Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is the performance I have been waiting for. Twenty years separate it from Bemstein's earlier account with the NYPO (CBS, now mid-price)— and if you feel as I do, you'll view it as a 20-year rehearsal period to bring the reading to full maturity. Bernstein's basic view of the piece has undergone very little change in the interim. Fundamentals such as tempos remain more or less consistent (I still don't see eye to eye with him over the opening of the third movement—more on that anon), though certain phrases have naturally filled out and the expression is appreciably freer and easier now. In a sense, the piece sounds newer, and that's quite an achievement after 20 years. How acutely Bernstein still hears Mahler's early-morning silence.
The rising sixth for two oboes in bar 15 is like a deep intake of breath from this rapt observer; the richly harmonized horns some bars later are truly espressivo, their dreamy reverie broken only by the sudden if pizzicatos (like a startled animal) which Bernstein points up so vividly a bar later. I love, too, the way in which the chiming harp really tells as we move into the uneasy middle section (pity about the thump in the orchestra at this point): the chilling entry of tuba and bass drum at fig. 13 casts an appropriately long and ominous shadow across the proceedings. All this is most beautifully and subtly chronicled by the Concertgebouw players. How warmly and generously their strings phrase the wayfarer's music: it takes a great Mahler orchestra and a great Mahler conductor to imply so much suppleness and freedom within the bar without actually labouring the rubato. Their exhilaration in the coda (the euphoric explosion of brass fanfares is hair-raising) is second to none, and again it is the way in which the phrasing spontaneously sings that proves so uplifting.
Happily Bernstein hasn't re-thought his heavy, ungainly tempo for the scherzo. The trenchant accenting is what makes for the rhythmic vigour here: just listen to the second violins, violas and cellos at fig. 7 (1'59") with basses stomping heavily on the downbeat. Needless to say, Bernstein gilds the proverbial lily somewhat in the trio: 'Viennese' isn't the word, and he obviously believes (and why not?) that Mahler simply felt it unnecessary to mark in all the portamento—the opening violin phrases being one case in point. As I hinted earlier, I briefly part company with Bernstein over his quickish pacing of the Huntsman's funeral procession. Parody it may be, but Mahler does specify "grave" and "ceremonious" and these are not words that would readily spring to mind were I making my first acquaintance with the piece. Admittedly Bernstein is able to convey a convincing air of naivety at this tempo and his doublebass soloist has no chance of producing too beautiful a sound, as some players and conductors are wont to do. The seedy, cadaverous complexion of the solo is caught to perfection. As indeed are the tawdry colours of the gipsy-cumcafé music in all its corny schmalz. I particularly like the brassy, slightly flattened trumpet sound.
But I reserve my greatest enthusiasm for the finale; I've never heard an account like it. Masterly control and abandon (such as could only happen in a live performance) go hand in hand: the ferocious onslaught of the opening pages, the touch of rhetoric in the brass declamations of bars 6 and 19, the intense energy in the strings at fig. 11 (2'40"). And then, in repose, the lovingly attended second subject where Bernstein's light and shade in phrasing and dynamics is uniquely affecting. In the spare, expectant bars that follow, the tonal pallor he conveys is extraordinary, the sudden crescendo (in tremolando strings) from p to fff (so often something of a damp squib) absolutely electrifying. And so on to the tumultuous conclusion. I'm going to turn a deaf ear to the added timpani and bass drum on the final crotchet. This is a great performance of Mahler's first brave symphonic essay, impressively caught on the wing by DG's production team. I'd say it was an almost impossible act to follow.
-- Gramophone [3/1989]
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 1 in D major "Titan" by Gustav Mahler
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Date of Recording: 10/1987
Venue: Live Amsterdam Concertgebouw
Length: 57 Minutes 0 Secs.
Notes: Composition written: Leipzig, Germany (1888).
Composition revised: Germany (1896).
Symphony No.1 In D: 1. Langsam. Schleppend
Symphony No.1 In D: 2. Kräftig bewegt
Symphony No.1 In D: 3. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen
Symphony No.1 In D: 4. Stürmisch bewegt
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