Mahler - Titan: A Tone-Poem in Symphonic Form
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Label: Harmonia Mundi
Cat No: HMM905299
Number of Discs: 1
Release Date: 10th May 2019
WorksSymphony no.1 in D major 'Titan' (second version, 1893-94)
In this album, François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles have chosen to present Mahler’s First Symphony in its second version, that of Hamburg/Weimar (1893-94) - a unique opportunity to hear the symphonic poem Titan. By allowing us to follow the genesis of this first large scale work, Titan opens the doors of Mahler’s artistic workshop at a crucial moment in the creative process: the transition from the youthful effort of 1889 to the Symphony in D major of 1896, which established Mahler as one of the foremost symphonists of the modern era.
1Erster Theil - I. Frühling und kein Ende
2Erster Theil - II. Blumine
3Erster Theil - III. Mit vollen Sorgen
4Zeiter Theil - IV. Gestrandet!
5Zeiter Theil - V. Dall'Inferno
Except that this is not quite the First as we know it. For a start, he includes the ‘Blumine’ movement, originally placed between the first movement and the bucolic Scherzo before it was dropped from the revised score. He’s not the only conductor on disc to do this, but whereas most simply insert the discarded movement back into the standard score, Roth and his musicological advisers have done their homework. They revert not to the Symphony’s original form, but to the second performing version, which Mahler conducted at the work’s second wave of performances in Hamburg and Weimar (1893/94). There it was billed not as a symphony but as ‘Titan: A Tone-Poem in Symphonic Form’, complete with descriptive movement titles that were later dropped. There is also a myriad of tiny but often telling textural differences which the musicians of Les Siècles, exchanging their usual turn-of-the-century French instruments for Austro-German ones, including Viennese oboes and F horns, bring out to marvellous effect. And the instruments really do allow the music to make its point without any forced highlighting or tweaking of detail. This has to be one of the most ‘natural’ sounding Firsts on record.
As Roth points out in a booklet interview, these instruments are often slower to ‘speak’ than their French counterparts, and the result is an at times measured, slow-burning performance (Mahler, unlike Wagner, in any case hated his music being taken too fast) that is nevertheless brim-full of visceral excitement. The first movement – depicting a ‘Spring that never ends’ – really blossoms in its closing pages, where the advantages of vibrato-light gut strings and incisive period brass become thrillingly apparent. And the soft-textured strings lay a supportive carpet for the solo trumpet in the heartfelt ‘Blumine’ movement. Meanwhile, the Scherzo arguably makes much more sense with the title ‘Full sail ahead’ (on an Alpine lake, one imagines, rather than an ocean), as does the Callot-inspired funeral march of the fourth movement ‘Gestrandet!’ (‘Failed!’ or ‘Stranded!’) which opens the works second half.
With five movements and divided into two parts, the work feels at times even more quintessentially Mahlerian than in its revised four-movement form, even though the composer later came to scorn descriptive programmes. And it all builds to an overwhelming, brilliantly paced conclusion in the fifth movement. ‘From Hell to Paradise’, whose closing pages are as dazzlingly euphoric as the best ‘classic’ Firsts from Bernstein, Kubelík and Kondrashin. Quite how the musicians of Les Siècles mastered their Austro-German instruments to such a virtuoso standard is a wonder in itself, and it bodes exceptionally well for the continuation of this unusually fascinating series from Roth. Mahler lovers of all persuasions, as well as anyone with an interest in the development of the ‘New Symphony’ of the late nineteenth century, should hear this new disc as a matter of urgency: it will enrich their view of this early work, and expand its expressive palette.
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