Mahler Symphony No. 1; Webern Im Sommerwind
Any new Mahler symphony in the recording catalogue these days had better have a good reason behind it. Fortunately, François-Xavier Roth, the new principal conductor of the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, makes his debut recording for Hänssler with an inspired pairing of Mahler’s First with an early tone-poem of Anton Webern.
Not that the Mahler itself doesn’t have plenty to recommend it. Roth’s reading is smooth and carefully balanced, almost to a fault. The piece unfolds as if, in trying to fit Mahler carefully into the Germanic symphonic lineage of Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, Roth has consciously chosen to downplay the very personal idiosyncrasies in Mahler’s music that so many other conductors have played up.
Where the recording really succeeds, though, is in extending that musical lineage through to Anton Webern. His uncharacteristically lush Im Sommerwind of 1904 is something of an anomaly – within weeks of completing the work, Webern met Arnold Schoenberg and his music would veer in a starkly different direction – and relatively under-recorded, yet Roth gives it full attention. Rather than being positioned apologetically as an indiscretion, the Webern comes off with full Romantic force, much in the same musical mind as Mahler and fully equal to the First Symphony in its youthful enthusiasm.
Based on their first outing together, Roth’s future with the orchestra bears watching. At bottom, this respectable programme succeeds in making us contemplate a world of possibilities and of roads not taken. For a moment, you could almost conceive of a world where Schoenberg never existed.