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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D (1888, rev. 1893. 1896-98) [50’24].
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28 (1894-95) [14’46].
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Karel Ančerl.
Rec. Dvořák Hall of Rudolfinum, Prague, December 1964 (Mahler) and August 1962 (R. Strauss). ADD


It is becoming easier and easier to see why this is called a ‘Gold’ Edition, for there is so much special about these Czech readings. The Ančerl Petrushka and Rite of Spring (SU3665-2: see my review) brought with it many revelations. This Mahler/Strauss coupling is hardly less impressive.

There are, indeed, many fine Mahler 1s in the catalogue. Of digital ones, Bernstein on DG is about as exciting as they come, with supreme playing and with the feeling of live performance at its most imposing. Kubelík, too, was an imposing interpreter of this score, as was Bruno Walter. Ančerl provides an entirely individual, thought-through account of the score, and the members of the Czech Philharmonic play like gods for him.

But all does not begin well. The atmospheric initial sustained octaves has high violins sounding like an outbreak of tinnitus. If the woodwind do not really represent a ‘Naturlaut’ (sound of nature), the distanced fanfares are remarkable. Horns have a creamy vibrato typical of this geographical area (although they choose a strange place to breathe in their initial statement, breaking the phrase). The arrival of the Wunderhorn song, ‘Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld’ is rather literal, lacking a spring in its step. And yet as the movement progresses there is more of a sense of space … of the music flexing its muscles.

The second movement (Scherzo) is lusty and decidedly rustic in its rhythmic emphases (Quote 1). No polite one-to-a-bar lilt, this is earthy, thigh-slapping stuff. All credit should go to Ančerl for highlighting Mahler’s progressive scoring of interruptive hand-stopped horns and making them sound modern and disturbing.

The famous March that makes up the third movement is expertly handled. The smooth layering of the famous subject makes the perfect contrast to the acidic-sounding oboe. Some of the middle episodes go with a decided swing. The finale is equally impressive. The opening is very dramatic (Quote 2), especially the fast rising string passage – for once every note is audible, yet Ančerl ensures it maintains its gestural function. Particularly impressive is the way Ančerl presents the text as a gradual unfolding rather than a stasis – and this unfolding is of the utmost care (listen to the delicacy at 7’50-8’00). Good also that even in moments of relaxation there is an underlying current of tension, a tension finally culminating in a scored ‘shriek’ at 17’07, leading to the final brass-dominated peroration. Memorable Mahler.

This Eulenspiegel was originally coupled with the above-mentioned Petrushka; an inspired idea bringing the two together (Bohuslav Vitel’s notes rightly point out the similarities between the two jesters). The little space allowed between the two pieces is not enough here – suddenly, from Mahler’s emotive climax we are in the midst of Straussian antics (Track 5). The spot-lighting of the woodwind may initially be distracting, but it is worth persevering for the famous horn solo – listen how the player seems to ‘squeeze’ the appoggiaturas out of his instrument. A cheeky clarinet seems to sum up Till’s impish character – indeed, Ančerl capitalises on this and presents some of the episodes in distinctly cartoon-like fashion. A word of praise also for the solo violinist, who hits his top note spot-on and whose ensuing descent is faultless. Ančerl gives his Till all the confident swagger of an inebriated Cockney – there is no doubt that we are in the presence of a Germanic wide-boy here.

Colin Clarke

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