MAHLER Symphony No 1 (Chailly)
At least on record, the Leipzig Gewandhaus does not have much of a Mahler tradition – Masur and Neumann briskly dispatching this and that – but the First Symphony was completed in the city, as Riccardo Chailly reminds us in an illuminating interview.
However, as Rob Cowan cautioned when reviewing the Ninth in this now almost-complete cycle, save the bonus until you’ve seen the performance, which is full of its own insights. There’s an irresistible clarity to Chailly’s illumination of Mahler’s symphonic antecedents: the deformation of Beethoven’s Ninth in the opening bars, as well as their more direct debt to the moment of sudden mystery in the middle of the finale to Brahms’s Second. The second-movement Ländler has a gruff, never coarsened impetus – ‘Un bal’ glimpsed through the dirty windows of the Bohemian tavern owned by Mahler’s violent father Bernhard – and if Berlioz is father to the First, Beethoven’s Pastoral is granddaddy to all Mahler’s infusions of symphonic form with life stories.
Underplaying the lazy drawl of the funeral march’s first klezmer episode, Chailly achieves a magical transition into the movement’s central, celestially imagined Volksweise (31'40") – a premonition of the Fourth’s heavenly pastures – so that the bitter parody of the returning klezmer band cuts to the quick. At such points, the Leipzigers’ Iron Curtain heritage of Weill and Dessau comes into its own.
Back to that interview: Chailly insists that, for him, the symphony’s final, downward-octave thrust brings no victory but only the brutal close to a chapter which proceeds directly to the trauma of the Second’s opening rites. Revisionist? That’s up to you; but the D major coda is played for all its worth, with standing horns joined (just as Mahler requests) by trumpet and trombone reinforcements. Multi-miked sound matches picture, taking you right inside Mahler’s orchestration at its most outlandish (and, indeed, Berliozian). Chailly’s Concertgebouw recording (1/97) was a high point of his Decca cycle but he’s one of those musicians who not only know that there is always more to say but who challenge themselves to communicate it.