on 18 May 2009
From that mysterious, misty opening to the blazing brass of the finale, this is an absolutely knockout recording of Mahler's Symphony No.1 that should be at the top of anyone's list of recommendations.
Bernstein gives a wonderfully taut, disciplined and yet terrifically exciting performance, matched by the astonishing virtuosity of the Concertgebouworkest and a rich, clear and spacious recording made live in Amsterdam. The finale especially will pin you back in your seat; it explodes out of your speakers at the start and maintains terrific tension all the way through to the end, with the brass fanfares going off like rockets over the thundering timpani and bass drum.
One of the best instalments in Bernstein's DG Mahler cycle and one of his best later recordings, full stop.
For me, it's the definitive Mahler 1.
The fact that a small, vociferous minority loathe Bernstein's Mahler - and indeed virtually everything else Bernstein recorded - is a fact of life. That the same little group champion the likes of Norrington and Zander as superior delineates the battle lines neatly and tells the informed listener everything he needs to know. Nonetheless, it strikes me as at the very least discourteous so to vilify a conductor who did so much to put the composer on the map and whose personality, ebullient and narcissistic as it was, was always subjugated to his love of the music, even when he went to interpretative excesses as with his late Tchaikovsky. Most of the criticisms I have read centre on Bernstein's not adhering to tempo markings in the score - for which I am grateful, when the results are this persuasive.
For many, however, Bernstein's Mahler remains if not definitive, at least indispensable. I cannot say that I much prefer either his 1987 recording of the misnamed "Titan" to the earlier, 1966 version or vice versa - although I would endorse the latest remastering for the 2009 complete box set with the New York Philharmonic (and the LSO for the Eighth), even though the previous 24-bit remastering had already done a lot to lift the sound. The Amsterdam recording was always superb, and there is an extra sheen on and richness in the orchestral sound by dint of the digital origin and the fact that the Concertgebouw is such a natural Mahler orchestra, in truth superior to their New York counterparts. Both openings are magical; redolent of "faery lands forlorn". Bernstein is even more humorously galumphing and indulgent in the second movement there than with the NYPO but he doesn't overdo it in the "Frère Jacques" movement in either version. Both Finales climax magnificently but again, the Dutch orchestra has the edge for power and brilliance.
In common with the tempo relationships between the New York and the later recordings, Bernstein takes three or four minutes longer over the symphony as a whole in Amsterdam but that's of no importance. Both readings are very satisfactory; my marginal preference for the later version derives from the better sound and playing, not the aesthetic decisions - but of course the 1966 recording is paired with the Adagio from the 10th.
on 28 October 2009
I am not always completely convinced by Bernstein's Mahler he seems at times to wring emotion out of the music to such a degree as to almost be a slight parody compared to those who let the music speak for itself; but here, and I think his Third, he gets it really right. Which could be at this stage Mahler himself is not going quite so over the top, which with the Bernstein added emotion is just that tad too much and cooler heads like an Abbado come to the fore. I can really recommend this is a First to obtain. Being Mahler you probably will not stop at one but do not pass this one by.