Founding Editor Rob Barnett Editor in Chief
John Quinn Seen & Heard Editor Emeritus Bill Kenny MusicWeb Webmaster
David Barker Postmaster
Jonathan Woolf MusicWeb Founder Len Mullenger
review may be sent to:
76 Lushes Road
Essex IG10 3QB
Support us financially by purchasing this from
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) Symphony No. 1 in D major
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
Recording details not given Presto CD DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 400 033-2 [54:19]
Claudio Abbado recorded Mahler symphonies a good many times over the years. There were recordings, for DG, with the Berlin Philharmonic during his tenure as chief conductor. Latterly, with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra he made a few audio recordings for DG and rather more video recordings for Euroarts. His first set of Mahler recordings, of which this present disc is one, were made with the Chicago Symphony and the Vienna Philharmonic. I’ve collected a number of his Mahler discs over the years but I missed this one. I’m glad, therefore, that Presto Classical have licensed it for their on-demand catalogue.
You’ll look in vain in DG’s booklet for any details of when and where the recording was made – in the early days of CD the major labels in particular were surprisingly coy about including such information. However, the date of publication is given as 1982 so I infer that the sessions took place in the very early 1980s. DG’s digital recording still sounds very good indeed, nearly four decades later. There’s a wide dynamic range, thanks to which the soft music, especially in the first movement, comes over very well while the turbulence of the finale registers with great impact.
The first movement opens with a fine feeling of suspense. One slight point of detail is that the balance in the long, sustained string notes favours the basses and one hears less of the high harmonics in the violins; in most performances the reverse is true, in my experience. The success of this atmospheric opening is a tribute to the great control and discipline of the Chicago Symphony. When Mahler moves on, using the theme from his song ‘Ging heut’ morgen übers Feld’ Abbado gives the music a lovely, easy gait. His tempo is sprightly and everything sounds bright and cheerful. When Mahler returns to the opening material (around 8:30) the ultra-soft depth of the orchestral sound is wonderful; DG’s engineers capture the bass drum contributions superbly.
After such an impressive traversal of the first movement, Abbado does the second movement very well also. There’s a good, rustic feel to the main material while the Trio (3:31) is gentle and graceful. At the start of the slow movement I was relieved to hear spot-on tuning from the solo double bass. That sounds such an obvious point but you can’t always take it for granted, even with the most distinguished orchestras. The ‘Lindenbaum’ episode is played with wonderful sensitivity. My only slight reservation about this movement is to wonder if the Klezmer-influenced passages are just a trifle polite.
The first few minutes of the finale show the CSO at their fantastic best; the playing is superb. That said, I did wonder if the music was being kept on the leash a little. By comparison, Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s superb recording, albeit made live, has more fire in its belly. The Abbado version is very good on its own terms, though. A little later, the great D flat string melody is wonderfully prepared by Abbado and when the theme itself arrives (3:48) the string playing is gorgeous and refined. Once again, though, there was a nagging doubt at the back of my mind that when the melody reaches its climax just the last bit of ardour is missing. Turning to Nézet-Séguin, there I found yearning expressiveness as well as the sort of refined playing that the Chicagoans offer for Abbado; also, the French-Canadian conductor brings out rather more passion as the melody reaches its emotional peak. At 7:09 in the Abbado performance the musical maelstrom erupts again and we hear the CSO at their virtuosic best. By any standards this is superb playing and Abbado drives the music forward with a sure hand. He directs an exciting and impressive account of the finale and the closing pages are triumphant with the CSO in full cry. I don’t know whether the horn section stood up towards the end, as is often done in concert, but, my goodness, it sounds as if they were on their feet here.
There are many fine versions of Maher’s First in the catalogue but this Abbado reading is a very competitive contender, especially since the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is on such magnificent form. As I’ve indicated, the recorded sound is marvellous. We can be very glad that Presto Classical has restored this excellent disc to circulation.