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Symphony No.1 in D
Symphony No.2 in C minor "Resurrection"

Doris Soffel (Mezzo), Edith Mathis (Soprano),
London Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra
Conducted by Klaus Tennstedt
EMI Double Forte 5 74182 2 [142.58]

In reissuing instalments from past Mahler cycles there seems to be a trend in coupling the First and Second Symphonies together. A good idea for those starting collections but also for those catching up with what they might have missed. It also makes musical sense since there is evidence Mahler regarded the Second Symphony as the place where his First Symphony's "hero" is laid to rest. Klaus Tennstedt's Mahler cycle with the London Philharmonic has always had its admirers. This was a great conductor about whom it seemed to impossible to be neutral and his recordings of Mahler were at the cornerstone of a life's work cut short. He was also blessed with a London Philharmonic that knew the Mahler symphonies from their work with two previous Chief Conductors (Haitink and Solti) so are well worth hearing even if you emerge from them, as I do, shaking your head a little.

The Second Symphony will be the major attraction in this re-issue. The first movement begins challenging, dramatic and biting. Note the brass snarls and the wailing woodwind. Tennstedt then caresses the yearning second theme in a change of mood that marks his whole performance down as more moulded and episodic than many. As ever, he is the master of emotional control from bar one onwards. This is especially borne out in the lovely opening of the First Development which sees the music's elegiac quality, it's mourning colours, brought out to the full with keening woodwind, swooning strings and a mood of regret. Then, as the music builds to the end of this passage, Tennstedt increases the tempo and the stormy atmosphere so that the Second Development's repeat of the movement's opening is effectively challenging and the rush down the Recapitulation suitably frantic. However, one shortcoming now exposed is that the recording quality is surprisingly "bass light" and close-balanced so the wilder passages have a raucous, brittle quality with very little air around the instruments. This is a major drawback right through the movement with Maher's richness of texture undermined. The rest of the Recapitulation mirrors the rest of Tennstedt's conception to elongate the lyrical and reflective passages and speed up and attack the challenging and vigorous ones. He brings this off but I do feel on re-hearing it after some time that the effect is still to fragment what should be a more "through-thought" movement.

Recording quality improves from the second movement on. That hard, "toppy" edge in the first movement has lessened and there is more space with the orchestra heard to better effect. Tennstedt's conception of the second movement is dark and quite intense, autumnal in its colouring, in fact. Then in the third movement I was reminded of how many conductors miss the special quality of this music with its peculiar atmosphere because with Tennstedt we can hear the strange sound of the rute and the woodwind shrieking and chirruping just as they should. He can also suggest the elegiac quality beneath the weirdness. He presses quite a fast overall tempo, though, especially in the brass-led interjections. After this the Urlicht fourth movement is intensely slow with Doris Soffel tested to the limit and beyond. I suppose the line is sustained, but only just. Such an interpretation is in keeping with Tennstedt's typically intense performance and you hear this best exemplified in the last movement where he sustains the line through the disparate sections in spite of the fact that he continues with his zeal for exploring opposites.

He opens the last movement with a vigorous and apocalyptic rending of the sky and then delivers a tense reading of the passage 43-191 that is portentous with very little sense of self-indulgence. There is a real sense of architecture here as well as a fine grasp of the music's special colours with the London Philharmonic playing with distinction for a conductor they deeply admired. The brass is almost Bruckerian at times, deep and resonant as they intone the Dies Irae prior to the wonderful outburst prior to the percussion crescendi at 191. It is a pity Tennstedt cannot resist taking the big march too fast, though. It is certainly exciting, invigorating even, which I suppose being liberated from your grave would be. But I really think something more trenchant than this is needed, well though the orchestra plays for the almost manic quality they bring to Tennstedt's vision. That latter aspect is attended to well at the passage for the offstage band but again, at the "collapse climax" prior to the Grosse Appel, the recording betrays that glassy top noticed in the first movement. Fanfares are placed closer than usual, accentuating this as a studio production, but so is Rattle's recording on EMI and that manages remarkable atmosphere here.

Tennstedt has no doubts about the music from here on. He takes it at face value as a noble deliverance from sin and pain and there is much to be admired in that. The end is surprising for being unsentimental, even muscular, and I found it exhilarating and optimistic. The recording's "close in" quality does the chorus no favours, though. As has been the case right through, at the end there is a slightly calculated quality that would perhaps have been alleviated by recording one of the concert performances Tennstedt gave at the time. This was still the era of "studio is best" which is a pity because Tennstedt, whatever one's attitude towards his work, (and I was never one of his greatest admirers), always was able convey his own mix of romantic flair and dramatic energy better in the concert hall. I well remember how eagerly people awaited this recording. Having heard a broadcast of the concert prior to it I remember being disappointed I didn't have a souvenir of that.

Taking the reservations of recording quality into account, and not hiding the fact that this kind of performance is not one I personally agree with, I do still rate this quite highly. I admire and enjoy conductors of Mahler who are committed even if it is to a view I do not have entire sympathy with. Tennstedt's admirers will already own it, of course, but there are always new converts to the cause waiting. Others should give it active consideration.

Though recorded some years earlier the First Symphony shows none of the same drawbacks in recorded sound. A different studio, producer and analogue recording seems to project Tennstedt's poetic and ripe view of the symphony in an almost ideal acoustic with full strings and brass. In fact it's a recorded sound that would have suited the Second Symphony. I remember the original LP issue tended to be rather opaque but this remastering has made things a little more immediate and it has come up a treat. This was recorded before Tennstedt had been contracted to record the rest of the Mahler Symphonies and was also his EMI debut. Later on in interviews he made it clear he was dissatisfied with it, but it's hard to see why. The first movement emerges from a lovely magical haze to accentuate the lyric roots of Mahler's art. The second movement moves at a good swing with some excellent, whooping horns and a nostalgic "knowing" Trio. The third may lack some earthiness when compared with other versions but it's still a beguiling interpretation that shows awareness of Mahlerian grotesques. In the opening and closing of the last movement the large acoustic means some detail is lost but Tennstedt certainly keeps the drama up in the rest and then contrasts this well with the passages of nostalgic repose.

After completing his LPO studio Mahler cycle Tennstedt was allowed by EMI to re-record three of the symphonies with them "live": the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh. The First was also taken down but from a performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. By then Tennstedt's view of Mahler's First had matured to become more self-conscious, more the view of a man who has known the "life" mapped in the others, and I think something of the work's charm was missed, though you can argue the remake was a more successfully mounted performance. As I hinted before, however, it is the Second Symphony that Tennstedt should have been encouraged to re-record "live".

A welcome reissue at mid price of two recordings that represent a much-loved conductor well. Klemperer's "live" Munich recording of the Second Symphony on EMI (5 66867 2) remains my own favourite of that work at mid price.

 Tony Duggan

First Symphony

Second Symphony

First Symphony

Second Symphony

See Tony Duggan's comparative reviews of Mahler recordings

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