09 Sep 2009

Mahler: Symphony no. 1

Among the important recent cycles of Mahler’s symphonies is the one underway by Valery Gergiev with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Still in process, the recordings of Symphonies nos. 2, 3, 6, and 7 have been issued to date, with the release of Symphony no. 8 immanent. (Gergiev included the Adagio of the unfinished Tenth Symphony with the recording of Symphony no. 2). In addition, the recently issued CD of the First Symphony stems from live performances given in January 2008 at the Barbican, London. From the outset the sound is vivid, and it matches the somewhat vibrant approach Valery Gergiev has taken for the first movement. Yet the rather quick tempos do not always match the character of the music As ambiguous as the marking “Wie ein Naturlaut” (“like a sound in nature”) may be, the suggestion is usually taken to allow the opening to take shape slowly. Instead of the kind of atmospheric introduction which other conductors achieve, the pacing of the short ideas that follow moves to the main theme of the movement very quickly. As clear as the performance is, the quick tempos do not allow the cantabile nature of the first theme emerge, as it should with its evocation of the second song from the cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, “Ging heut’ morgen ├╝bers Feld.” While it has some very effective moments, the absence of such connections to the innate vocality of the first movement makes the piece seem disconnected from the style associated with Mahler’s music.

With the second movement, though, Gergiev maintains his crisp tempos, but here it fits better into the style of the piece. The lyrical theme of the second section is, on the other hand, played with such a decided slowness that the sense of tempo sometimes escapes. Nevertheless, the playing is precise and clean, but sometimes more percussive sounding than occurs in other performances. In this movement, though, the dynamic contrasts are pronounced nicely and support the musical structure well. Within the interplay of dynamics and articulation, the orchestral colors represent the score well, with the brass prominent without overbalancing the strings.

Such sensitivity to the timbre is crucial to the third movement, which begins almost imperceptibly. The canon on the tune “Bruder Martin” is paced nicely, with the wood line supporting the contrapuntal texture nicely. With the second section, the portion which Mahler once characterized as suggesting Bohemian town musicians, the popular, or folk-like idiom is apparent without being exaggerated. Gergiev is also good to shade the tempos nicely, and with them the solo instruments. The solo trumpet is notable for the shading that occurs here, and the overall effect is a fine representation of the score. In the middle section, the one in which Mahler develops melodic ideas from “Die zwei blauen Eigen,” the final song of his cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, offers a fine contrast to the other ideas in the movement. Yet the sound levels of the final portion of the movement fade too soon.

Such a dramatic change in dynamic level does offer a setup for the opening of the Finale, which begins with a fine sense of drama. While tempos are not problematic for this movement, the sound levels are sometimes overbalanced. The extremes of dynamic level sometimes result in a fast-and-loud or slow-and-quiet dialectic. What needs to emerge in this movement are more sustained textures in which tone colors, dynamic levels, and articulations combine to create the effects Mahler scored. As with the other movements, the playing is satisfying throughout, but the nuances betray over- and understatement. The kind of sustained effects which Gergiev brought to his recent recording of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, for example, would work well here. The concluding in which the scalar theme that evokes for some Handel’s chorus “And he shall reign forever and ever,” as Stephen Johnson mentions in his liner notes, should emerge from the other ideas in the movement. Here, though, is seems disconnected from the larger structure. As much as the pacing of the concluding section is dramatic, the final two notes seem, perhaps, not sufficiently assertive.

Part of Gergiev’s cycle of Mahler’s symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra, this recording has its merits, but it also raises questions about stylistic issues in performing this important early work by Mahler. The roles of tempo, thematic cohesion, and dynamic contrasts, and other elements are important to the effective execution of this work. As familiar as Mahler’s First Symphony may be to modern audiences, it remains a demanding score on the part of the interpreter. Again, as a live performance, this recording differs from some of the studio recordings, with exciting playing on the part of the London Symphony Orchestra.

James L. Zychowicz