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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D major [53.01]
Düsseldorfer Symphoniker/Ádám Fischer
rec. live, 10-12 February 2017 Tonhalle, Düsseldorf, Germany
CAVI-MUSIC 8553390 [53.01]

On CAvi-music this is the third volume in the series of complete Mahler symphonies from the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker under principal conductor Ádám Fischer having already recorded No’s 4 (vol. 2) and 7 (vol. 1). Fischer provides a fascinating note in the booklet that reveals a number of connections, “a close bond” to Mahler and the First Symphony in particular.

Mahler’s daring First Symphony has a rather protracted history. His friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner wrote that Mahler completed his First Symphony in Leipzig in the spring of 1888 although it almost certainly originates from some years earlier. It was Mahler himself who introduced the score at the Vigadó Concert Hall, Budapest in November 1889 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 the Hamburg performance Mahler provided an extensive programme note describing the score 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, his Symphony in D major. More revisions were made in 1898 prior to its publication by Weinberger, Vienna.

In the first movement Fischer and his Düsseldorfer players take the listener on a fantastic dawn journey to a shimmering woodland glade which teems with the sights and sounds of nature. Commendable is the beautiful warmth and pastoral air that in Fischer’s hands provides a convincing atmosphere of the mystery of nature. A superbly played woodwind fanfare, off-stage trumpets and piercing cuckoo calls on the clarinet all signal the awakening of spring which could easily be a metaphor for the renewal of life. With what feels like closely ideal tempi Fischer unfurls the orchestral canvas allowing room for it to breathe and expand. The strolling “wayfarer” theme sounds model too. Everything feels fresh and vibrant with Fischer underlining the brilliant details of the anomalous character of Mahler’s remarkably imaginative scoring. Unique and extraordinary the Scherzo movement is infused with rustic rhythms of the Ländler and the elegance of the waltz with Fischer’s chosen pacing feeling near perfect. Throughout colourful woodwind and vibrant brass, yelp and cluck with picturesque expression. Best of all is how Fischer manages the flow so splendidly between the various sections. From the joys of spring in the third movement the listener is transported to a disconsolate funeral procession with Fischer ensuring a lumbering, heavy tread, noticeably mournful with a curiously sarcastic undertow. Mahler’s klezmer band of Bohemian musicians is evoked in a distinctive manner feeling suitably tawdry, trivial and mocking. Striking, the thunderstorm passage is full of uncomfortable anxiety followed by a sense of abject despair. Overall there is some stunning playing and while Fischer seems to underline the triviality of the writing he doesn’t forget the importance of the whole. The Finale that Mahler once described as Dall’ Inferno al Paradiso suggests the journey from Inferno to Paradise. Beginning with a roar of anguish, the stormy introduction prefaces this highly dramatic and often thrilling music. Fischer’s reading feels exhilarating combining the stark dissonances with an unsettling sense of claustrophobia. Between the development and the recapitulation, the slow section complete with bird calls, has a brooding intensity almost spiritual in quality. This might easily be a depiction of paradise. Fischer’s conclusion Stürmisch bewegt is a moving experience, vivid and developing in weight, ending in jubilation.

Having a week ago attended an outstanding performance of the First Symphony by the Royal Concertgebouw under Daniele Gatti at Kulturpalast, Dresden I was astonished by the orchestral weight generated. Here Fischer’s striking performance doesn’t have Gatti’s power (maybe lost in the recording balance, who knows) nevertheless the internal balance of this challenging and emotionally charged, unconventional score feels close to ideal. Recorded at Tonhalle, Düsseldorf the sound quality has pleasing clarity although I wanted a slightly fuller sound with additional depth. Although recorded live there is very little unwanted noise and the applause at the conclusion has been removed. Jens Schubbe has written the fascinating and informative essay in the booklet and Ádám Fischer’s personal reflections of the score are certainly worth reading too.

From several fine recordings of the First Symphony I have narrowed the field down to three exceptional performances. First the account from Rafael Kubelik and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks on Audite. Recorded live in 1979 at Herkulessaal, Munich maestro Kubelik demonstrates naturalness and a deep perspective. Entirely convincing is the 2008 live account by Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Manfred Honeck recorded at Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh on Exton. There is also the exciting and penetrating live 2014 recording from Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Nézet-Séguin at Herkulessaal, Munich on BR-Klassik. Although without the fullness of orchestral sound of the above three recordings, under Ádám Fischer the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker is in sparkling form delivering a performance that feels fresh and distinctive with a deeply intense atmosphere that is entirely compelling.

Michael Cookson


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