Symphony No.1 in D minor (with "Blumine" movement
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Conducted by Yoel Levi
This is one of those recordings of Mahler's First Symphony that includes
the movement called "Blumine" that Mahler discarded when he carried out a
large-scale revision of a work he had originally called "Titan" and which
then became the First Symphony we know today. (Like most recordings the label
also carries the title "Titan" even though Mahler discarded that at the same
time as "Blumine" as well). There's nothing wrong with including "Blumine"
on recordings of the First Symphony. What concerns me is placing it, as Levi
and Telarc have done, where Mahler's original version placed it as the second
movement. "Blumine" is not the second movement of the final version
of the First Symphony. If it's going to appear on a recording of the First
at all let it be as an "Appendix" and marked as such as it is in the case
of recordings by Simon Rattle on EMI and Michael Halasz on Naxos. To place
it as if it was the second movement is tantamount to saying that, in spite
of his excising it, Mahler didn't really mean to and we know better. Imagine
a much loved classic novel being reissued with an extra chapter because some
bright spark at a publishing house went back to the author's first draft
and found it there. There are recordings of the original version of the First
Symphony, correctly called "Titan, A Symphonic Poem in Two Parts" and there
it is correct to place "Blumine" as second movement. Anything other than
that is tinkering with the composer's wishes and even there the accusation
could be levelled that Mahler never meant us to hear his first thoughts at
all. Almost as if they are aware of all this Telarc uses as liner notes an
article by the late Jack Diether in which he argues that the practice of
placing "Blumine" in the final version can be justified. The evidence he
brings forward, to the effect that Mahler was "long of two minds" is, I have
to say, thin. Of course a judicious use of the programming function on the
CD player will get around all this but that doesn't alter the fact there
are going to be more and more people who will come to the wrong conclusion
that this is what Mahler really meant.
As with all new Mahler recordings this one is up against stiff competition
from past and present so at full price must have something special to compete.
The first movement has a fine sense of space in the introduction, helped
by the beautifully balanced recording. Then the main material emerges sweet
and natural with the transition into the Development almost Brucknerian in
scope with nice slides from the cellos. "Blumine" coming next contains a
lovely performance of the trumpet solo from Christopher Martin and Levi is
well aware of Mahlerian nostalgia here as well as pre-echoes of the trumpet
solo to come in the Third Symphony's third movement. The Scherzo could have
done with a little more trenchancy and swing, especially in the opening section
and the Trio is too delicately pointed. I think this sounds better when a
few steps short of the tawdry. Listen to Horenstein on Unicorn or Vox, Barbirolli
on Dutton, Walter on Sony, and especially Kubelik on DG, Audite or Originals
for the real Mahler sound.
In what we usually refer to as the third movement (here placed fourth) I
was disappointed by a rather backward placing of the solo double bass at
the start where the "Frere Jacques" music is first presented. This is one
of the most distinctive moments in Mahler; a moment when he really strikes
out and does something different, and you have to strain to here it here.
As in the Scherzo I think Levi smooths out the grotesques. The sour band
music interjections especially are not really allowed to poison the air as
they should and are a bit fleeting as well. The earlier conductors mentioned
above seem to get it right by instinct. The opening of the last movement
is bold and imposing. Superbly recorded also, with good front-to-back
perspective, invariably the case with Telarc's balancing. The stormy music
sprawls a little but I like the relatively "straight" way Levi phrases the
big lyrical theme that follows. Too often conductors take this as a signal
to settle down for the night but Levi is refreshing. In the central section
the grandeur apparent at the start returns and, I'm pleased to say, with
crucially more spring in its step too.
On its own this is a well-played, superbly recorded version of Mahler's First.
In comparison with versions already before us, the shortcomings become apparent.
See also Tony Duggan's comparative review