MAHLER Symphony No. 1 • Myung-Whun Chung, cond; Seoul PO • DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 476 458-1 (55:40) Live: Seoul 11/2010
It is a relative rarity to discover a recording of the Mahler First Symphony that is unaccompanied, bravely challenging listeners to accept it on its own, without sweetening the deal with Blumine, the Wayfarer songs, or SACD multichannel sound; consumers apparently expect an added attractionRead more in new recordings of the First.
Let me be clear, then: This is a fine performance captured in vivid stereo sound. The recording opens with highly atmospheric strings, soon joined by burbling winds, noble Wagnerian horns, and offstage trumpets, effectively echoing from behind, not too distant but just enough to be properly evocative. Basses and cellos take up the Wayfarer melody, not too jaunty but growing in confidence as they are joined by the rest of the orchestra. Myung-Whun Chung takes the exposition repeat—one of only two in the Mahler symphonic canon, so it seems fitting to observe it. The tuba at the beginning of the development is a bit unsteady, but on the whole orchestral execution is at the highest level (and the sound production, under the direction of the estimable Michael Fine, offers clearly delineated instrumental definition within an expansive soundstage). The recapitulation hits the accelerator, as if unable to contain its joy.
The second movement is “Under Full Sail” indeed, as the basses really dig in and the whole movement attains a swagger that is infectious. The slow Ländler of the Trio is winsome in its dreamy nonchalance. There is rustic charm here, and the polish has been scrubbed away, to excellent effect. The third movement opens with a mournful (though appropriately acidic) bass solo; the winds have a slight edge to their commiseration, ably assisting the sense of parody at play, abetted by the very tipsy sounding Hungarian music. The quotation from the Wayfarer song is highly contrasted, injecting a note of actual feeling, free of irony.
The lightning-bolt opening of the finale provides a potent combination of cataclysm and dismay, and the sound production is as effectively apocalyptic here as the opening movement was atmospheric. The second theme in the major mode expresses a longing that is almost (Richard) Straussian, and Chung and his orchestra inject urgency as the theme continues. The hero’s struggle from Inferno to Paradiso is very effectively rendered, and the echoes of the first movement are particularly successful. Chung never lets the pulse slacken, though he isn’t simply forcing the music forward, either; this is Mahlerian storytelling at its best. The Seoul audience immediately erupts in cheers as the music ends, and the encomium is certainly merited.
There have been a few notable Firsts released in the last 10 years or so: Benjamin Zander’s on Telarc is accompanied by the Wayfarer songs sung by Christopher Maltman; Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony offer a very expansive First in atmospheric SACD sound from CSO Resound; Michael Tilson Thomas recorded the First as the second volume of his San Francisco Symphony Mahler Project, just a couple of weeks after the devastating Sixth recorded in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks. This new CD belongs in that company, with a sound production that rivals such SACDs as David Zinman on RCA (and Chung’s performance is much stronger).