Mahler, Strauss: Symphony No. 1

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COMPOSERS: Mahler,Strauss
LABELS: Supraphon
WORKS: Symphony No. 1
PERFORMER: Czech PO/Karel Ancerl
CATALOGUE NO: SU 3666-2 ADD Reissue
My memories of hearing Karel Ancerl (1908-73) conduct the Cleveland Orchestra, the first major orchestra I encountered, three decades ago have always coloured my impression of his recordings, of which these strike me as representative specimens. Ancerl’s bearing was dignified, even sober, and his music-making, although genuine and accomplished, was objective rather than dynamic or hyper-expressive. There’s much to enjoy in this Mahler 1, not least the bucolic sonorities of the Czech Philharmonic, but in moments of inwardness – the trio of the second movement, for example, or the recollection of the final Wayfarer song in the third – Ancerl is matter-of-fact, shying away from the sentiment that can sear the soul. At the other end of the spectrum, most of the climaxes generate convincing excitement, but the angst-ridden passage that precedes and (ideally) builds irresistibly to the final joyful peroration in the first movement is rendered in a disturbingly literal way (and the violins sound scraggly and thin here). Among other options, Kubelík’s famous Bavarian RSO account has more character in concept but a little less in the actual playing, and some listeners will prefer the combination of monumentality, atmosphere and intensity that Bernstein provides in his Concertgebouw reading.

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Ancerl’s Till Eulenspiegel resembles his Mahler – sane and musical, ultimately satisfying but a little short on character, and hardly in the same league as Szell’s bitingly witty treatment of the piece. David Breckbill