At Amazon few seem to be paying attention to the ongoing Mahler cycle from the venerable Gurzenich Orch. of Cologne, even though the CDs are engineered in top-notch sound and the musicianship is higher than in the Mahler cycle, also ongoing, from Bamberg. For me, the quality of each installment has rested with conductor Markus Stenz, now 48, who is articulate when he talks about music and has long ties with England and Australia, although he is German by birth. The high point in the cycle so far has been the Eighth Sym., where Stenz's ability to handle massive forces, combined with excellent sound and a uniformly good singing cast, made a very favorable impression.
Most of the time, however, his approach has been rather faceless, and that doesn't work in Mahler at this late stage, where decades of major interpreters have brought imagination, passion, and power to these scores. In his masterful book, The Symphony, the late Michael Steinberg judged the Mahler First to be the most brilliant debut symphony in music history. Appearing in 1889 - eight years before the death of Brahms - and incorporating melodies that Mahler had in his drawer from his mid-twenties, the First Sym. pictures the Knaben Wunderhorn world, with its innocence, devotion to Nature, and an ebullient vision of the Austrian folk tradition. Nothing like it had ever been called a symphony, so it's interesting to read that Mahler himself called the score a tone poem when it was first performed.
The music is so accessible and lovable that today's conductors are challenged to find anything new to say. There are no real musical problems, little internal conflict, barely a dark thread in the fabric - a happy, propulsive reading works very well. Sometimes, as with the old Leinsdorf recording with the Boston Sym. (one of the first to challenge Bruno Walter's virtual patent) and the recent one under Marin Alsop, there is a literalness that captures every detail while bringing few smiles. Even Bernstein doesn't quite create magic, which makes the Mahler First at once the easiest of his symphonies and the hardest to put a personal stamp on - my favorite versions remain Walter's mono recording on Columbia with the New York Phil. and Kubelik's justly famous one on DG, which is the most merrily bucolic recording I know, along with Ancerl's and the Czech Phil.
That was a long prelude before saying that at its best, Stenz's reading succeeds in the same way as Kubelik's. I'd point to the second movement, a rustic clog dance based on a Landler, a heavy-footed folk dance in 3/4 time. It's hard for conductors to make anything special of the square rhythm, and there's a tendency to over think and over manage the music. Stenz is infectiously enthusiastic; the movement actually swings. Similarly, the absence of fussiness in the mocking third movement is welcome; in addition, Stenz makes the various parodies sound funny without lapsing into studied caricature - you can't help enjoying yourself.
This effect, of bringing the outdoors into the concert hall, is exactly what Mahler wants in those two movements, I think. The first movement is an evocation of the forest coming to life with tender mystery and emerging joy. Stenz is a bit straight here, but there are illustrious conductors who have missed by a wider margin. Perhaps only Kubelik finds the perfect way to be rapt in a spell of wonder, only to erupt in exuberant high spirits at the climax.
With two successful movements and one good one, only the finale remains. Written on the grandest scale, it never fails to knock audiences off their feet, even before the massed horn section stand up, bells forward, for the climactic whoop. It was probably Bernstein who began the tradition of letting all the stops out from the first bar - when you have a virtuoso orchestra at your command, the temptation is hard to resist - and Stenz benefits by not competing on those terms. The enormous sonority of the opening section is dialed way down from apocalyptic. Not many conductors dare to be this low key, and when the wistful second section arrives, Stenz damps down the contrasting mood, too. Either you will find this movement underplayed or you'll welcome its restraint.
I'm afraid I lean toward the former, but even so, this is a successful Mahler First that is far from the latest replicant of a dozen recordings on the same conveyor belt. To be frank, Mahler's symphonies have been loved to death, and the number of new entrries that actually make an impression is few. At his best, Stenz comes closer than most.