La Scena Musicale

Monday, 7 March 2016

Lebrecht Weekly - Mahler: 1st symphony (BR Klassik)

2/5 stars

Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation of Mahler’s first symphony is beautifully played by Munich’s (some say Germany’s) best orchestra and thoughtfully structured by an impressive guest conductor. I think I am safe in saying that it is conceptually different from any of the 120 Mahler Firsts on record, stretching all the way back to Dmitri Mitropolous’s towering Minnesota performance for Columbia in April 1940. And that’s no small distinction in a much-repeated piece.

Where Yannick differs from all others is in atmospherics. The opening four and a half minutes of ambient sound, where the ear searches for a clue to what’s going on, is brought here into close focus, making the opaque explicit and the nebulous utterly literal. It might well be titled Mahler Demystified.

Brisk speeds, maintained into the second movement, give little room for breath or reflection. The third movement, commencing with the child’s funeral march that turns into a drunken orgy, is muscular and emphatic, and the finale is appropriately helter-skelter. The conductor’s priority throughout appears to be beauty and simplicity above disturbance and profundity.

Mahler told conductors to interpret his music any way they liked so there’s no fault to be found in Yannick’s approach. But what is lost is how utterly revolutionary this work was and remains, how it rewrites the symphony from first principles by refusing to deliver instant gratification and by employing irony to convey multiple and contradictory narratives. Making it easy was not what Mahler had in mind.

This is a young man’s guide to Mahler’s First and some listeners will warm to its naivety and nature worship; the Munich musicians certainly sound like they are having a ball. But the absence of irony saps interest in the composer’s argument and the bustling speeds prove ultimately deceptive. Bruno Walter, in his seventies, got through the score five minutes faster than Yannick.

—Norman Lebrecht

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