Mahler's Symphony No 1
The Gramophone Choice
Coupled with Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau bar Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Rafael Kubelík
DG The Originals 449 735-2GOR (67‘ · ADD · T/t) Recorded 1967. Buy from Amazon
Rafael Kubelík is essentially a poetic conductor and he gets more poetry out of this symphony than almost any other conductor who has recorded it. Although he takes the repeat of the first movement’s short exposition, it’s strange that he should ignore the single repeat sign in the Ländler when he seems so at ease with the music. Notwithstanding a fondness for generally brisk tempi in Mahler, Kubelík is never afraid of rubato here, above all in his very personally inflected account of the slow movement. This remains a delight. The finale now seems sonically a little thin, with the trumpets made to sound rather hard-pressed and the final climax failing to open out as it can in more modern recordings. The orchestral contribution is very good even if absolute precision isn’t guaranteed.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s second recording of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen has worn rather less well, the spontaneous ardour of his earlier performance (with Furtwängler and the Philharmonia for EMI) here tending to stiffen into melodrama and mannerism. There’s much beautiful singing, and he’s most attentively accompanied, but the third song, ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’, is implausibly overwrought, bordering on self-parody. By contrast, Kubelík’s unpretentious, Bohemian approach to the symphony remains perfectly valid. A corrective to the grander visions of those who conduct the music with the benefit of hindsight and the advantages of digital technology? Perhaps.
Hamburg 1893 version Coupled with Blumine
Netherlands Symphony Orchestra / Jan Willem de Vriend
Challenge Classics CC72355 (56’ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
Don’t miss this one. Where mainstream releases of the First Symphony from the likes of Sir Simon Rattle (EMI) have included the discarded Blumine movement as a species of makeweight, Jan Willem de Vriend has gone back to the earlier incarnations of the complete score into which Blumine slots more naturally as the second segment of what was then a five-movement ‘Symphonic Poem in Two Parts’. The smaller sonority isn’t primarily the consequence of employing the capable Netherlands SO. Rather it reflects the scoring Mahler required at this earlier stage in what was to prove, even for him, a long compositional process. Whatever the arguments for and against the rehabilitation of Mahler’s moonlit serenade, restored to currency only in the 1960s, this is the first recording of the complete 1893 version to acquire international distribution since that of Wyn Morris in 1970. As such it may be seen as required listening for Mahlerians.
Known principally as an early-music specialist, the Dutch conductor’s emphasis on clarity of articulation, helped by excellent sound, allows the unusual aspects of the instrumentation to register more clearly than in that older, more romantic reading. In several passages the oddities will bring you up short. Of course, where other composers might have tinkered with their scores to make them less risky in performance, Mahler, the flamboyant composer-conductor, was doing the precise opposite, acquiring more chutzpah over time. In this intermediate incarnation, the work’s opening fanfares are given, more traditionally, to muted horns, extra timpani strokes underpin the start of the Scherzo and the beginning of the funeral march has a solo cello doubling that famously exposed solo double bass. The very end of the piece would not survive unscathed either.
All fascinating stuff and unlikely to be trumped by a comparable issue. Don’t expect the grand manner and you won’t be disappointed. The music-making is winningly fresh and vigorous.