Not since Rafael Kubelik’s 1960s recording have I heard such a fresh account of Mahler’s First Symphony. In the past this work has been weighted down with the baggage of his later symphonies due at least in part to Leonard Bernstein’s famed interpretation with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. There are so many recordings from which to choose, that most listeners will have their own favourites. My first CD of this symphony was Eliahu Inbal with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. That captured much of the folkishness of Kubelik’s version and brought out the Jewish elements in the third movement really well. However, its main drawback was the distant recording and orchestral execution that left something to be desired. Later I was quite taken with Sir Georg Solti’s Chicago Symphony account with its no-nonsense tempos and superb playing, though at times it seemed a bit too driven. I have never warmed to Bernstein’s way with the work, finding it overwrought and heavy-handed. Of his DG set of symphonies I rarely listen to the First or Fourth - though his earlier account of the latter is certainly one of the finest ever - but I have nothing but praise for the other symphonies in the set.
What makes Hannu Lintu’s new account stand out are the first-class performance of his Finnish orchestra and the superlative recorded sound. Listening with my conventional stereo setup it is stunning enough and I can only imagine how it must sound with the addition of rear channels. Lintu captures the atmosphere of the first movement well with unhurried tempos and due attention to dynamics. The many woodwind solos wonderfully portray the natural elements, and then Lintu really lets rip at the end. He adopts what to me are perfect tempos for the second movement Ländler
, keeping the folk elements to the fore and with rusticity and lightness, where Bernstein with his slow tempo in the first section makes heavy weather of the music. Lintu treats the delicate trio with simplicity and does not over-milk its sentiment. Also, Lintu observes all the repeats here and throughout the symphony unlike Kubelik.
Lintu takes the funeral march of the slow movement at a slightly slower pace than Bernstein, who unlike his second movement seems faster than I am accustomed to. On the other hand, both Bernstein and Inbal bring out the Jewish element more than Lintu does. One could argue that it doesn’t need that much emphasis to make its point and Lintu certainly performs it with great feeling. The third section, employing the same theme as that near the end of the Wayfarer Song, “ Die zwei blauen Augen,” is played sensitively with delectable woodwind, horn and strings. When the funeral march returns, Bernstein seems rather hasty compared to Lintu. Thankfully, Lintu uses a sole double bass at the beginning of this movement, contrary to the latest fashion of having the whole bass section play the march.
The long finale should begin as an attacca
immediately after the third movement ends. Lintu accomplishes this well, if not quite as startling as Inbal who is nonpareil. The Finnish Radio Symphony’s playing is outstanding through the length of the finale, with the magnificent brass giving their all. Lintu’s tempos seem ideal, not exaggerated as Bernstein’s can be, and he concludes the symphony with the final note performed on strings only—no gratuitous bass drum thud à la Bernstein and some others. In every way, this is a masterful account of this popular symphony in sumptuous sound, and one I shall return to often.
As a welcome bonus, we are given the Blumine
serenade Mahler originally intended as the symphony’s second movement. The composer wisely removed Blumine
sometime after the symphony’s première in 1889, as it did not fit in well with the rest of the work’s structure. However, it has resurfaced from time to time either in its original place or, as here, as an addendum to the symphony. By itself it is a nice piece with a lovely trumpet solo, even if it is considered by some to be a bit sentimental. I am glad Lintu included it and, as a stand-alone piece, I think it works well. It clearly receives as fine a performance here as the symphony itself.
While there are many excellent recordings available of Mahler’s First Symphony, I have no hesitation in ranking this at or near the top. Ondine’s production values as usual are not found wanting and the accompanying booklet provides a good background on the symphony with notes on the orchestra and conductor.