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Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.1 (Part 1)

Continued here: "Gustav Mahler — Symphony No.1 (Part 2)"

Johannes Brahms had just finished his Third Symphony and not yet embarked on his Fourth when Mahler sat down in 1884 to begin composing his First Symphony, not then already called—or thought of as—a “First Symphony”. It took Mahler four years to bring the first, revised version to a close. Toscanini had by now conducted his first opera in Italy and Brahms, to stick with him, finished his Double Concerto. On November 20th, 1889 Mahler premiered the work to a baffled Budapest audience that could make little of the first three movements, and less still of the two that followed in the second part. The symphony-to-be was called “Symphoniai költemény két részben” (Symphonic Poem in Two Parts) and included an Andante as a second movement that Mahler had culled from earlier incidental music (“The Trumpeter of Säkkingen”) he had written whileKapellmeister in Kassel.


When he performed the symphony again on October 27th, 1893 in Hamburg, significantly revised and still notably different from today’s commonly played version, new titles were added. The slow movement was now called “Blumine”, and the symphony had acquired the moniker “Titan”. That’s not a reference to the parents of the Greek Gods (as tempting an idea that might be), but to a novel by one of Mahler’s favorite authors, Jean Paul. That particular “Titan” is an obstacle-hurdling artistic genius, a romantic idealist—which is in line with the original romantic program Mahler had constructed. There are more references to Jean Paul all over the symphony: The title “Blumine” is taken from an 1827 book of collected Jean Paul stories. Ditto the programmatic subtitle of the first movement (“Flower-, Fruit-, and Thornpieces”). And the woodcut “The Hunter’s Funeral” (pictured below) that inspired the warped funeral march of the Symphony is by Moritz von Schwind—after Jacques Callot—published in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Fantasiestücke in the manner of Callot… with a preamble by—Jean Paul.

The third performance in Weimar (June 3rd, 1894) still saw the “Blumine” movement (now called “Bluminenkapitel”), but already he had second and third thoughts about it. The negative review singling out “Blumine” might not even have been necessary for Mahler to discard and disown it. He went on to further revise the symphony, modifying the instrumentation, adding the exposition repeat in the first movement and another repeat in the Scherzo, and assigning the third movement’s Frère Jacques-ditty from the whole group of double basses to “solo”… an indication which is, as of late, reversed or re-interpreted as meaning a ‘solo’ for the entire group of double basses, assuming they are capable of playing the difficult part on the bass’ highest register, which back then they were not.

“Blumine”, which is sometimes included in, or attached to, recordings of the 1906/10 version of the First Symphony (Frank BrieffEugene OrmandySeijiOzawaJames JuddSimon RattleDavid ZinmanZubin Mehta IINeeme Järvi, Michael Halászamong them), makes more sense as part of the work to which it actually belonged, namely the 1893 Hamburg version. Wyn Morris, Hiroshi Wakasugi, Ole Kristian Ruud, Roger Norrington [?], and Antony Hermus recorded that or the “Weimar” version (no differences that I am aware of). Then again Mahler authority Donald Mitchell, after expressing sympathy for occasional “Blumine”-performances, says about those efforts in The Wunderhorn Years: “As for those who laboriously reconstruct a set of performing materials from the 1893 [score] and then solemnly play an orchestration much of which Mahler spent years revising and refining—this seems to me to be musicology (if that’s what it is) run mad.” I tend toward playing “Blumine” as a stand-alone orchestral movement as the most satisfactory solution, and I would go to Paavo Järvi for that purpose, who has thrown together a very smart program of four ‘stand-alone’ Mahler movements for Virgin Classics (ionarts review here). Below you will find me using “Titan” interchangably with "Symphony No.1", which is wrong but common enough. Perhaps it will prepare you to not trust just every Titan that comes your way to be the real deal.

M. v. Schwind: “Wie die Thiere den Jäger begraben”. Wood engraving after a drawing by J. Callot. From: Münchener Bilderbogen No. 44 “Die guten Freunde” (Munich, 1850)
(Click to enlarge)

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.1,
R.Kubelik / BRSO

In Symphony No.1, the “Titan”, the choice for a first recording is fairly uncontroversial and surprisingly easy: Rafael Kubelik’s unfussy, energetic style suits this early symphony—in some ways very far from the modern sound world of later Mahler—extremely well while at the same time inoculating it against excess. Kubelik was the first conductor to mount a complete Mahler cycle (with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra) and his studio recording of the 9 + Adagio, the first such to be conceived and finished as a cycle, still holds up well. His first is available separately on DG Originals, and rightly so. If there is anything to be objected to, it’s that he skips the first repeat of the Scherzo and that the sound is a tad shallow, minimally brittle. I have heard (very few) people complain about woodwind vibrato… it’s a complaint I don’t quite follow or share.

This would be the first choice, too, were it not for a later recording of the same conductor and orchestra. A one-off broadcast recording of the Bavarian Radio from November 2nd 1979 on Audite finds Kubelik in very similar mood and his band in better form yet. The third movement is impossibly intimate and, even with all ritardandos and accelerandos, guided by a gentle, unintrusive pulse. It is, for all practical purposes, a mistake-free performance—not always the case in these unpatched Kubelik live performances. But most importantly, the sound is deeper, richer and altogether better than one might imagine from a live recording. Audience noise—a little rustle between the second and third movement—is negligible. Because DG’s inclusion of the Songs of a Wayfarer with Fischer-Dieskau makes for an enticing filler, the choice between the two recordings isn’t easy. Their inclusion may not, on its own, justify having both recordings, but should make those feel better who don’t have the Audite recording.

The heaviest among the “Titans” comes courtesy of Bernstein’s second version with the Concertgebouw. An imposing, impressive, massive, self-important recording, the impact of which is undeniable. Portentous for sure, it ends with a bang. (Literally: Bernstein accentuates the very last note with a spurious bang on the kettle-drum.) It can drive purists mad and delight those who are looking for a show in what can admittedly be seen as Mahler’s showiest symphony. Those who won’t stand for that, might enjoy Boulez bringing out the best in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (so much more appropriate than the possibly impressive, but completely unidiomatic and foursquare Solti version with the same band). This is not a “cool” Boulez reading… although wherever Bernstein parades the music around, Boulez can tend towards mild understatement in the finale. (Solti’s earlier account (1964) with the London Symphony Orchestra is altogether a happier, more eager affair than his remake—good enough to keep listening to, not good enough to seek out.) The most recent CSO recording with Bernard Haitink—on their own “CSO Resound” label ()—is excellent again; more along the lines of Pierre Boulez’. Although Haitink is slightly on the relaxed side as regards tempos, he packs a punch and thrills: the sound is fantastic, the brass glorious (but still tasteful, because Haitink doesn’t give in to the temptation of letting them do their tacky, blazing thing), the rhythms swinging, the eruptions explosive. At the last minute this reading supplanted the Boulez/CSO recording in the “American Cycle” played in the first week of Classical WETA’s Mahler Month.


The font used in the title is “ITC Stoclet Light”

Find a list of the ex-WETA Mahler Posts here:

Gustav Mahler. Postcard by Hans Boehler. Courtesy of the Carnegie Archives


Anonymous said...

What are your thoughts on having the horns play with their bells in the air at the end of the last movement? I've heard it done that way once or twice, and I found it exhilarating (the raucous sound makes the moment). But I don't think I've heard a recording like that. (And having looked at the score, I don't think it's what Mahler intended, since the direction applies to the winds.)

jfl said...

I think it's a visual gimmick (it certainly is with the woodwinds, where the sound doesn't come out of the bells, anyway), and not an acoustic one...