Recording of September 1994: Mahler: Symphony 1

MAHLER: Symphony 1, "Blumine"
James Judd, Florida Philharmonic Orchestra
Harmonia Mundi USA 907118 (CD only). Peter McGrath, eng.; Paul F. Witt, prod.; Robina Young, exec. prod. DDD. TT: 64:15

It doesn't happen very often, but Holt's Law—that the sound quality of a recording is in inverse proportion to the quality of the performance that recording reproduces—has been broken again. Big time.

The last time this statute was so soundly flouted in a major classical work was in 1987, when Reference Recordings released Minoru Nojima's performance of the Liszt B-minor Sonata—certainly the best recording of this work, and one of the best performances in stereo.

The difference with James Judd's Mundi Mahler 1 is that it's one of the best recordings, and one of the better performances, of a central-repertoire orchestral work—a combination rarely heard since the glory days of stereo recording, roughly five years either side of 1960, when CBS, Decca, and RCA frequently produced releases of such quality.

Engineer Peter McGrath captures an enormous sound from the Florida orchestra, impressive particularly in its depth. On climaxes, the sound seems almost to overfill the bounds of Ft. Lauderdale's 2688-seat Broward Center for the Performing Arts; the dynamic range is such that you'll need to listen at realistic orchestral volume to hear the quiet portions. Timbres are true if just a little bright. Though individual instruments aren't illuminated with quite the laserbeam focus of Blumlein-miked recordings (an effect I often find artificial), the weight and movement of the music among the orchestral sections is delineated marvelously—especially attention-grabbing because Judd divides his violins left-right, and spreads cellos and basses across the middle. (McGrath, as in his recordings of the Philharmonia Baroque, relies primarily on a stereo Schoeps Sphere microphone, adding for these larger forces three other mike pairs—omnis and cardioids—to fill out the details.)

There's a solid presentation of the hall's dimensions, and great ambience—the miking picks up a lot of indirect sound. Low bass is so true that you'll hear little of the opening low A in the basses unless you're listening with a subwoofer. In short, this is one of the best orchestral recordings of the digital era, and the best of Mahler 1 since John McClure recorded Bruno Walter for Columbia in 1961.

All of this would merely confirm Holt's Law if Judd's performance were not so good. To give a quick idea of how good, here's a list of recorded performances I find better: Litton, Bernstein/DG, Walter, Horenstein, maybe Kubelik, maybe Solti/LSO. Those I find less good? Too many to list. Judd's performance is overall quite measured—which is to say slow. When he keeps things together (as in most of I-III), this conveys a sense of ease appropriate to this youthful work. When he loses concentration, as in part of IV, the orchestral lines sometimes lose their relationships to one another. But make no mistake: Judd's conducting at the end of IV, beginning with the contrapuntal opening to the coda and running through the final climax, is exciting.

Surprisingly for an American regional orchestra, the country dance of II is pulled off very...German: gruff and peasant-like, with a flexible line and natural string portamento. The Klezmer music in III is also done idiosyncratically.

Judd includes the "Blumine" movement that appeared as the second of five movements in Mahler's original score, and which the composer excised early on. Here "Blumine" truly swings, in simply the best performance I've heard on record. Instead of playing up the movement's obvious sentimentality, Judd's vision is spectral, spooky, the detached string lines suggesting techniques Mahler was to employ much later and to great metaphysical effect in Symphonies 9 and 10.

Harmonia Mundi's customary care is evident even in the physical production of the CD. Executive Producer Robina Young has insisted that "Blumine" appear as the last track on the CD—after the four movements of the conventional Symphony—rather than in second position. This is the only correct arrangement. The casual listener will hear in sequence the four-movement work the composer intended. To hear the five-movement symphony will merely require programming the CD player.

This new Mahler 1 is a desert-island disc for audiophiles and music-lovers alike.—Kevin Conklin