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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D major, incl. ‘Blumine’ (1884-1888, final revision 1899)
Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich/David Zinman
rec. 27-28 February 2006, Tonhalle, Zurich.
BMG-RCA 82876 871562 [61:43]
Experience Classicsonline

This was my introduction to David Zinman’s Mahler cycle, which has yielded fine readings of the first four symphonies. The Second (see review) and Fourth (see review) strike me as the most successful so far, the Third (see review) let down by a disappointing final movement. No Mahler cycle is ever an unqualified success – and this one is no exception – but Zinman brings something fresh and invigorating to these much-played scores.
This recording includes the so-called ‘Blumine’ movement that Mahler discarded for a Berlin performance in 1896. This ‘moonlight serenade’ was omitted from the revised score printed in 1899 but several conductors have chosen to include it in their recordings. Obviously CD technology allows listeners to programme ‘Blumine’ into the symphony but really it’s nothing more than a curiosity. In any event it bears little resemblance to the music around it, so I imagine most listeners would give it a whirl at least once and then revert to the usual four-movement version.
So is Zinman’s just another Mahler First to add to the 120-plus in the catalogue or is it something special? A bit of both, actually. The freshness I mentioned earlier is particularly appropriate in the ‘Spring music’ of the first movement, which Zinman details and shapes very well indeed. The woodwind ‘cuckoo calls’ and distant clarinet fanfares are beautifully captured in a natural acoustic; something of a trademark in this cycle.
One might argue that this movement is not as atmospheric as some but no one could dispute the sheer sensuousness of Zinman’s reading, every detail pointed and every colour uncovered. And when the timps and percussion come marching in they do so with splendid weight and authority. This is glorious music-making, even if it lacks that last degree of magic.
For what it’s worth the ‘Blumine’ movement would follow at this point, although it sits uncomfortably with the more sinewy music on either side of it. It’s a sentimental, soft-grained little piece whose inclusion only makes sense – musically at least – in a performance of the early, unrevised score.
The jaunty Ländler that opens the second movement is crisply articulated and played ‘nicht zu schnell’ as Mahler demands. The lower strings are warm and full-bodied, their pizzicatos light enough to anchor this mobile music without impeding its progress. And that is another characteristic of Zinman’s Mahler: a close attention to orchestral balance that allows so many details to shine through.
So much for detail, what about structure? Zinman certainly has a good grasp of the Mahlerian style and its long spans but he does lose his footing once in a while. No problems with the delicate tread of the ‘Frére Jacques’ tune, though, ushered in on muted timps. There is a lovely glow to the orchestral playing here, which is especially noticeable on the SACD layer. Unfortunately that can’t quite disguise a certain blandness here; it’s difficult to quantify but perhaps it’s all a little too moulded, even self-conscious, to be entirely convincing.
The final movement of this First is probably the one that will divide listeners most. Oddly enough that’s also true of Zinman’s Third and Fourth, albeit for very different reasons. He brings off the choral finale of the Second with great panache and keeps up the momentum to the very end, so why can’t he do the same with the First?
To be fair its manic chatter and general wildness are a challenge to most conductors, who often achieve a degree of coherence by pressing forward too much. Zinman isn’t tempted to do that and throughout maintains his spacious view of the music. The movement certainly starts arrestingly enough with that percussion-capped outburst and at 3:30 that floating string theme is meltingly beautiful. The horns have just the right burnished quality, the pizzicato basses are as telling as ever, and the ghostly return of the symphony’s opening motif at 7:30 is magically done.
Despite all these felicities – or perhaps because of them – Zinman’s reading lacks that all-important sense of urgency and cohesion. Make no mistake the final horn-dominated peroration is as theatrical as it gets; it’s just that there isn’t that symphonic logic, that sense of a natural culmination of all that’s gone before.
Despite my reservations – and some listeners may find them very minor – this is still worth hearing, if only for Zinman’s attention to detail and the wonderful ‘hear through’ quality of the recording. There are about a dozen alternatives that offer the ‘Blumine’ option but I’d be tempted to ignore that and go for the final version. There are many of those, but two relatively modern versions are among the most compelling I’ve heard. They are Bernstein’s Concertgebouw account on DG 427 3032 and James Levine’s LSO one, available ‘on demand’ from ArkivMusic. If I had to choose between them I’d go for the latter, simply because it ticks all the right boxes and, despite its age, it still sounds superb.
As I remarked in my review of Zinman’s Third these missteps aren’t serious enough to tarnish his Mahler credentials. In particular his reading of the Fourth must be one of the best available; that can only augur well for the rest of this illuminating cycle.
Dan Morgan


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