RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony no.1 in D [52:13]*
Symphony no.5 - Adagietto [09:51]***
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche op.28 [15:33]**
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Erich Leinsdorf
rec. 4 December 1962*, 13 November 1962**, 12 November 1963***, Sanders Theatre, Harvard University*,**, Symphony Hall, Boston***
ICA CLASSICS ICAD 5051 DVD [78:00]
Having raved about the Leinsdorf/Boston DVD of Tchaikovsky 5, people will probably think me crazy if I now say I think this is finer still. The reason, I believe, is that here we have Leinsdorf in music that was from his earliest years a part of his being - none of these three items is new to his discography - whereas with Tchaikovsky he was brilliantly and passionately interpreting from outside.
Crucial to his Mahler is his way with tempi. Mahler larded his scores with instructions for going faster or slower, often just for a few bars. Leinsdorf, as we know, was tendentially a very objective, rigorous conductor, disinclined to deviate from his chosen tempo if not specifically required to. Here, of course, he is required to and does. But, while for some conductors these changes amount to new, different tempi, Leinsdorf evidently believes that the rather fussy Mahler was indicating the sort of natural adjustments that another composer might have trusted his interpreters to make anyway. In other words, with Leinsdorf we have adjustments to a basic tempo which he does not lose sight of right through each movement.
This means that, at the beginning, you might find him unexpectedly fast. Yet, while he does not grope his way forward, note by note, there is no lack of hushed expectancy. Then, when the song-theme arrives on the cellos and many conductors start forging ahead, Leinsdorf stays close to his original tempo and the music luxuriates as if on a balmy summer’s day. Thus, inexorably but unhurriedly, the whole movement builds up. But, if excess speeds are avoided, Mahler’s ironic world is also evoked in numerous tangy rasps in the inner parts.
The Landler is fairly fast and more than fairly tough. It yields to a beautifully relaxed and tender trio. Leinsdorf’s exacting rehearsals methods result in perfectly placed downward glissandos.
Our late-lamented colleague Tony Duggan, in his survey of this symphony, mentions the difficulty of persuading modern double-bass players to perform the distorted version of “Frère Jacques”, which opens the third movement, with the sort of crudity it had when it was new and strange. He found this bizarre quality only in the earliest recordings. He didn’t discuss either of Leinsdorf’s studio recordings - a BSO version and a later one made with a London orchestra - perhaps because they were unavailable. I haven’t heard these. Certainly, Leinsdorf coaxes a proper sense of ungainliness from his player on this occasion. The tempo is very slow and, as we might expect, Leinsdorf barely moves it on in the café-music episodes. He achieves a memorable combination of heartfelt nostalgia and sardonic sleaziness.
The finale erupts with extreme violence and with brilliant orchestral playing, though the actual tempo is not particularly fast. This enables Leinsdorf to invest the contrasting material with tender regretfulness and virile passion as required, while still keeping his sights on the final build-up.
If I have given the impression that Leinsdorf’s approach is principally architectural, this may seem to bring us into Horenstein territory. In reality, it would be difficult to imagine a more different-sounding performance from a typical Horenstein one. Leinsdorf’s Mahler is probably best described as expressionist. It embraces the extremes, but does so with an iron architectural discipline at its base. In the studio, the discipline sometimes prevailed excessively. Here, caught on wing in a public concert, Leinsdorf provides an astonishingly complete, all-embracing vision of this symphony. Be warned, only, that the sound is limited, the black and white pictures equally so and coughers are in force in the quieter moments - Mahler was not yet an “approved” composer with the Boston public.
Leinsdorf plays the opening and closing bars of “Till Eulenspiegel” with great tenderness. For the rest, he presents a brilliant, upfront rapscallion of a rogue. There is affection as well as impudence, all realized by the BSO on top form. We are told this was a party-piece during Leinsdorf’s tenure. Curiously, the only recording I can trace of it under him was made slightly earlier with the Philharmonia Orchestra.
Leinsdorf’s Boston recording of Mahler 5 was among the first to combine fine sound and virtuoso playing. The “Adagietto” is played here as a separate piece, not extracted from a complete performance. Leinsdorf is seen walking on to considerable applause before it starts and applause breaks out at the end.
Since the above timing includes all the applause, what we have here is one of the closest approximations on disc to Mahler’s known timings, on two different occasions, of 7 minutes and 9 minutes. And, as Richard Dyer says, in his notes which continue to bring added value to this series, he doesn’t seem at all in a hurry. The big, burnished tone at the beginning may seem a little fulsome to those used to hearing the movement steal in - would Leinsdorf have conducted it in this way if he was following on from the previous movements, I wonder? Thereafter he provides plenty of shading. The phrasing is so flexible that the music just drifts along as if with all the time in the world. The big downward glissando heralding the return to the opening theme is perfectly executed. Of the few versions of this movement I’ve heard that come close to Mahler’s own timings, I’d say this is the one most likely to make you never want to hear it dragged out beyond ten minutes ever again.
An astonishingly complete, all-embracing vision of Mahler 1, a brilliant rapscallion of a Till and a gorgeous Adagietto.
see also review by James Zychowicz
Masterwork Index: Till Eulenspiegel ~~ Mahler 1