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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) Symphony No. 1 in D major (1888; 1992 critical edition)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 1-2 March 2007, Herkulessaal, Munich BR KLASSIK900179 [54:25]
As the notes to this release tell us, “Arnold Schoenberg, in his affectionate Prague speech on Mahler in 1913…pointed out that…[t]he first symphony actually contains everything that will characterize him later on.” I have always shared Schoenberg’s admiration for this work and place it high in my hierarchy of preferred Mahler symphonies. We are hardly short of recommendable versions; I have twenty on my shelves and have waxed lyrical about so many them, from Walter to Boult to Solti to Jurowski – and even to my wild card favourite Urbanek, on a super-bargain Laserlight disc - so a new version has to stand up to scrutiny. Fortunately, this does.
If you wondered why release of this recording has been delayed since 2007, that is because it has hitherto been available only as a bonus CD forming part of the audio biography of Gustav Mahler “World and Dream” (BR-KLASSIK 900901). Perhaps it was further delayed because it would have been in direct competition with Nézet-Séguin’s live, 2014 performance with the same orchestra in the same venue, also issued on BR Klassik only three years ago, hailed on this site by two reviewers and designated as a Recording of the Month. It certainly has many of the same qualities in that it presents a gentler, more pastoral interpretation than many while also providing enormous clarity and chamber-like detail, enhanced by the of the warmth and opulence of the Herkulessaal acoustic. There is virtually no audience noise but applause has been retained at the end.
The opening must weave magic; the sustained A is Ur-music, a primaeval Alpha sounding aeons before the Omega, redolent of primordial “nothingness” but paradoxically pregnant with universal possibilities – and Jansons achieves all that triumphantly, generating all the mystery one could wish for in the first four minutes before easing gracefully into the bucolic stroll through the charmed landscape. His tread in the Scherzo is at first very deliberate but increasingly free and daring as the movement progresses, especially in the slinky, sliding Trio. The funeral march and procession are alternately marvellously louche, knowing and exotic – and the orchestral playing is sumptuous. After such elegance, the finale lacks nothing of fire or attack, although I would like a little more definition from the strings in their sawing semiquavers, which are slightly occluded by the brass. The yearning melody three and a half minutes in is played with world-weary sweetness. The brazen sonorities in the frenetic climax of fanfares are very satisfying but I think Nézet-Séguin generates marginally more tension and excitement with the same orchestra seven years later – although there’s little to choose between the performance; this is great playing.