Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D major (1888, rev. 1896) [53:25]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. live, 26-27 June 2014, Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany
BR KLASSIK 900143 [53:25]
The Québec-born conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin is
something of a conundrum. I was very impressed by his debut with the
Berliner Philharmoniker a few years ago – available to watch via
The Digital Concert Hall – but his subsequent recordings have
been variable to say the least. I didn’t care for his idiosyncratic
Symphonie fantastique or his misjudged Heldenleben,
both with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic; however, he made amends
with fine accounts of Poulenc’s Organ Concerto and Saint-Saëns’
Third Symphony (review).
Dominy Clements was very complimentary about this conductor’s
recent Mahler Tenth - review
- but despite a fresh and wonderfully allusive first movement I found
the performance very uneven.
Trouble is, there’s just so much competition where Mahler is concerned;
even No. 10, in its various performing versions, has done quite well
in recent years. However, it’s No. 1 that’s still the most
popular, with around 160 versions listed in the catalogue. The last
two recordings of the First to come my way were Lorin Maazel’s
and Thierry Fischer’s on Reference;
alternately perverse and just plain dull neither comes even close to
ousting old favourites. Among them are James Levine (RCA-Sony), Leonard
Bernstein (CBS-Sony and Deutsche Grammophon) and, in particular, the
live Klaus Tennstedt (BBC
Legends). These are all confident, insightful performances that,
even after all this time, can’t fail to immerse and excite.
One shouldn’t overlook Rafael Kubelik’s 1967 studio version
– part of his complete traversal for DG
– or his live 1979 one for Audite.
His direct, unsentimental approach to Mahler may seem a trifle restrained
compared with, say, that of the more volatile Bernstein, but there’s
no denying the venerable Czech has a very special way with this music.
In both recordings of the First he’s helped in no small measure
by the peerless playing of ‘his’ Bavarians; clearly this
is a band with impeccable credentials, but can that history work in
Nézet-Séguin’s favour as well?
Emphatically, yes. The symphony’s mysterious opening has a thrilling
sense of anticipation, while the all-important horns are beautifully
blended and atmospherically placed. Then again all these players respond
to this glorious score with such ease and affection. As if that weren’t
enough the recording is warm, deep and nicely detailed. Nézet-Séguin
gets the tempo relationships just right, and that allows the narrative
to unfold in the most natural and seamless way. Moreover, those ear-pricking
epiphanies – the cuckoo calls, the moment our hero steps from
gloom to glade – are superbly done. Internal balances are very
well judged, too.
Goodness, this is shaping up to be an exceptional First, so full of
apt imagination and bucolic charm. The Bavarian Radio engineers certainly
know their stuff; perspectives are believable, tuttis are suitably expansive
and Mahler's telling instrumental touches are as clear as one could
wish. Take those quiet bass-drum thuds, so often obscured or just too
prominent; I simply can’t recall a performance where they have
such a subtle yet hair-raising presence as they do here. As a reading
Nézet-Séguin's reminds me of Tennstedt's: both are taut, colourful,
ideally shaped and very idiomatic.
It just gets better. The rhythms of the Ländler-laced second
movement are beautifully sprung and the narrative thread remains unbroken
throughout. Happily, there’s less of the dynamic manipulation
– exaggerated contrasts, over-inflected phrases – that spoilt
Nézet-Séguin's Berlioz and Strauss for me. Yes, there are glimpses of
that bend and tweak in the darkly fantastical cortège; that said, it’s
not too intrusive. More important, Nézet-Séguin’s fairly brisk
but finely nuanced reading doesn’t sacrifice the music’s
essential strangeness. Incidentally, those very audible tam-tam shivers
are just marvellous, bringing extra tingle to the mix.
The finale gets off to a truly thunderous start – what pent-up
tension and, oh, what a splendid bass drum – and thereafter Nézet-Séguin
doesn’t let up. His unearthing skills – so amply demonstrated
in his probing account of the Poulenc concerto – are just as useful
here. In particualr it’s the more inward moments that thrilled
and moved me most, for they’re meltingly done. The Bavarian strings
are as silky as one could wish, but it’s the orchestra’s
enviable blend of aristocracy and latent atavism that really defines
the performance at this point. There’s none of the sag or striations
that disfigure lesser readings; in that respect this finale is very
which also has uncommon clarity and impetus.
Even more remarkable is the fact that Nézet-Séguin’s Mahler 1
is rooted in such life-giving soil, and that's something one doesn’t
sense with, say, Maazel or Fischer. Indeed, this new recording is a welcome
reminder of just how fecund this score really is. What a pleasure it
is when – as here – the conductor metaphorically plunges
his hands deep into the dark loam, revelling in its richness and promise.
Nézet-Séguin and his orchestra build to a truly seismic close, the Bavarians
playing with all the passion and power they can muster. Not surprisingly
the engineers cope admirably with it all. The applause has been edited
out, but if I'd been there I'd have roared my approval.
An electrifying Mahler First, superbly played and recorded; one of the
best things I’ve heard this year.