Horenstein's 1969 Mahler 1st has long been my stereo benchmark, but now it has to share the spotlight with this phenomenal live 1979 Kubelik, which supplants an earlier studio recording on DG. Kubelik's finale even surpasses Horenstein's, especially in the Coda - it's the most thrilling I have ever heard.
Kubelik's DG recording had rather glaring sound - this one from Audite is, along with a Barshai 5th, the best sounding Mahler in my collection. As with any live performance, there are a few minor blemishes (e.g., a couple of horn muffs in the 1st mvt) of no great import - the Horenstein has a few, too, and that was a studio recording.
If Horenstein's is a more brooding, sardonic, older man's Mahler - at 56:35 it's five minutes slower - then Kubelik's is a mellower, but more exultant, younger man's view. Of course, both were older men when they recorded these: Horenstein was 70, and Kubelik was 65. In the past, my quibbles regarding Horenstein's 1st were the rather fast third mvt. (almost two minutes faster than his 1952 First on Vox), and a rather stately last mvt. (at 22:14, it's the slowest of any performance I own). I also missed the earlier, far more liberal use of string portamento - I feel that's the way Mahler envisioned it (Kubelik is essentially modern, with nary a slide in sight).
My minor objections to Kubelik's earlier DG recording, besides the sound, were some over-exuberant trumpet playing in III's klezmer music, and an over-fast finale (17:40). Now all of III is an unalloyed joy, and the finale's tempo of 19:18 feels perfect. Throughout this entire performance, Kubelik is just that more gemutlich, ever so slightly stretching key phrases to make them sound more touching. There is more of a rustic atmosphere here than previously. And I especially like the contrabass solo in III, moaning away with optimum satire.
Three other recordings - in old mono sound, and thus more for the collector than the general listener - also stand apart in my mind: the earlier Horenstein, the 1952 live F. Charles Adler, and a 1949 account by Ernest Borsamsky. Horenstein's first one is probably still my ultimate benchmark 1st: his old Vienna Symphony likely included a few players who had heard Mahler conduct, and there is an old world patina to the whole affair that I find rather special. Adler knew Mahler and prepared the chorus for a Mahler performance of the 8th - his 1st is even slower than Horenstein's and very old-fashioned, if not as well played. Borsamsky - thought by some to be a pseudonym for possibly Abendroth or Fricsay - features some very lovely string playing. I have reviewed it elsewhere at Amazon.
With that ethereal seven-octave note in the strings, the Mahler 1st ushers us into a new symphonic world. Has any composer under 40 given us a finer first effort? I envy those of you who are coming to this marvellous work for the first time.