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Brian Buerkle
American Record Guide, September 2010

I’ve enjoyed other Mahler recordings from this orchestra and this time they are given first-rate sound from Capriccio that is far better than the recent SACD from Gergiev and the London Symphony and is comparable to the excellent sonics of Nott and Bamberg. Eschenbach recorded an excellent First Symphony in 1997 while he was music director of the Houston Symphony, and this new one is even more impressive.

In the opening bars Eschenbach creates a mood that is peaceful, mysterious, and somewhat nervous—the high string harmonics, rustling woodwinds, and distant fanfares are all blended perfectly into the texture. At 4:08, the cellos and bassoon present the Wayfarer Songs’ “strolling theme” with a light and bouncy style that is properly echoed by each instrument as it appears. Eschenbach has an excellent sense of phrasing in this music, and the orchestra follows with complete conviction. At the climax of I, the Berlin horns make a resounding noise along with the gallant trumpet fanfares, the piercing woodwind trills, the insistent string tremolos, and the splashy cymbal crashes. The movement ends in a fury.

Something I’ve noticed about Eschenbach’s conducting over the years is that he seems to make the most out of musical phrases in almost every instance—two phrases of the same music never sound quite the same. There are some critics and musicians who might not like this sort of thing—I’ll admit that it doesn’t work in every situation—but I find it refreshing in this music. II is filled with special moments like this as the themes are brought back again and again. From heroic to sensual, Eschenbach gives us a nice mix of styles. His first theme has a definite swagger to it, and the bustling strings and horns give their all. The second theme is sultry and exotic, with a nice lilt.

Well tuned timpani start off the procession of III with promise, but the minor-key ‘Frere Jacques’ theme first heard in the bass is just OK—not nearly the best I’ve heard. There are other redeeming qualities here, though. The sighing statements from oboes and trumpets in the Jewish klezmer band are nicely judged—again, never quite the same way twice. The solo passages in the central part of the movement are beautifully played—most notably from the horn, flutes, clarinets, and violins. The opening theme returns with great mystery—this time much more sardonic in tone.

In IV the orchestra is in top form. They certainly achieve the on-the-edge-of-your-seat intensity...The Berlin brass and percussion lead the way with complete authority from beginning to end. Eschenbach is so insistent in the opening yet is able to relax gently into the second theme with care and sensitivity. The strings sound full and rich and play beautifully. But, in the end, this movement is essentially about a Hero. Despite the despair and terror heard in much of this music, Mahler’s final statement is one of triumph. The Berlin Radio Symphony rises to the challenge and gives us one of the most satisfying conclusions I can think of from recent years. It is hair-raising and 100% triumphant.

As a bonus, we are treated to the five Rückert- Lieder with German soprano Christine Schafer. Now in her 40s, Schafer is still absolutely sublime and a true artist. Her voice is exquisite here—as is her interpretation. Listen to her sensual delivery of the text in ‘Um Mitternacht’—breathtaking. She is able to change the timbre of her voice from rich and vibrant to smooth and breathy in just a moment. Eschenbach and the Berlin players accompany with sensitivity and a refined sound. The balance is perfect, with Schafer always present just above the orchestra. The final phrase from ‘Ich Bin der Welt Abhanden Gekommen’ is the epitome of effervescent voice quality and sensitivity of interpretation. The text reads, “I am dead to the world’s tumult, and I rest in a quiet realm! I live alone in my heaven, in my love and in my song!” The orchestra gently hangs onto her every word. This is regal and heavenly music-making.

Christopher Abbot
Fanfare, September 2010

Christoph Eschenbach recorded a Mahler First with the Houston Symphony for Koch in 1998. In Fanfare 22:2, Benjamin Pernick was very impressed, while I was more equivocal, finding that the performance was good but lacking in personality and fully committed orchestral execution. I have no such qualms about this newer performance, but the real news here is the accompanying set of Mahler songs, about which more anon.

The opening follows Mahler’s markings with admirable fidelity: “slowly, dragging” and “like a sound of Nature”; this awakening is interrupted by fanfares that aren’t distanced enough—the only negative in an otherwise impressive first movement. The horns are especially noble sounding, and the theme based on “Ging heut morgen” is fresh and lilting (Eschenbach observes the repeat). In the development, a sense of longing or caution is cultivated until the more positive energy of the return to the main theme; the recapitulation and coda are very quickly paced.

The Scherzo opens in a firm but methodical fashion: After an assertive first measure, the volume drops, only to return by degrees to the opening level, a very interesting effect. The Trio is highly contrasted and mannerly in its graceful inflection. A melancholy, slightly sour bass solo opens the third movement at a pace that flows steadily forward. This is a very ominous sounding march with prominent tam-tam, and it is essentially dry-eyed and stern of countenance—the perfect straight-faced satire, at least until the lovely Gesellen quote, which is everything the march isn’t: delicate, sensitive, understated. Neither the oompah-band nor the jaunty klezmer music, however, can summon any relief from the relentless gloom of the march. Great stuff.

The opening of the finale with its “lightning bolt” is forceful and atmospheric. The pacing is urgent but not hurried, a true crisis for the symphonic hero. The slowly emerging triumph from adversity is reminiscent of this conductor’s “Resurrection” recording on Ondine: dramatic, sensibly paced, and very effective. The first, false victory is so convincing that one can sympathize with the bafflement of the work’s first audiences—what’s going on here? The extended return to the first movement themes sounds especially fresh. The final triumph rings out with splendid aplomb.

The attractive if unlikely companion to the symphony comes from a different world, and I wouldn’t recommend that listeners follow the performance of the symphony with the songs. Christine Schäfer’s lovely, lyrical voice with its pure tone is ideally suited to the less romantic nature of these Lieder. Her performances range from playful and teasing in “Blicke mir” to ardent in “Liebst du um Schönheit” with its almost Straussian orchestration (by Max Puttman). For “Um Mitternacht,” Schäfer’s delivery darkens appropriately, yet her ringing affirmation at the end is entirely convincing. “Lindenduft” returns to the lighter textures of the first song, and then we enter the rarefied atmosphere of “Ich bin der Welt.” Minus the added heft and gravitas of a mezzo voice—Ferrier, Baker, Ludwig—Schäfer must rely on her unerring ability to characterize the text; the result is one of the most convincingly heartbreaking interpretations I’ve heard. Eschenbach accompanies flawlessly. Though it may be unlikely that listeners will purchase this disc for the songs, they are much more than just a makeweight and an ample sweetener if the symphony isn’t enough of a lure.

David Hurwitz, May 2010

Christoph Eschenbach has evolved into a heavily mannered, interventionist, even perverse interpreter, and it’s very nice to be able to report that those qualities are never in evidence here. His occasional moments of rhetorical emphasis, in the outer sections of the scherzo or in the finale’s second theme, remain attractive personal touches that never check the music’s onward flow. Elsewhere, this is simply a lovely, fresh, and youthful-sounding Mahler First, abounding in idiomatic feeling and atmosphere.

The first-movement introduction wakes up perfectly, the offstage perspectives ideally judged, and the main body of the allegro has the bracing vigor of a spring day. The scherzo, as just mentioned, gets a little help in the “rustic lilt” department, but it’s interesting that Eschenbach shows a welcome touch of restraint in the trio, never letting incidental detail get in the way of the long lyrical line. His funeral march third movement is spectacular: truly spooky thanks to minute control of dynamics, with even the Jewish dance episodes perfectly integrated into the overall mood like some troubling vision. It’s wonderful. And if the angry opening of the finale isn’t quite as crazy as others have made it, I can only applaud Eschenbach’s lively tempo for the concluding chorale. In short, a great job!...for the symphony alone this disc is worth considering. The sonics are very good, perhaps a touch dry, but vividly present and well-balanced.

John J. Puccio
Classical Candor, April 2010

The First and Fourth Symphonies of Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) are his shortest and most-accessible symphonies; moreover, they are today among the most-popular pieces of music ever written. Thus, we would expect a good deal of competition in the marketplace for recordings of them. And such is the case, given the dozens of alternative discs available. I mean, you know it’s going to be tough sledding for any newcomer, like this 2010 Capriccio release of the Symphony No. 1 from conductor Christoph Eschenbach, even at its low, budget price.

How well, then, does the Eschenbach entry stack up against budget issues from Barbirolli, Bernstein, Bohm, Davis, de Waart, Judd, Kubelik, Leaper, Maazel, Mehta, Muti, Rattle, Slatkin, Solti, Szell, Wit, Zinman, and a host of others, all of them priced at or below the cost of this Capriccio disc? I’m happy to report it more than holds its own. And it benefits from a new digital recording that is robust, with dead-silent backgrounds.

Under Eschenbach, the symphony’s opening moments—all mists and clouds before the sunrise—doesn’t carry quite the mystery that, say, Georg Solti’s LSO performance does, but Eschenbach never rushes it, and it unfolds pretty well. Here, Nature bursts forth in Her own good time as the sun eventually rises and shines on hill and dale. Mahler said he never intended his symphony to be another pictorial tone poem like those of his contemporary, Richard Strauss, yet comparisons are inevitable, and people have always liked their own literal explanations for the work.

The second movement has a wonderfully bucolic flavor to it, well projected by Eschenbach. In fact, the conductor probably overdoes the country atmosphere, making it too pronounced, too exaggerated. Still, it comes off pleasantly enough.

Mahler’s third movement is one of his more bizarre creations, beginning with the familiar “Frere Jacques” tune but proceeding more slowly than usual in keeping with the mood Eschenbach has established for the rest of the performance. Then, the whole orchestra takes up the tune in overlapping style. I always think of this part of the music as representing a rustic Jewish wedding, but afterwards Mahler follows it with a dirge-like funeral march, representative perhaps a huntsman’s burial. Even though it’s all a bit weird, it’s indicative of the kind of parody Mahler would repeat over and again in later symphonies.

The finale has the unenviable job of bringing all the symphony’s divergent parts together, which it does with commendable drama and energy. Eschenbach manages to produce an altogether relaxed reading, comforting and joyous, yet heroic in the end. Combined with the five little Ruckert Songs, pleasingly sung by soprano Christine Schafer, the album makes a worthy contribution to a crowded field.

In terms of sound, the Capriccio  audio engineers captured some good orchestral depth in this 2008 recording, with fairly good definition and detail. There are clear, if slightly hard, highs; deep, authoritative lows; strong impact; and quick transients. There is also a small degree of veiling in the midrange but no more than a person might hear during a live concert.

While Eschenbach’s Capriccio disc may not have quite the animation nor quite the transparency of some rival recordings, it displays a good deal of charm and provides an appropriate introduction to the Mahler symphonies to come. Not a bad price, either.

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