BlueMahler’s intensely subjective and brief presentation of his personally ideal recorded cycle of the Gustav Mahler symphonies.
Arnold Schoenberg claimed all that is representative of Mahler is to be found in his First Symphony and I sure as hell am not one to argue with Schoenberg, so the first is the inevitable place to start. Naturally, no single interpretation can say everything there is to say, so here are a choice seven performances and I will start with Leonard Bernstein.
Bernstein is to Mahler what Wilhelm Furtwangler was to Beethoven during the war years. Since the days of Bernstein, the recorded Mahler cycle has become annoyingly faddish, but, in the end, Bernstein’s Mahler remains one of the most vital for the ages. In Bernstein’s DG recording with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, this legendary conductor flings off any idea of a hair shirt; he is buoyant, bright, and contagiously enthusiastic. After the first two bucolic movements, Bernstein invests the funeral march with humor, aplomb, and zest; a bit like the adolescent enthusiasm for Edgar Allan Poe. Bernstein follows the march with a prophetic finale that literally sears everything in sight.
Rafael Kubelik leads the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in a poetic performance which milks every ounce of color from the composer’s palette. It will wash right over you. The Marketing team at DG knew what they were doing when they chose a painting from Gustav Klimt for the cover. This performance has had a considerable reputation since its release. It is well deserved.
Pierre Boulez’ Mahler cycle has been a controversial and debated one. Still, even some of Boulez’ most sever critics sat up for this one. Boulez and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra do not shy away from the music’s romantic nature at all. Far from an academic reading, this performance is a serious challenge to Bernstein’s in sheer, thrill-a- minute energy. Keep an eye out for any loose putty on the wall when listening to the final movement. As a bonus, the sound is absolutely sumptuous.
Like Boulez, Kubelik, and Scherchen (below), the German conductor Michael Gielen has a reputation as a “bad boy” advocate for “those crazy modernists.” This makes Gielen an ideal interpreter of the Mahler First. Not surprisingly, Gielen, with his SWR Baden-Baden and Freiberg Symphony Orchestra, revels in the funeral march, but they do not short-shift the rest of the work. As with Boulez and Bernstein, Gielen accelerates in the finale and he invests his reading with a unique air of edgy, nervous energy.
Gielen’s couplings in his Mahler cycle have been dismissed as idiosyncratic, unnecessary, and downright weird. He pairs the Mahler first with Charles Ives’ “Unanswered Question” and “Central Park in the Dark.” Although Gielen cannot match Bernstein in the Ives repertoire, his way with this composer is quite admirable. Some may find the pairing to be provocative, but the transition from Mahler to Ives feels conceptually natural.
Riccardo Chailly’s Mahler First with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra fits with the 1990’s trend towards a more modern interpretation of the composer’s art, although Chailly does not eschew Mahler’s romantic leanings. This First is a fine representation of Chailly’s beautifully slick cycle. There may not be any new insights here, but with detail this sensuously transparent, it hardly matters. The pairing with Alban Berg’s color- saturated Sonata, opus 1 is an even more welcome bonus, especially since Chailly’s way with Berg is comparable to Karajan’s. In all, a worthy disc in the best of modern sound. Hopefully, the Decca engineers got a well-deserved bonus for their work here. Additionally, the packaging, with beautifully apt cover art by Mark Jackson, is, hands down, the best for any Mahler Cycle, bar none.
At the opposite end of Chailly: Hermann Scherchen could possibly be “the” definition of the word “idiosyncratic” and his unique, legendary way with music-making has earned him a small, but rabidly devout following. Scherchen was an early, passionate advocate of Mahler. Scherchen was also an even more pronounced, intense advocate of Arnold Schoenberg and this recording of the First with the Royal Philharmonic , on the Westminster label, reveals Scherchen’s Mahlerian strengths filtered through a Schoenberg-like sensibility.
Scherchen’s handling of the first movements is downright ethereal and contemplative, while the second is jagged and darkly hued. True to form, Scherchen takes the gallows humor of the funeral march dead serious, so much so, one can almost sense his expressionist cackling. The finale is nothing less than a whipped frenzy and from that we seamlessly move into his recording of the adagio from the 10th symphony (with the Vienna State Orchestra) . This is a perfect pairing, as Scherchen clearly plunges into the surreal nature of this other-worldly music with unbridled mania.
If consummate craftsmanship trumps artistic insight, then there is no place for the likes of Jascha Horenstein. Horenstein was a maverick who seems to have deliberately shot his own career in the foot. He sought no permanent appointment, stubbornly stuck to his preferred repertoire, was, by most accounts, “difficult” and usually was forced to work with lesser orchestras and recording standards. However, it was Horenstein’s visionary, defiant, ahead of his time, impassioned championship of Bruckner and Mahler, and his lone wolf approach, that has earned him a considerable cult reputation.
This Horenstein Mahler First, with the London Symphony Orchestra, is among the most legendary of Horenstein’s Mahler recordings. Oddly, for a studio recording, it has an exploratory feeling, one of spontaneity and discovery. Horenstein’s personality is stamped all over this performance. It is poetry-making of the highest excess, making this a gripping experience and the final movement has rarely sounded so ecstatic.