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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony no. 1
Residentie Orkest den Haag/Antal Doráti
rec 31 August 1951, Kurzaal, Scheveningen, The Netherlands

It’s nice to know that record labels actually read reviews. I mused on the short, odd programming of an otherwise charming encounter on disc of Antal Doráti and Victoria de los Ángeles and within days of publication, Antal Doráti Live clarified that the album was merely the first half of a concert and sent me the rest here. It would have been surely more prudent to release the whole concert in one go but no matter. This is important. Antal Doráti is an unknown in Mahler as were, quite frankly, very few people in 1951.

First performed in 1889 in Budapest, the work received various tweaks and adjustments since its muted premiere, dropping a movement (The Blumine section) and its programmatic title of The Titan. It is a deceptively simple-looking symphony on the surface: four movements, clear themes and Beethovenian in length. It is however the extraordinary opening shot of a 30-year-old composer, fully fledged and confident in his vast all-embracing concerns of nature, death, love and catharsis. Weaving in nursery tunes, song melodies, Klezmer influences this work took the symphony in a brand-new direction. Better known as a conductor in his lifetime, Mahler was paid little attention to by the public as a composer until a good generation after his death. That was down to the advocacy of the his protégés Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, as well as outliers like Dimitri Mitropoulos, John Barbirolli and even Adrian Boult, then, by the 1960s Leonard Bernstein conducted Mahler on television and he had finally found his era.

Thus it is remarkable enough that even one recording from 1951 is available; there is a vivid and still impressive 1940 Minneapolis recording from Dimitri Mitropoulos and 1952 would see a Vox recording from Jasha Horenstein but before then only Walter, Klemperer and Mitropoulos had been troubling audiences with this difficult music. Doráti is utterly confident in the Mahler idiom: swift, brightly phrased and at home with the bundle of simultaneous ideas that Mahler presents.

It is not a stately, agonised performance; this is brisk, the phrasing often stabbed out. If it's too much, you can run to the genteel world of Haitink and Jonathan Nott but I was impressed with how lived-in and expressive Doráti is in this 'new' repertory. Even the ethereal stillness of the opening feels as if it has somewhere to dash to, peppered with bright woodwind and tense, angular phrasing. It feels more like the opening of Beethoven's 4th rather than a state of timelessness, yet it works and Doráti finds the right lilt to the Lied melody. The waltzes that underpin Mahler's tapestry of nature and catharsis really dance here. It would be best to draw a veil over the clarinet in the opening of the third movement but even taking several rough edges into consideration, Doráti gets a virtuosic performance out of the Hague forces.

It says a lot about how impressive the performance is given its turgid, boxy, flaky and distant sound. It is weirdly cleaner (initially) than the previous disc of the first half of the concert, but you need to make concessions as the microphones struggle capture the orchestra. The timpani seem to have their own microphone and the general acoustic is boxier than a bedsit bathroom. Drop-outs also lurk and soon enough the radio hiss and static we hear in the first half re-appear – which is annoying and this won't make a Building a Library recommendation, but that is only a minor barrier to appreciating music-making this intense.

Don't misunderstand me; this is a scruffy performance with some odd phrasing here and there, but this is an audacious reading, full of detail despite Doráti hurtling through the score at top speed. For a tidier and not dissimilar interpretation, I would pick Sir Georg Solti's LSO recording, a wild performance caught by Decca's finest, or even Dimitri Mitropoulos' 1940 set. It still impresses and with its brisk tempi and tidy ensemble is close to what Doráti often was in the studio. What I would give for Mercury to have let Doráti record Mahler. This rough but captivating issue gives us but a glimpse. Don't expect much in the way of documentation or fancy presentation; the content is the thing. I was gripped.

Barnaby Rayfield

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