It is virtually impossible
for us to imagine nowadays the impact
that Mahlerís First Symphony must have
had on the audience at its premiere
in 1894. To people accustomed to the
music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven
and for whom Brahms was contemporary
music, Mahlerís sound-world must have
seemed strange indeed. Instead of the
traditional orchestral sounds the audience
heard the high violin harmonics with
which the work opens; frequent primeval
rumblings in the bass of the orchestra;
gong strokes; the eerie double bass
solo at the start of the third movement;
and, of course, the great catharsis
with which Mahler opens his finale.
Strange sounds indeed! Mahler was untying
the knots of convention in this work
and forging a new vocabulary of orchestral
I mention this because
it seems to me that if a performance
of this symphony is to succeed there
must be an element of wildness about
it. To my mind Michael Gielenís scrupulously
prepared performance fails in this important
respect. It all sounds a bit careful
and calculated whereas the best Mahler
conductors sweep all before them. Iím
thinking particularly of Klaus Tennstedt
(his live 1990 recording with the Chicago
Symphony Orchestra for EMI) and, above
all, of Leonard Bernstein in his elemental
live reading from 1967 with the Concertgebouw
In the pregnant opening
paragraphs of the work Gielen (and his
engineers) achieve a splendid clarity
of texture, as indeed they do throughout
the performance. However thereís little
sense of mystery. When at length Mahler
reaches the main body of the music everything
is splendidly played but there isnít
much evidence that the players are being
stretched. It all sounds easy Ė a bit
too easy? I miss the sense of drama
that either Bernstein or Tennstedt convey
in abundance. Another quality thatís
lacking is the humanity of, say, Barbirolli
(his 1957 Hallé account, now
on Dutton.) Paradoxically, when, in
the coda, Gielen whips up the music
his chosen tempo sounds a bit rushed.
The Ländler second
movement is done very efficiently. However,
I listened in vain for any trace of
schmaltzy humour. I must also say that
Gielenís core tempo seems too brisk.
Mahler adds to his tempo indication
the important rider "doch nicht
zu schnell." (but not too fast).
Gielen overlooks this. Though Iím wary
of the stopwatch as a musical guide
itís surely significant that Gielen
takes 6í59" for this movement whereas
Barbirolli takes 8í14", Tennstedt
8í26" and Bernstein 8í55".
In each case the additional weight the
latter three impart to the music is
of the third movement is of a piece
with the rest of his interpretation.
Everything is clearly laid out and accurate
but this is not enough. Certainly thereís
more to the vast finale than Gielen
is able to find. The opening eruption
is accurate but it didnít stir this
listener. In these opening paragraphs
the tension should be screwed up to
breaking point. Tennstedt achieves this
while Bernstein is in a different league
from everyone. Itís not just in the
moments of high drama that Gielen fails
to deliver. The great lyrical string
melody (track 4 from 3í31") is
nicely played, but try Barbirolli or
Bernstein here. Their players are really
encouraged to dig in and, as a result,
the music tugs at the heartstrings (Tennstedt
rather overplays his hand here, I think.).
In summary, Iím afraid that Gielen fails
to convey adequately the tensions in
the music in this movement and, indeed,
throughout the work. Thereís no real
bite to the performance and I found
myself completely unmoved at the end.
As he has done throughout
his Mahler cycle Gielen chooses unusual,
even provocative couplings. This is
the case here with the inclusion of
two Ives pieces. There is a link of
sorts because the pieces were completed
in 1907 and 1908, just before Mahlerís
brief New York period. I donít know
if thatís the reason for their inclusion
but they make a fascinating choice to
partner the Mahler. The two works also
are good companions for each other.
In The Unanswered Question
(1908) Gielenís talent for clarifying
textures serves the music very well.
He presents this gravely beautiful yet
quirky music admirably. Heís just as
successful with the more complex textures
of Central Park in the Dark.
He clearly has an excellent ear and
I must say I found him more persuasive
in Ives than in Mahler.
Iím sorry that I canít
be more enthusiastic about this issue.
As I said earlier the performances have
clearly been prepared very thoroughly
and throughout the orchestral playing
is first rate, as is the engineering.
The English translation of the German
notes is not all that good, Iím afraid.
If you are collecting Gielenís Mahler
cycle youíll know what to expect. For
those wanting a single library version
of this amazingly original symphony
I can only advise that you look elsewhere.
Tennstedt (and several other conductors)
have much more to say about this work
and as for Bernstein his DG account
is simply in a class of its own. Thatís
my personal recommendation; Iím afraid
it leaves this Gielen performance standing.