Mahler: Symphony No. 1

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COMPOSERS: Mahler
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Symphony No. 1
PERFORMER: Chicago SO/Pierre Boulez
CATALOGUE NO: 459 610-2
It came as a surprise to find Boulez going as far back in the Mahler canon as this fledgling blueprint for symphonic dramas to come, until I remembered that his first Mahler recording was of the even earlier cantata Das klagende Lied (Sony), made long before his project to commit ‘one or two’ of the symphonies to disc was so much as a twinkle in DG’s eye. The fearful storm that is the cantata’s legacy to the symphony’s finale meets with a predictably crisp, articulate but hardly frightening response, and plainly Boulez doesn’t approve of the score’s injunction ‘with greatest wildness’; but his fast-moving way with the movement’s lyrical respite is certainly convincing on its own terms.

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Boulez and Mahler join hands more easily in the earlier evocation of the composer’s ‘days of youth’, filtered through a soft lens that doesn’t diffuse the details; Boulez makes us realise how many of the dynamics are quiet, how much of the symphony depends on hushed intensity (to apply Benjamin Zander’s comment on the opening of the Ninth Symphony in a different context, there’s plenty of yelling at pianissimo – but in this case of the healthy, outdoors variety). Best of all are the gloomy web of sound in the third movement’s funeral march, the unbuttoned village-band trumpets and the special quality of the rapt quotation from the last of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. For that alone I will always treasure this most fastidious of performances. David Nice