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Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 “Titan”
The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, David Bernard (conductor)
Recorded in NYC (2012) – 54’32
PACS 0021 (distributed by Naxos of America) – Booklet with essays in English

There is no musical gateway drug quite like Mahler’s first symphony. Mahler’s bold work is his shortest symphony, but full of his trademark sonorities, wit, and challenges. As far as the sheer number of forces required, it’s on the light side for Mahler, so it’s a natural fit for a smaller or young orchestra to challenge the players and the audience. The upstart Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, in an impressive deluge of releases, offers their take on Mahler’s “Titan.” For more information on the group please see my previous review of their Mendelssohn/Schubert disc.

While this recording is a nice document of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s performance, I enjoyed the Mendelssohn/Schubert disc more as I think it cast them in a better light. This recording never really soars. One of the main issue is a lack of dynamism. It begins mysteriously enough with Mahler’s picturesque landscape coming into focus, but once we reach the main theme it seems to be too breezy. Mahler’s music is certainly buoyant here but is lacking in rustic character with attacks too soft in articulation from both strings and woodwinds. As the movement falls back and forth between textures, there just isn’t enough push and pull in tempo to contrast the two and propel through the movement. The build up to the climax lacks in drama and the conclusion just feels rushed and isn’t played particularly cleanly.

The ensuing ländler is played at a moderate tempo, but articulation is again an issue. Phrases sound slurred together, not separated before the downbeats. The upper woodwinds, particularly clarinets and horns sound a little harsh. Like the movement before it, the dynamic levels and tempos don’t make for the best shape and direction. The sleepwalking exposition of the following “Frère Jacques” movement is steady but static. This pervades the movement, even when the “Die zwei blauen Augen” theme enters, and the entire piece. It’s too unengaging. The “oom-pah-pah band” isn’t even enough to liven it up significantly.

By the time we reach the “crash, bang, boom” of the final movement a lot of suspense is gone, and in the most intense moments the orchestra doesn’t sound particularly fresh, particularly the lower brass, marred by poor intonation and flubbed attacks. The conclusion is laborious with the orchestra sounding about as exhausted as the listener feels. There is some beautiful playing by the violins with finally some emotional weight, but it seems to pass all too quickly.

I think it’s important to note, as I did in my previous review, that the acoustics of the recording venue really don’t help the orchestra’s sound at all. They are boomy and lacking in variance—something to keep in mind as they could certainly affect many of the issues I’ve mentioned. The Mendelssohn/Schubert disc is a much more flattering introduction to this group who, despite the issues on this release, are ambitious and capable of some very good playing.

Matthew Richard Martinez




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