INKPOT#54 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: MAHLER Symphony No.1. Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. DFD/BavarianRSO/Kubelik (DG Originals)

GUSTAV MAHLER (1860-1911)

Symphony No.1 in D major “Titan”
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

Songs of a Wayfarer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau baritone
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Rafael Kubelik

DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON Originals 449 735-2
[66’33”] mid-price

Includes libretto in German with English, French and Italian translations.

by Derek Lim

Gustav Mahler First encounters are often the most memorable ones – first impressions last. Quite some time ago, I remember picking up my first Mahler symphony CD – it was Solti’s recording of the First with the LSO, on Decca. Soon, it went with me wherever I went – on the bus on my way to work, on my way back, whenever I had a little time I’d put the CD on and listen.

I remember the first time I listened to it – the first movement. It was at night and I was at my table. I put it on, and started listening. A shiver ran down my spine, and it still does today even when I think about it. Why? Because of the pure magic of orchestra’s sound! Eight octaves of harmonics, creating this deep-in-the-night feel, the darkest time of the night where everything is sleeping but the crickets. And then when the horn fanfares and the winds come in “cuckooing” away… sheer bliss.

Mahler believed that the symphony was like a world in itself – he once told Sibelius that famous quote “Die Symphonie muss sein wie der Welt – es muss alles umfassen”. “The symphony must be like the world – it must embrace everything.” And so his symphonies do. Compared to the later symphonies, the First is comparatively weak – but I use this word advisedly since anything by Mahler that is weak is still immense. The First sprang from the lieder-cycle Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen (“Songs of the Wayfarer”), a beautiful work that arose out of a love affair with a soprano that didn’t quite work out. This song cycle is intimately related to the symphony thematically and offers some idea of what Mahler was thinking when he wrote it.

Detail from 'Classical Landscape' by van Ruysdael The first movement of the symphony is a marvelous conception, and is in itself most rewarding to listen to. It starts in the deepest of the night. Then fanfares come in and the day starts to wake up. The main tune in the first movement is from the second song of the Gesellen Lieder, “Ging’ heut’ morgens bers Feld” (“Today I went into the field”), a gentle country walking tune. The song itself is most magical – when I listen to it I am transported into a world where the birds still talk and the flowers greet the tired traveler with its gentle bells – it is child-like and naive and wide-eyed all at once. When one reaches the end of the wonderful song, the naivity of the beginning makes the sorrow seem so much more intense.

The second movement features Mahler’s favorite Lndler (pronounced “LAYntler”) form for the scherzo. The Lndler is a time dance much like the waltz which it later developed into. It is more bucolic, though, and slower – one can almost imagine country peasants pairing up, with their local village musicans providing the music to dance to. Do you know Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony? The third movement before the storm when the villagers dance? That’s very much like a Lndler. Only this one’s more bouncy and more fun! The scherzo usually has a main tune and then a different one, called the trio, and then the main tune again. In this scherzo, the “different” tune is a more gentle, more elegant dance. But it doesn’t last long and soon the rumbuctious, infectiously tap-your-foot main dance is back. The movement abounds with musical surprises and is wonderfully orchestrated.

Detail from central panel of 'The Garden of Earthly Delights' by Hieronymus Bosch The third movement is the weird one. Mahler had a penchant for funeral marches in his symphonies, and this, his first, is but one of many. Do you know the children’s tune “Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping? Brother John, Brother John”? This movement uses that melody but then transforms it into the minor. The double bass plays this eerie little line over the timpani. Then the rest of the orchestra comes in and suddenly there’s a burst of Jews tapping their feet, dancing a lively dance. (Mahler must have loved to dance) The main picture he had in mind when he composed this was that of a little procession of animals mourning the death of a beloved hunter. (whether this make sense is very debatable!).

Above: Detail from central panel of “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (c.1500-10)
by Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516)

The mood then changes to the slow and dreamy middle section with the harp and the violins playing in harmony a beautiful wistful melody – this is from the last song of the Gesellen Lieder, where the traveler lies under a tree and falls asleep. Then the bass melody comes back, and there’s a myriad of colour when all the Jewish melodies you thought you’d ever hear comes in in one huge mix. The movement ends in a quiet, somewhat resigned manner.

Close your eyes now and take a deep breath – and hold it! The last movement, originally subtitled “From Inferno to Paridiso” (after the names of volumes from Dante’s Divine Comedy – Mahler deleted all his subtitles eventually) starts with a gigantic cymbal crash and then a combined cry of pain, shooting out “like the forked tongue of a serpent” (Mahler). The whole of this movement is melody-rich as well, and it is long and sprawling, but Mahler needed this to convey the sense of struggle. There is climax after climax, and this finale is anathema to the conductor who doesn’t know how to shape it. There are very lyrical, introverted sections where one can just enjoy the music going on around oneself. After the repeated struggles (against destiny?) the movement ends in a stunningly written coda – the music bristles with tension and excitement, and moves towards its ultimate, hard-fought triumph.

Rafael KubelikThe Recording
Although Solti’s recording of the work was my very first, I have come to consider Kubelik’s version as my very favorite. This is as fine a performance of the First Symphony as we are ever likely to get. In every way a balanced reading, Kubelik brings such poetic insights to the work that we would be hard pressed to find fault with it. (Incredibly he improved on this later with a live performance – in terrific sound! – which isn’t unfortunately available commercially – but this is a natural second-best) Sample on this recording some of his numerous, winningly convincing rubato. Here is a conductor who was not as acclaimed as he should have been.

The first movement is well-recorded, and the trumpets and horns seem really far away at the beginning. The orchestra clearly enjoys playing for Kubelik (left), their long-time associate in music-making, and their playing is second to none.

The second movement Lndler really dances! Very well-played and with a definite sense of propulsion, this movement also brings out all the Mahlerian surprises. They play in a very sweet, Viennese style.

The trumpets in the third movement sound as if they were the crudest street musicians, which is exactly how it should sound. They play in a jaunty manner, which brings a kind of pathos to the funeral march.

The fourth movement is one of the most terrically paced accouts of this movement that I have heard. The opening will sweep you off your feet with its panache. The sheer breadth of the way Kubelik takes this movement is also amazing. The coda will have you applauding!

The Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen, which are (as mentioned) closely related to the First Symphony are included to fill up the disc. These are sung fantastically and poetically by Fischer-Dieskau, the great baritone lieder singer, and sympathetically accompanied by Kubelik. His high notes, sung piannissimo, are really the model of breath-control and he uses the words in such a way that they are not hammed-up. Sample the third movement “Ich hab’ ein glhend Messer”, where the cellos really play! Fi-Di sounds a tad to healthy for a person with a knife in his chest, but well, you can’t have it all! These songs are the icing on the top of what is a delicious cake.

179: 30.5.98. up.4.11.98

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