Mahler: Symphony No. 1

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

WORKS: Symphony No. 1
PERFORMER: London SO/Valery Gergiev


Not since Bernstein have we encountered a Mahler conductor of such idiosyncrasy and fire as Valery Gergiev. You may not agree with everything he does in this LSO Live Mahler One, but right from the very first vividly characterised sounds of nature, every detail has been thought about and felt, even if it doesn’t quite have the middle-European winsomeness of the incomparable Kubelík (on DG). As with Abbado, dynamics are given at exactly the levels Mahler asks (the staccato pianissimo for cellos and basses five bars after fig. 11 in the Scherzo – track 2, 2:47 – is startlingly fresh); the strings vocalise with what sounds like a singer’s instinct for good phrasing and the flute at the dreamy heart of the first movement plays with all the poetry that was so striking in Gergiev’s live performance of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Not everything works: while the trios of the inner movements are a dream, Gergiev is too smooth with the parody procession of the huntsman’s funeral – as announced by the inexplicable decision to give the opening double bass solo to more than one player. But all is forgiven in an electrifying account of the stormy finale, and just when you think conductor and orchestra have no more to give, Gergiev opens up unexaggeratedly but perceptibly for the final ‘triumphal’. The timps sound too brutally forward in the recording, but Barbican acoustics have now been well mastered, or treated, by the LSO Live recording team. This is an extremely hard act to follow, and inevitably Jonathan Nott’s account with a spirited but lesser orchestra, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, sounds relatively ordinary by comparison. He’s a lively, lucid guide through the romp of the unbuttoned first movement’s coda and the scherzo, while the Bamberg woodwind and brass make more of the rough-and-ready village klezmer effect than do Gergiev’s occasionally too sophisticated LSO players. But the central reverie here, based on the wayfarer’s sweet dreams under a linden tree from the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, has none of Gergiev’s hovering on the brink of audibility. The finale is vividly recorded and well sculpted, launched by a terrific cymbal crash for Mahler’s ‘cry of a deeply wounded heart’. Otherwise, both dynamically and in terms of startling sonorities, this doesn’t begin to compare with the other newcomer. I hesitated between four stars for Gergiev’s waywardness and five for his sheer charisma; the competent Nott performance convinced me all the more to err on the side of a grateful generosity. David Nice