symphony orchestras, especially in the 1960s and 1970s.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was a late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Austrian conductor and composer, who in his compositions — principally nine numbered symphonies and the orchestral song cycle Das Lied von der Erde — helped to revolutionize the scope, scale, and philosophical and musical vision of this genre (orchestral) and form (symphonic).

Almost all of Mahler’s symphonic works deserve a place in the standard repertoire, but because of their length (usually about an hour, and at times closer to ninety minutes) and number of musicians required, and thus expense, are rarely performed season after season. Although Mahler’s symphonic music spans from folk-like to banal (often intentionally) and majestic, and magnificently spiritual and pantheistic, it cannot possibly appeal to all musical tastes, and at present, at least in our market, still is not exactly a guarantee of a sold out concert hall (Abravanel Hall can seat over 2,800).

The Utah Symphony’s Mahler tradition was perpetuated in halting fashion by the two music directors who followed Abravanel, Varujian Kojian (1979-1983) and Joseph Silverstein (1983-1998). They both led the symphony in performances of some of his symphonies, but never conducted and programmed — or attempted to program — all of his symphonic works over the course of their respective tenures.

Music director Keith Lockhart’s tenure (1998-2009) did continue the tradition, and made great strides in reintroducing the nine numbered symphonies into our orchestra’s repertoire. All nine were performed, plus the orchestral song cycles Das Lied von der Erde and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. However, interpretively, Lockhart’s results were inconsistent, and at times unconvincing overall — for example in the Second, Fifth, and Ninth Symphonies. The performances of the Seventh and Third Symphonies were the most compelling, along with the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. I did not hear Lockhart’s live performances of Symphony No.1 early in his tenure, which have been cited as being excellent. The interpretations of the Second, Fourth, Sixth, and Eighth Symphonies were good, but never close to being exceptional.

Our current music director (since September 2009), Swiss conductor Thierry Fischer, is the first post-Abravanel conductor to attempt to confront the Utah Symphony’s Mahler performance tradition in a truly consistent and convincing fashion. He has programmed all nine numbered Mahler symphonies over the course of the two current seasons, beginning in 2014-2015 (with numbers One through Four), and continuing this coming season, 2015-2016 (with numbers Five through Nine).

Fischer previously had conducted Symphony No.4 in 2012 and No.5 with the Utah Symphony in the spring of 2014. Both of those symphonies were performed twice, and the performances already revealed much stronger interpretive visions with even more superb orchestral execution to match them. The performances and interpretation of Mahler’s Second Symphony in November 2014 were supple and incandescent, while the performances and interpretation of the Third Symphony in February of this year were evocatively sweeping in their soundscapes.

The two-year Mahler symphony cycle is part of the celebration of the Utah Symphony’s seventy-fifth anniversary year, which takes place this new season. As part of that celebration, the Utah Symphony made a commercial recording of Mahler’s Symphony No.1 in D major at the start of last season, over the course of the two live performances in Abravanel Hall, on September 12 and 13.Thierry Fischer conducted.

These recordings sessions were supplemented by two of what are called “patch” sessions, each of fifteen minutes duration. These extra sessions, with no audience present, are designed and used if necessary to replace moments in live performances that may not be considered viable for long-term, repeated listening on a commercial recording. Such crucial matters like ensemble, entries, intonation, color — the full range of symphonic and instrumental expression — need to be assessed with a finely calibrated sense of artistry from all involved in the recording process.

The Utah Symphony performed Mahler’s Symphony No.1 on eleven concert seasons prior to the two performances current music director Thierry Fischer led in September 2014. The most recent prior performance was in May 2010, when guest conductor Carlo Rizzi led a convincing performance.

Performances of the First Symphony usually last about 50-57 minutes. This fresh, vernal, but stormy work was mostly composed from late 1887 to March 1888, with the final and most-performed version completed in 1896. The two September 2014 performances were captured by two members of the Soundmirror recording team, which is based in Boston. The commercial recording from those performances will be released on the boutique Reference Recordings record label on September 11, 2015, in its Fresh!! series.

I attended both live performances, have already listened to an advance copy of the commercial recording dozens of times, and have spoken to a few musicians about the extra recording sessions. Theses sessions apparently proceeded rapidly (after a contract-mandated hour of rest after the last actual complete live performance on Saturday evening). The producer of the recording, Dirk Sobotka, announced to the audience before each performance to be as silent as possible, and this silence is noticeable on the recording. I am not sure of the number of edits versus extended passages performed without edits on the recording, but I would think that the number is small, based on the superb quality of the two live performances.

So, on to the recording. What of its sound, the quality of the performance(s) captured, and the place of this recording in the Mahler-saturated world of classical music recordings, which goes back at least two decades. And what about Abravanel and the Utah Symphony’s recording of Symphony No.1, made in 1974?

Abravanel and the Utah Symphony were the first to make commercial recordings of all of Mahler’s numbered symphonies with one orchestra and one conductor. The recordings were released on the Vanguard record label from 1963 to 1974.  They were also the first to make commercial stereo recordings of the monumental Symphony No.8 and the Symphony No.7. Essentially, this recorded cycle solidified the Utah Symphony’s national and international reputation, and in some ways still does so today. While still available, these recordings are mostly out of print on CD, but can be found on Youtube (audio only).

The consensus, after decades of retrospective criticism, is that this recorded cycle’s (recorded in the Salt Lake Tabernacle) sound quality is quite visceral, and the interpretations almost intuitive and old-world. Indeed, Abravanel was born in 1903 in Greece and lived in Germany from 1922 to 1933, conducting there from 1924-1933. In Paris from 1933-1936, Abravanel worked with the great German conductor Bruno Walter, who knew Mahler personally and premiered Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in 1912.

Abravanel and the Utah Symphony’s recording and performance of Symphony No. 4 is often singled out as still one of the most competitive versions on record. The other performances were generally excellent for their time, and while considered more than viable interpretively even now, are no longer perceived as competitive with the best on record. However, some critics consider Abravanel’s mastery of Mahler’s style to be second to none.

So how do Thierry Fischer and our current Utah Symphony compare to the Abravanel recordings, at least in the First Symphony? Well, the new recording was made in Abravanel Hall, rather than the Tabernacle. This should produce a warmer, smoother sound, which it does. The sound in the Tabernacle is more lively and rugged than in Abravanel Hall, and this is reflected in the earlier Abravanel recording.

Abravanel’s interpretation is more genial, rather than overtly and heavily dramatic. It is essentially a lyrical and lighter view of the score, but still often suffused with tension. Fischer and our current orchestra’s interpretation is darker, more consciously dramatic, but still sinuously phrased. The orchestral sound is also weightier, with an alchemy of harmonic tension. It is an equally valid view of the score — the symphony’s many essences cannot be captured in any one series of performances or recordings. One needs to adopt some point of view or perspective as a guide.

The sound of the new recording is clear, clean, smooth, warm, and convincing — sound engineer John Newton has a fine feel for Abravanel Hall’s sound. There is a believable acoustic space, although the perspective is one that places the listener somewhere between the first several rows of Abravanel Hall and that of the conductor’s stand. Those who prefer a more distant or center-of-the-hall-perspective should adjust their listening accordingly. Balances between instrumental sections are true as long as one remains aware of the recording perspective.

What also strikes me about the performance is the unerringly holistic approach essayed by Thierry Fischer and the musicians. It is an uncommonly forthright yet supple account. Fischer weds a Germanic sense of mystery, intensity, and concentration, with a Gallic sense of grace, especially in the harmonic lines. It is tempting to term it as somehow quintessentially Swiss (Fischer’s nationality), but this can only be seen as a possible point of departure. Perhaps the interpretation in this sense foreshadows with a bit too much frisson the soundscapes Mahler was yet to create — a dual vision that became even more intense and unyielding in the later symphonies.

In the first movement, which lasts fifteen minutes and twenty-seven seconds in this recording, there is a ruminating undertow of rippling drama throughout and the softer interludes are deftly shaded. The first movement is marked Langsam, schleppend. Wie ein Naturlaut — Immer sehr gemächlich, or slowly, dragging, like a sound of nature, very restrained throughout. I hear a rich but precise sense of line, grace, and warmth in this interpretation. This is not at odds with the markings, but complements them. At the13:30 mark climax I like the rough and ready quality – beauty is just not for beauty’s sake.

The two interior movements sound spontaneously flowing. They have durations of seven minutes and forty-one seconds and ten minutes forty-six seconds respectively. In the second movement, marked Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell, there is an unaffected but keen adherence to Mahler’s marking. This marking means moving strongly, but not too quickly. The first drafts of this movement by Mahler labeled it a scherzo, but he changed it to just the indicated marking, which has a Trio section in the style of a Ländler or Austrian country dance, with a change to something more reminiscent of a waltz before the Ländler returns to end the movement. Our double bass section is nicely prominent and palpable in its rhythmic drive in the performance, but not excessively so. The climax of the first portion at 3:05 is driven robustly, with some suitable abandon. The trio section dances as it conveys a sense of skating on top and into the rhythmic pulse.

In the third movement, which lasts ten minutes and forty-six seconds, and is markedFeierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen or solemnly and measured, without dragging, there is tremendous warmth in the the phrasing, but no ostentatiously sentimental delivery — there is still much sentiment though. The introductory double bass solo is evanescently creepy. The funeral march tread truly feels like it is passing through a deep forest of tangled darkness with hidden furrows for animals.

At the 3:00-3:20 mark there is some lucid, lush, crisp playing by the percussion section — this first round of Klezmer music is smoothly nostalgic. Solo flute, oboe, and bassoon at 4:38 spring a little twist of coloring, while the 5:20 point evokes something like the halo of a daydream. There is such a palpable onrush of sentiment, yet still with some control of the youthful, unbridled nostalgia — here a collective sense of interpretation is the key. The second round of Klezmer music is tart, bracing, and impulsive. The interpretation and playing in the two interior movements are resplendent but never overdone.

The last movement’s two major climaxes are eloquently terraced and colored, and quiet moments and transitions are decisively but naturally delineated. This movement lasts eighteen minutes and forty fives seconds, but the track listing leaves some ten seconds of quiet at the end, with no applause from the live performance retained. The movement is marked to be played Stürmisch bewegt – Energisch, or stormily agitated — energetic.

After a densely colored intensity to the opening storm music, the start of the first climax at 6:59 is richly articulated, and at 8:10-8:11 a startling clarity, especially in the timpani, rears itself. The 11:00-11:20 forest twitterings are vivid and lush, with all the clarity one could wish for. The lighting strike at 16:57 in the second and final climax is almost surreally realistic — the cumulative lines soar magnificently. At 17:57-17:59 the shards of timpani surge as the symphonic sky colors crimson and beckons one to strive onward.

As a coda, a note on the cover art for the recording booklet. I find it to be an intuitively compelling landscape. It appears to be a fiercely but darkly colored sunset . But could it be a sunrise too? The texture is slightly pixelated for a more modern hue, and it at least faintly evokes a sage-brush or oak-soaked ridge hinting at the higher mountains of Utah to come. Intentional? — I would like to think so.

So on this recording, Fischer and the musicians remained true to their current vision of Mahler’s Symphony No.1, a darkly robust and refined one, and with this they compete with the best of the recent commercially released recorded performances — there are dozens in the decades-old discography.

Do they rival and exceed Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik’s live and unedited 1979 performance with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra on the German Audite label? Or Kubelik’s studio recording on Deutsche Grammophon from about a decade earlier? Not really — the Audite recording captures Mahler’s First Symphony in such an all-encompassing, kaleidoscopic fashion.

In many ways such comparisons, while valid and even revealing, are almost beside the point. When superbly performed and interpreted with a compelling point of view, Mahler’s youthful yet portentous-laden Symphony No.1 — “Titan” is finally apt here — can be listened to on this new recording with a sure sense of repeated insights — music that fires a beacon to a vision of the universe that snarls and beguiles with darkness and light.

Gregory Walz is a native of Bitburg, Germany and received a B.A. in History from the University of Utah. He has worked at the Utah Division of State History since 2004, in the joint Research Center with the Utah Division of State Archives in the historic Rio Grande depot.  He enjoys music in almost all of its forms and genres. One of his indelible memories: the Australian band The Church performing at Club Sound on March 20, 2004 for their 2003 album Forget Yourself.

Categories: Daily Bytes | Music

3 replies »

  1. This is a dream come true for me. While I realize that not every 15 Bytes reader wants to read essays in this depth, I for one would love to see at least some writing here that stands beside that of the intellectual press—the New York and London Reviews, the little mags, and of course the music journals with reviews that feature this level of expertise. Thanks to Shawn Rossiter and Gregory Walz, and I hope to see more writing of this caliber here in the future.
    If anyone else agrees, I hope you will take a brief moment (or longer) and write a comment.

  2. Oh, I do agree, Geoff. We are blessed to have Gregory Walz writing for 15 Bytes. Erudite, obviously quite educated, fascinating and, even when I can’t afford to attend a concert, I feel as if I have, indeed, been treated to something that challenges and enriches my musical sensibilities. Then, often, I can turn to a recording and enjoy it even more. Thank you so much.

  3. I definitely agree with the previous comments. Mr. Walz took us backstage to investigate the production of a recorded work by our Symphony from several diverse perspectives. Most of us would otherwise be unaware of these aspects of the artistic process. He then reported his findings to us from beginning to end in a most enjoyable manner. I hope we may have the privilege of reading Mr. Walz’s insightful work for a long time into the future.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *