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October 5, 2012

Baltimore Symphony's first Mahler CD a sturdy contender

Gustav Mahler’s symphonies never lack for attention on disc, even in what is supposed to be the twilight of the classical recording industry.

This crowded field just got a little bigger with the release of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s first commercial Mahler album, aptly devoted to the Symphony No. 1, conducted by music director Marin Alsop.

This Naxos CD, recorded live during concerts at Meyerhoff Hall in 2008, has some hefty competition among recorded Firsts.

Although it will not knock out such defending champions as the New York Philharmonic versions from 1950s with Bruno Walter or a decade later with Leonard Bernstein, the BSO’s entry is a serious contender.

I do wish, though, that the recording had been made more recently. Today’s BSO is playing at an impressive step above four years ago, with a richer tone, especially in the string department, and even tighter articulation.

That said, the warmly recorded release certainly captures a major American orchestra operating on all cylinders, digging vibrantly into the score as Alsop leads a solid, communicative interpretation.

She passes what, for me, is a key test in Mahler’s First — ...

the gentle, folksy waltz in the middle section of the Scherzo. It’s a passage that can be thoroughly enchanting if given enough sensitivity and metronome-free pacing, as you can hear from, say, Bernstein or James Judd on a Gustav Mahler Society-winning disc with the Florida Philharmonic.

Alsop does not go as far with bends in the rhythm as they do. But she shapes the music lovingly, allowing phrases to breathe and sigh and smile, and she draws colorful contributions from the woodwinds, a silken sheen from the strings. (This is not how I remember things going at the 2008 performance I attended. Perhaps the take on the recording comes from another night in the run.)

The conductor taps nicely into the eerie, shifting moods of the third movement. Note that she calls on the bass section, rather than just the principal bassist, at the start of this movement to play the funeral march melody (a minor key version of “Frere Jacques”).

A controversial recent edition of the score concludes that this was Mahler’s intention, but I think the best evidence — including accounts of Mahler conducting the symphony — supports the use of a single bass. It’s certainly much more surprising and piquant that way.

As for the rest of the score, Alsop effectively generates atmosphere, lyrical warmth and subtle tension in the first movement. The aggressive opening of the finale rips and grips, while the subsequent moments of nostalgia and yearning are beautifully realized.

And, with brass and percussion fully charged, the coda surges forward with a bracing exultation to cap this ultimately worthy addition to the Mahler stockpile.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:54 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop


If I remember, my vinyl Mahler's 1st was Kubelik. It was a "fat" symphony. I absolutely love the way Marin Alsop and the BSO give us a clean, lean symphony. And I'm not even a Mahler fan!

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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