MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D ("Titan") (with Blumine movement)
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Yoel Levi

Telarc CD-80545. (F) (DDD)  TT: 62:14

Overcrowded with Mahler as it is, the catalogue can always accommodate another First as good as this. Outgoing Atlanta Symphony music director Yoel Levi has spent much of his tenure in the shadow of his predecessor, the late Robert Shaw, an esteemed musician if not a polished conductor. His concert performances have elicited mostly tepid reactions from my online correspondents. His Telarc recordings of a variety of standard repertoire have garnered little attention; his Mahler cycle has faced not only the existing high-powered competition, but the superfluous distraction of Telarc's own rival Mahler discs with López-Cobos and the Cincinnati Symphony!

Yet, on the basis of his Mahler Fifth Symphony (Telarc CD-80394) and now this First, Levi is a first-class artist. First of all, from a purely technical standpoint, his conducting seems uncommonly commanding. If the Atlanta Symphony's polish and discipline are any indication, his signals are unfailingly clear. Throughout the piece, execution is crisp, textures clean, and balances impeccable. Such common "train wreck" spots as the fanfare heralding the first-movement recapitulation—and the identical one introducing the Finale's coda—are solidly coordinated and purposefully shaped, without the slapdash quality one increasingly encounters even on disc.

Levi's technique per se would count for little, were it not at the service of his exemplary musicianship and stylistic understanding. Where more overtly demonstrative Mahlerians underline incidental details and "characterize" to the point of incoherence, Levi draws the music in clear lines, keeping its proportions in mind, assuring that we don't lose the high points in a sea of musical miscellanea. His flowing tempi are generally conservative (save for the quirky windup concluding the opening movement), giving the music time to breathe and expand.

Nor is this carefully organized performance in any way cold. Quite the contrary: by realizing each passage's expressive function within the whole, Levi refreshes this popular symphony, rescuing it from routine. The opening string harmonics immediately provoke anticipation, ushering in a vernal, amiable exposition; the Scherzo is lively and alert, with a restrained but graceful Trio; the slashing, dramatic Finale culminates in a shimmering, triumphant coda.

Kudos is, of course, due to the Atlanta Symphony, immeasurably improved since Shaw's day; their consistently cantabile line and coloristic variety are attractive in themselves. I particularly like the strings, warm and singing, missing only the ultimate degree of plush; the rich-toned, sensitive oboe (whose high As are in tune, for once); and the round horns, who aren't afraid to whoop when Mahler's writing suggests it.

Telarc has restored the Blumine movement, which Mahler eliminated while revising the symphony, to its original position before the Scherzo. Strictly speaking, this is incorrect, as its "unrevised" orchestration doesn't match the rest. But Levi's performance is one of the best, blossoming with lyric warmth, distinctly chilly at the shift into minor. (The high violin leaps do betray momentary uncertainty.)  Besides, you can always program it out.

Telarc's first-class production has the usual capacious dynamic range and crisp definition. Of course, one immediately notices the deep percussion thwacks and crashes, and the brass choir's brilliant impact. But that depth extends similarly to the less noisy passages, which are impressively full and "present." Bravo all around.

S.F.V.(Feb. 2001)