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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D major Titan (1887/88, rev. 1893, 1896/98) [53.25]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. live, 26-27 June 2014, Herkulessaal, Munich
BR-KLASSIK 900143 [53.25]

This performance of Mahler’s Symphony No.1 was recorded live in 2014. Nézet-Séguin had made his debut with the Munich orchestra three years earlier. The Canadian conductor has quickly attracted critical acclaim and I can understand why after reporting on his remarkable concert with the touring Philadelphia Orchestra in 2015 in Dresden (review).

The symphony has a rather protracted history. Mahler’s friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner wrote that Mahler completed his Symphony No.1 in Leipzig in the spring of 1888 although it almost certainly originates from some years earlier. It was Mahler himself who introduced it at the Vigadó Concert Hall, Budapest in November 1889 when it was described as a ‘Symphonic Poem in two Sections’ with no programme explanation provided. It was poorly received and Mahler said he felt like an outcast and that friends avoided him. Consequently he consigned the five movement score to the drawer. Later Mahler had a change of heart and began to undertake major revisions prior to a performance given in Hamburg in October 1893. For Hamburg Mahler provided an extensive programme note describing it as the ‘Titan’ a ‘Tone Poem in Symphonic Form’. This time the reception was more approving. In March 1896 for a performance in Berlin, Mahler dropped the programme title and omitted the Blumine movement calling the score, now in four movements, Symphony in D major. Evidently more revisions were made in 1898 prior to its publication by Weinberger, Vienna.

In the first movement Langsam, Schleppend Nézet-Séguin and his Bavarian players take the listener on a dawn journey to a shimmering woodland glade that teems with the sights and sounds of nature. Beautiful warmth and pastoral air provide a convincing evocation of the mystery of nature. A woodwind fanfare, hazy trumpet and piercing cuckoo-calls on the clarinet all signal the awakening of spring which could easily be a metaphor for the renewal of life. The canvas unfurls allowing plenty of room for the music to breathe and expand. Everything feels fresh and vibrant with the Bavarian players underlining the brilliant details of the anomalous character of Mahler’s remarkable imaginative scoring. Unique and extraordinary the Scherzo movement is alive with the rustic rhythms of the ländler and the elegance of the waltz. The chosen pace here feels ideal. Colourful woodwind and vibrant brass, yelp and cluck with picturesque expression. From the joys of spring in the third movement the listener is transported to a lumbering and disconsolate funeral procession with Nézet-Séguin ensuring a steadily controlled, heavy tread. Mahler’s klezmer band of Bohemian musicians is evoked in a distinctively mocking manner. The Finale that Mahler once described as Dall’ Inferno al Paradiso suggests the journey from Inferno to Paradise. Beginning with a terrifying roar of anguish, a stormy introduction prefaces this highly dramatic and often thrilling music. The reading here is exhilarating with gathering storm-clouds providing an unsettling undertow. Between the development and the recapitulation, the slow section, complete with bird calls, has a brooding intensity that is almost spiritual in quality. This might easily be a depiction of paradise. Nézet-Séguin’s conclusion is a moving experience, vivid and weighty and ending in jubilation.

The wonderful acoustic of the Herkulessaal, Munich is recorded and rendered with clarity and balance. Although recorded live there is very little extraneous sound and the applause at the conclusion of the score has been removed. There is a helpful essay in the booklet by Rüdiger Heinze.

From a number of fine recordings of the First Symphony I have narrowed the field down to my most rewarding two. First the account from Rafael Kubelik and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks on Audite. This was recorded live in November 1979 at Herkulessaal, Munich. Kubelik demonstrates naturalness and a deep perspective. At the same elevated level is the entirely convincing 2008 live account by Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Manfred Honeck recorded at Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh on Exton.

Extremely close in approach to Honeck’s reading the present CD from Nézet-Séguin is a match for most in the catalogue and is one I will play often.

Michael Cookson
Previous review: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month)



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