Recorded: Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam 05/1972
This 1972 Mahler First, the second of Bernard Haitink's two studio recordings with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, features more insightful conducting and more characterful playing, albeit at slightly slower tempos, than his 1962 version (available as part of Philips' complete symphony set). This is primarily a pastoral reading: the first movement resembles a leisurely walk in the woods, taking time to notice all the sights and sounds (vividly captured by the orchestra). The cello soloist in the third movement plays perfectly in tune (which is not always the case, nor necessarily what the composer intended; a little intentional sleaze can be a good thing) and Hatink generates plenty of sonic energy in the finale. The Concertgebouw has made consistently fine recordings of this symphony (with Haitink, Bernstein, and Chailly), and this budget-priced Eloquence disc offers a great way to hear the orchestra do its Mahler thing. The sound is spacious, warm, and clear, lacking only in the deep bass.
========= from the cover ==========
Intimacy And Monumental Form
Free from the waywardness one might expect from a developing composer, Mahler's First Symphony immediately displays the full apparatus of his style. The work was composed between 1886 and 1888 while Mahler was conductor at the Stadttheater in Leipzig, working under the "very powerful rival" Arthur Nikisch (1855-1922), warmly respected by Hans von Bulow, and in contact with Richard Strauss and Ferruccio Busoni.
Compositions written during Mahler's Leipzig period are related in varying degrees to the First Symphony: music for tableaux vivants after Scheffel's "Trompeter von Sackingen," from which Mahler took the subsequently discarded "Blumine" movement of the First Symphony, a melancholy trumpet solo in 6/8 time, which was originally intended as the slow movement of the symphony. The arrangement of Carl Maria von Weber's opera fragment "Die drei Pintos" was also significant, as were the "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen," an important source for the thematic material of the First Symphony. A fit of composing mania almost lost Mahler his job. For the first and only time he neglected his conducting duties, and he had difficulty in making Stagemann, the director who esteemed him highly, accept "my negligence." In March 1888, shortly before he left Leipzig, he confided to a Viennese friend: "Well! My work is finished! It has become so overwhelming - it flowed out of me like a torrent! It was as if all sluices in me were opened at one blow!" Mahler conducted the first performance of the First Symphony on November 20, 1889 as the director of the Budapest opera. It was felt that the symphony suffered from the "basic fault of endless length." The melancholy "Blumine" movement, which Mahler afterwards removed, was still being performed at that time.
Mahler's symphonic manner is well defined. There is the mystical approach to nature found in Austrian symphonic writing since Schubert and Bruckner; the unfolding of the argument from the Lied as the symbol of what is natural and fundamental; tension between intimacy and monumental form; a climactic point in the all-embracing, transcendent finale; movements linked by the recurring interval of a fourth; use of variation technique for the development of thematic material and the consequent rejection of the Classical, dialectical principle of sharply contrasting thematic groups; logical expansion of the symphony into an epic, an orchestral novel; renunciation of the symphonic in the remote realm of the ideal in favour of "reality" (parody, simultaneous use of unrelated elements, enigmatical articulation of the "trivial"); continuous melody in each voice with instruments used in a linear manner, so that a satisfying rendition of the composition on the piano hardly seems possible any longer. The orchestral forces are considerable: four flutes, oboes and clarinets, three bassoons, seven horns, five trumpets, three trombones, tuba, harp, five-part strings, and at least four percussionists. The outer opulence matches the sound-world of the time.
The basic cell of the First Symphony is the interval of a fourth. "Like a sound from the natural world" it first descends through the woodwind section and opens the long introduction: it is a stylization of the call of the cuckoo, which Beethoven copied in his "Pastoral" Symphony, using the major third. The important themes of the symphony contain the fourth as both their impetus and basis: the wandering theme of the sonata first movement, marked "immersehrgemachlich" (very leisurely throughout), and is related to the second of the "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen" ("Ging heut' morgen ubers Feld"); the rustic Austrian scherzo, distantly related to Bruckner's sound-world and recalling Mahler's early song "Hans und Grete"; the dark timpani opening and the quotation from the song "Auf der Strasse stand ein Linden-baum" in the middle of the third movement; and the "sturmisch bewegt" (tempestuous) melodic style of the extended, complicated finale, whose lyric themes seem to suggest that Mahler had been an informed admirer of Tchaikovsky. Paul Bekker, the foremost commentator on the symphonic writing of Mahler, took "the imitation of nature in the sound effect of the pure fourth, the unmixed, harmonically undefined interval" to be "the symbol of undisturbed nature lacking conceptual consciousness, a musical utterance of what in reality is voiceless." It emanates from Mahler as out of a medium. Nature brings forth sound. This identification with nature distinguishes Mahler from the Romantic lovers of nature and their sentimental experiences.
The most advanced movement of the First Symphony is the third, one of Mahler's sinister, pallid funeral marches. Marked "feierlich und gemessen" (solemn and dignified), a muted double-bass solo plays, "without dragging," above the fourths of the kettledrum. Its melody is a gloomy parody of the old canon Frere Jacques, dormez-vous?", the only plagiarised tune in Mahler's symphonies. Born of Romantic, ironic ambiguity the Hoffmann-like night music moves to a ringing diagnosis of the confused state of mind of humanity at the turn of the century. For the first time in the history of the symphony the provocative expression mark "with parody" appears in a score. Schmaltzy violin glissandos, a "Turkish cymbal" hissing monotonously, mawkish clarinets, and the trivial thirds of suburban musicians all express a part of human existence: banal, painful reality. Beginning from Romantic irony Mahler found here an art of veracity. Mahler maintains here the same ominous relation to the collage as to the variation technique found in the novels of James Joyce. The night music of the third movement was inspired by a fairytale picture in which a romantic illustrator "in Callots Manier" portrays a grotesque scene: the creatures of the forest carry the dead hunter to his grave. This is an allusion- to the French illustrator Jacques Callot (1592-1635); his exaggerated, mannerist portrayals of animals and stories about hell and ghosts had inspired E.T.A. Hoffmann, one of Mahler's favourite authors, to write his "Fantasie-stiicken in Callots Manier" in 1814.
And so we have covered the wide-ranging poetic exegesis of the First Symphony. Mahler himself promoted such interpretations. He was convinced that the symphony after Beethoven must be programmatic in the widest sense. An unhappy love-affair was under way at the conception of the First Symphony; one may conjecture that this was Mahler's stormy relationship with the wife of one of Weber's descendants. Presumably the misleading subtitle "Der Titan" has something to do with emotional uplift. It has nothing in common with the Titans of the ancient myth, but refers to Titanism of feeling, as formulated in Jean Paul's novel "Der Titan" (1800-03), one of Mahler's favourite books. Later Mahler let it be known that the First Symphony was the portrait of the hero whose funeral rite is prepared in the Second Symphony. According to Bruno Walter's illuminating interpretation, the First Symphony is Mahler's "Werther" in epic style, a perplexing expression of youthful feelings that holds a fundamental position within the totality of his output.
-Graham Dixon (translation)