This year marks the 150th
anniversary of Mahler’s
birth and 2011 the centenary of his death, so expect the torrent
of Mahler recordings to become a flood. Medici Arts have trumped
the opposition with this long-awaited Tennstedt/LPO release,
which includes an overture and an all-too-brief interview with
the ailing maestro. The latter was taped in 1990, three years
after ill-health forced Tennstedt to step down as the LPO’s
music director. Happily, though, he and his band were soon reunited
for some memorable concerts; this live Mahler First is one of
Tennstedt’s partnership with the LPO was a remarkable one,
producing some fine concerts and a complete Mahler cycle for
EMI. The latter wasn’t a total success - Tennstedt wasn’t
happy with the LPO First from 1977 and recorded it again with
the Chicago Symphony some years later - but the live events were
another matter entirely. London concertgoers were treated to
an electrifying Fifth (HMV Classics) and a triumphant,
barnstorming Eighth; the latter was issued on DVD, coupled
with that Chicago First (EMI 3 67743 9).
Although Tennstedt’s studio recordings of Mahler are generally
acceptable they lack the visionary quality of his live performances.
The Chicago First - recorded in 1990 - is a case in point, combining
new-found authority with the warmth and humanity he invariably
brought to these scores. And while it’s not perfect - it
could be a little tauter at times - it’s a world away from
his more tentative studio version.
There are a number of excellent recordings of this symphony,
among them Leonard Bernstein’s live Concertgebouw account
(DG 427 303-2) and James Levine’s under-rated one with
the LSO (available as a special order from ArkivMusic). Of the
more recent recordings David Zinman’s - review
has a freshness and clarity that is most appealing. As for Jonathan
Nott’s - review
it’s just too wilful and uneven to warrant a recommendation
from me. No doubt there will be more Firsts this year and next,
making the job of finding an ideal version even more difficult
than it already is.
Back to the BBC Legends disc and it’s clear from the first
bars that this is going to be a riveting First.
the mysterious opening is a little more clear-eyed than, say,
Tennstedt’s studio version, but here the music positively
thrums with tension, the soft timps adding to the sense of unease.
The all-important horns are beautifully caught, the recording
warmer and more detailed than usual from this venue. The playing
is wonderfully assured and transparent, the Wunderhorn loveliness
of this movement superbly realised. Tennstedt phrases with obvious
affection - the cuckoo has seldom sounded so startling - but
where others are apt to loosen the reins Tennstedt holds them
tight, alive to every shift of pace and direction.
One senses that the conductor has a much surer grasp of the symphony’s
overall structure than before; his tempi are well judged and
the ebb and flow of this movement is artfully maintained. The
orchestra simply play their hearts out, the horns sounding suitably
burnished as our wayfarer steps from gloom to glade. Indeed,
there’s a radiance to the music-making that’s all
too rare in this symphony, and it’s clear from the buzz
in the auditorium that the audience thinks so too. And although
the recording was made in January there’s no sign of the
serial coughers and emphatic throat-clearers who usually ruin
concerts at this time of year.
The waltz-scherzo dances with the best of them - the basses buoyant
and well articulated - and one marvels anew at the sheer propulsive
energy of this youthful score. More importantly, this music is
fleet of foot as well, the waltz served with just a hint of schmaltz.
then Tennstedt slams the door on this whimsical world and plunges
us into the next with a suitably spooky rendition of Frère
Jacques. True, this may lack the shiver-up-the-spine quality
that a carefully managed studio recording can sometimes provide,
but it’s atmospheric enough. In fact, the wall-eyed character
of this music is conveyed most convincingly, the funereal bass
drum thuds especially effective. Happily, Tennstedt ensures the
various parts of this movement dovetail naturally, with none
of the ‘parenthesising’ that disfigures Nott’s
reading at this point.
The shriek that opens the final movement is as elemental as one
could hope for, those jabbing rhythms positively terrifying.
Despite this the recording full and weighty throughout, with
no hint of roughness or constriction. The bass drum and snarling
brass are especially prominent, though not artificially so, and
when this nightmare ends a deep sense of exhaustion ensues. The
reviving LPO strings really sing here, their lovely phrases naturally
shaped, not self-consciously moulded. Again one feels Tennstedt
is very much in control, guiding and coaxing, his eye firmly
on that final peroration. And, goodness, what a blazing triumph
it is, as exhilarating as I’ve ever heard. The appreciative
roar of the RFH audience says it all.
I would have been more than happy just to have the symphony,
but the fizzy overture to Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila
Tennstedt was more than capable of turning his hand to something
rather different. More closely recorded than the Mahler, it’s
still weighty and detailed. And even if it lacks the exaggerated
zap and zing of those ‘Russian Spectaculars’ it’s
dispatched with pin-sharp precision and a real sense of elan.
The 1990 interview with Tennstedt, while welcome, is also rather
distressing. The throat cancer that eventually killed him had
all but destroyed his voice, making it difficult to understand
him at times. That said, there’s an unmistakable warmth
and passion in his answers, not least his belief that illness
gave him a new and profound insight into Mahler’s death-shadowed
world. Other than that there are no revelations, the veteran
John Amis as sensible and sensitive an interviewer as one could
A poignant piece, but for a more fitting epitaph to this much-missed
maestro look no further than this Mahler. It’s a deeply
penetrating, once-in-a-lifetime performance and, despite a very
faint hum in quiet passages, it’s well recorded to boot.
In fact, it’s gone straight to the top of my list of recommendations
for this much-loved - and much-recorded - symphony.