Mahler: Symphony No. 1/Honeck

Review by: David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

In case you haven’t noticed, Allegro now distributes Exton, an exciting prospect for American collectors tired of ordering direct from Japan and paying crazy prices for shipping. Conductor Manfred Honeck’s credentials include a stint as a violist with the Vienna Philharmonic, not necessarily a good prospect given the fact that the orchestra only woke up to the value of Mahler when it realized it could make a quick buck playing him abroad, and otherwise has turned in more lousy and unidiomatic performances of Mahler’s music than any orchestra aside from the Berlin Philharmonic. How delightful, then, to be able to report that this is unquestionably one of the great Mahler Firsts, a performance that has abundant character, ideas that work, and astounding playing, particularly from the Pittsburgh horn section.

Honeck claims that he has tried to emphasize the music’s debt to Austro-Bohemian folk music, and to bring out (even exaggerate) its brilliant orchestral colors. That’s exactly what he does, and it’s surely the right way to go. The first movement “wakes up” naturally, atmospherically (great offstage trumpets), by imperceptible degrees, rising to a crushing climax leading to a raucous coda. The scherzo is a rustic, heavily accented, foot-stomping frenzy, while the trio has enough schmaltz to cause cardiac arrest. It works, though, because both here, in the central melody of the (splendidly parodistic) funeral march, and in the lyrical second theme of the finale, Honeck gets the strings to “float” their melodies with such gentleness, such seductively sweet vibrato (Roger Norrington please note), that the massive rubatos and hesitations work beautifully.

And speaking of the finale, the opening shriek is hair-raising, with the brass and percussion playing like demons. But it doesn’t end there. If you really want to hear what a totally committed performance of this music ought to sound like, check out the entire passage after the second subject (beginning with the two tam-tam crashes), culminating in the false climax that leads back to the music of the first movement. It’s insane. So too is the concluding chorale, with horns blazing–and an extra cymbal crash or two for good measure. The otherwise very quiet audience gives a rousing cheer at the end, and you will too for a fabulously recorded live performance that truly captures the freshness and daring of this work as few other versions have. If you want “you are there” sonic realism, and an interpretation that hits you right in the gut, then you must hear this. Bravo! [11/23/2009]

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Bernstein (DG), Boulez (DG), Gielen (Hänssler), Kubelik (DG)

GUSTAV MAHLER - Symphony No. 1

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