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A solid reading of Mahler's 1st
on 11 August 2011
Mahler's Symphony No. 1 is a work that is full of youthful zest and spirit. As the very first of his nine (or ten) stunning symphonies, it already shows an unprecedented skill of symphonic writing, beginning the Mahler tradition of using huge orchestras in an attempt to incorporate the whole world into a symphony. Interpreters who try to tackle this work should have a feel for the great underlying structure in this symphony. But, equally important, they must pick up on the exuberant love for life and nature that is all throughout this symphony.
How did Valery Gergiev fare in his reading? Well, first off, I'll have to say that he is very successful in recognizing the great symphonic structure in this work. His reading doesn't lack bigness in tone, and there is always a sense of the strong structural backbone present in the symphony. I'm particularly pleased at how well the LSO fares in producing a big tone that can handle the big climaxes in this symphony with a surprising dexterity, something which isn't always present to this extent in other LSO Live albums. The LSO's percussion section is better than I've ever heard it before and the basses dig deep into their passages with a wonderful snarly tone.
But what I find somewhat lacking in this reading is a sense of blissful contentment and love of nature I feel Mahler has sprinkled throughout this work, particularly in the 1st movement. While the LSO woodwinds play the bird calls that start out this symphony with a clear, precise tone, I'm not swept off my feet in the way that I would like to be. And, in general, Gergiev has a tendency to be so caught up with bigness of sound that he misses the charm. This isn't true everywhere: the 3rd movement is full yearning sentiment and a love that makes it a decided success for Gergiev. But elsewhere, I can't quite say the same. The 2nd movement is hardly very folksy and fun, as grand as Gergiev makes it. I'm a bit more sympathetic with Gergiev's look at the finale, as the orchestral thunder he unleashes is so terrifying. Even there, though, I find it a bit impersonal.
Despite this album's setbacks, it is still a good, solid reading. It just doesn't send me into the raptures that one might hope it would.