I’ve always suspected that Mahler had a secret model for his First Symphony. The Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, written sixty years earlier, also includes reveries and passions, surreal waltzes, a jaunt in the country, a nightmarish march, an evocation of hell, and many sounds that audiences weren’t used to hearing from an orchestra. More to the point, Berlioz used a mythologized version of his own life as the program, and intended the symphony as a bold gesture that would “[take] up music where Beethoven had left it.” Mahler’s liberating decision to base his symphony on his own autobiography follows from Berlioz’s example, as does his ambition to scale Olympus. The fourth movement’s opening flourish deliberately invokes the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, as if Mahler too meant to boldly explore a sound world that Beethoven, for all his genius, could hardly have imagined.
Appropriately, it is Mahler’s daring and audacity that Benjamin Zander celebrates in this spectacular new recording. From the sustained pianissimo that begins the work to the brazen tumult that ends it (in which Mahler instructs the horns to drown out the rest of the orchestra, even the trumpets), Zander and the Philharmonia are equal to the symphony’s kaleidoscopic range of expression. Though slightly less intense than either Bernstein with the Concertgebouw on DG or Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony ( the live performance on Audite, not the rougher-sounding studio recording on DG), Zander convincingly emphasizes the youthfulness and freshness of Mahler’s inspiration, and does so without any trace of mannerism. Though Zander can be “neurotic” when the score calls for it, overall the tone here is assertive, joyful and energetic. In this performance the final victory is never in doubt.
As in his other Mahler recordings, Zander sustains a varied pulse without undue haste or exaggeration. In his hands the first movement seems especially buoyant and spontaneous, and the dance rhythms of the scherzo are given an infectious, exhilarating lilt. It’s disappointing how many conductors, even some of the greatest, tend to smooth over the parodistic and grotesque elements of the funeral march, but (very much like Bernstein and Kubelik in this respect) Zander lets us know exactly why contemporary audiences found this movement shocking. In the finale, Zander doesn’t find either heaven or hell, but an act of Ein Heldenleben-like self-definition. So maybe it’s good to be reminded that Strauss too was a major influence. In this case, Zander’s steady tempos help to avoid the episodic lurching of too many other performances. Here for once the entire movement is seamlessly wrought, leading to a sumptuously grand and forceful climax.
In brief, this triumphalist Mahler First belongs on the top shelf beside Bernstein, Kubelik, Giulini and Walter. But Zander also has the benefit of Jack Renner’s exemplary engineering, which convincingly deploys a hundred or so musicians in your listening space. This is the best-sounding Mahler First I’ve heard, and audiophiles wanting a demonstration-quality orchestral performance to test their systems need look no further. In this recording, ppp and fff both register with equal conviction. Mahler’s genius for orchestration has never been more dramatically exposed.
Though there are several Songs of a Wayfarer recordings that I prefer to this one (Thomas Quasthoff with Boulez, for example), Christopher Maltman’s lighter baritone suits the character of the music well. His sensitive, intelligent phrasing is well supported by Zander’s expressive accompaniment. As for the Philharmonia, let us not forget that they learned their Mahler from Klemperer, who learned it from Mahler himself. Under Zander’s leadership they play with rapture and authority.
Since Zander, like Bernstein before him, wants us to understand what we’re hearing, there’s a “pre-concert” lecture on the music that is both informative and entertaining. And like Bruno Walter, the Mahler conductor he most closely resembles, Zander omits the first movement repeat.
Click here to listen to Mahler: Symphony no. 1.
Click here to listen to Mahler: Songs of a Wayfarer.