The years have seen possibly dozens of Mahler firsts, many outstanding (for example, the Chicago Symphony/Georg Solti - admittedly showing its age sonically), so do we need another? Recorded as an SACD, the answer is, most certainly YES! Mahler, amongst the greatest of composers, wrote with a mixture of great subtlety and great complexity, both of which can only be fully revealed by the tremendous clarity of good SACD recording, this clarity being aided by the expanded sound field of the six channels an SACD makes available (at a higher quality than DTS sound!).
We are faced with two entrants into the field: the performance under review, and another by the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas. Each recording is part of a continuing series that will culminate in a complete set of the symphonies of Mahler, and each recording, like the others already released, is an outstanding performance, superbly recorded.
To properly review this release would require a lengthy, detailed analysis of the performance, which would not be appropriate here. So all I can do is summarize and say that it represents a truly worthy entry into the SACD arena. The performance is up amongst the best. Zander has clearly thoroughly researched the score, fully understanding Mahler's intentions, and conveying this to his orchestra, one of the best in the world.
The trouble is, one can say much the same about the San Francisco performance. This orchestra, normally an excellent but parochial ensemble, has been raised by its conductor to top international level and virtually matches the Philharmonia. Although there are subtle differences between the two performances, both approaches are always valid. And the engineering is so similar in both clarity and discreet use of the available sound field, one could almost suspect that both recordings were made by the same production/engineering team, sonic differences being attributable to the slightly different acoustic of the recording venue.
So how do you choose between these performances, to both of which I can give an unreserved recommendation?
To the die-hard Mahlerite, I would recommend sampling both to find which one more closely matches your ideas about how the work should be performed.
But for most purchasers, the choice is easy. The Telarc release, as well as having the marginally better orchestra, includes, at no extra charge, a free 79 minute CD where the conductor discusses and analyses the work, with many musical illustrations.
Also, and this is a major also, the recording includes a complete performance by the same forces, accompanying the baritone Christopher Maltman, of 'Songs of a Wayfarer'. Although this is not the absolutely best performance available, it is still a very good one that would satisfy most listeners (including me). So, the choice becomes simple (although it wasn't for me: I'm buying both series!)
In summation: buy this and you will be getting an outstanding performance; oustanding engineering and outstanding value for money well spent.