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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D major
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 1 & 2 March 2007, Herkulessaal, Munich
BR KLASSIK 900179 [54.25]

It was the early 1960s when the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks’ tradition of playing Mahler was established thanks to acclaimed performances conducted by Rafael Kubelik (its chief conductor for eighteen years). Since then Mahler’s symphonies have become staples of its repertoire.

On the BR-Klassik label this new release of Mahler’s First Symphony played by the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Mariss Jansons was recorded live in 2007 at the Herkulessaal, Munich. This is the same Jansons recording contained as a bonus CD forming part of Gustav Mahler ‘Welt und Traum’ (‘World and Dream’) the label’s audio-biography by Jörg Handstein a 4 CD box (BR-Klassik 900901). The label has announced that this release is ‘aimed primarily at listeners eager to experience Mahler’s First Symphony under Mariss Jansons who would prefer to purchase the orchestral work separately from the audio biography.’ It’s probably significant that the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks’ 11 CD box set of the complete Mahler symphonies released earlier in 2019 (BR-Klassik 900714) didn’t choose to use this 2007 Jansons recording of the First. Chosen for the box was the 2014 Herkulessaal account conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin which is also available singly (BR-Klassik 900143).
A ground-breaking work, the much revised First Symphony was at one point described by Mahler as a ‘Symphonic Poem in two sections’. At its première in 1889 it was poorly received, Mahler said he felt like an outcast and friends were avoiding him. After revisions he titled the score ‘Titan’ a ‘Tone Poem in Symphonic Form’ providing an explanatory programme note. Later in 1896 Mahler removed the original Blumine movement (not performed here) and dispensed with the title, describing his now four movement score as the Symphony in D major.

Jansons conducts the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks in a performance that is entirely warm and appealing yet overall lacking in penetration. The concentration seems to be on creating a beauty of sound, like one might with Tchaikovsky, resulting in reduced character and without being engagingly distinctive. In the opening movement Jansons and his players create a romantic vision of woodland scenery, everything sounds smooth and beautiful. Striking is the climax at point 13.57 which makes quite an impact. I always feel Mahler’s glorious music is signalling the awakening of spring which could easily be a metaphor for the renewal of life. Unique and extraordinary, the Scherzo movement is infused with rustic rhythms of the Ländler and the elegance of the waltz. In the hands of some conductors the movement can be uplifting and compelling but here matters generally feel unassuming and rather bland. Matters do improve significantly when the orchestral weight is increased at point 6.55. From the joys of spring of the Scherzo in the slow movement the lumbering funeral procession under Jansons feels brooding with a sinister undertow. The section with Mahler’s Klezmer band of Bohemian musicians can feel distinctively tawdry and mocking but here under Jansons the mood of carousing is not as sharp or intense being one of frivolousness, all rather colourless. Mahler once described his finale as Dall’ Inferno al Paradiso suggesting the journey from Inferno to Paradise. In Mahler’s dramatic and often thrilling writing Jansons’ opening is memorable, creating a swirling and stormy introduction that I find exciting. There is some breathtakingly glorious music here that in the hands of Jansons seems to suggest love and passion. Jansons conclusion is exhilarating and concludes in jubilation resulting in enthusiastic applause from the audience.
Recorded for radio broadcast in the renowned acoustic of the Herkulessaal, Munich the sound quality is highly satisfying with excellent clarity and balance. Although recorded live there is very little unwanted noise to worry about and I’m pleased that the enthusiastic applause at the conclusion has been left in. There is a helpful essay in the booklet by Rüdiger Heinze together with a reproduction of Mahler’s explanatory programme notes (in an English translation) that were used for performances in Hamburg (1893) and Weimar (1894).

From hearing a substantial number of fine recordings of the First I have been narrowing the field down to a handful that I find most rewarding. However, I don’t find this performance from Jansons as sufficiently involving for inclusion in such elevated company. Lately, I have been auditioning on CD a recording that I originally treasured on vinyl LP (HMV Concert Classics/EMI) from Carlo Maria Guilini conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra which served as my pathway into Mahler. Guilini was recorded in 1971 at Medinah Temple, Chicago and with its remastering sounds as fresh and captivating today as it did when I first encountered the recording in the early 1970s. There is also the outstanding live account from Rafael Kubelik and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks on Audite. Demonstrating naturalness and a deep perspective Kubelik was recorded in November 1979 at Herkulessaal, Munich. From 1983 at Orchestra Hall, Chicago I enjoy playing the captivating digital account from Georg Solti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Decca ‘The Originals’. Of the more recent recordings there is the most impressive account (mentioned above) from Yannick Nézet-Séguin with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. Nézet-Séguin’s highly persuasive performance was recorded live in 2014 at Herkulessaal, Munich. Recently, I am relishing playing the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker under Ádám Fischer who deliver a fresh and distinctive performance that feels entirely compelling. Fischer is recorded live in 2017 at Tonhalle, Düsseldorf on CAvi-music.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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