Mahler Symph 1 Bychkov Pentatone PTC5187043

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No 1 in D major, “Titan” (1884-1888)
Czech Philharmonic/Semyon Bychkov
rec. live, 12-15 October, 2021, Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic
Pentatone PTC5187043 [55]

This is the fourth instalment of Semyon Bychkov’s Mahler symphony cycle with the Czech Philharmonic. Previous issues have been, in order of release, the Fourth (review), the Fifth (review) and, most recently, the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony (review).

It’s very appropriate to hear a version of the First Symphony recorded in Prague because, as Gavin Plumley points out in his useful booklet essay, it was in that city that Mahler secured one of his early professional posts; a one-year engagement to conduct at the Königlich Deutsches Landestheater. Plumley relates that at one of his concerts, in April 1886, when he appeared as both conductor and pianist, Mahler slipped into the programme three of his early songs, one of which was ‘Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld’. So, Prague got an early taste of Mahler as composer. Furthermore, I think I’m right in saying that Prague (in 1898) was one of only two cities – the other was Amsterdam in 1903 – where the First Symphony was accorded early audience enthusiasm.

Nowadays, the symphony is, along with the Fourth, probably Mahler’s most frequently performed and recorded work; in our Masterworks Index alone we list reviews of nearly 70 recordings. We’re now very familiar with the music and, moreover, we can see it in the context of all Mahler’s subsequent compositions. However, if we try, difficult though it is, to put ourselves in the shoes of the first audiences who heard the work, we can perhaps imagine why initially the score met with a mixture of incomprehension and hostility.

Take the very opening of the work, for example. Contemporary listeners may well have been baffled by hearing a quiet, sustained A, sounded over several octaves and played for bar after bar while individual woodwind instruments play occasional two-note chirruping figures. Who in his right mind would begin a symphony like that? (Actually, Mahler’s opening bears comparison with the beginning of Beethoven’s Ninth.) Then there’s the wild waltz in the second movement, while the third movement opens with a ghostly canon on the old tune ‘Bruder Martin’, begun by a solo double bass of all things. And that’s all before Mahler unleashed the tumult of his finale. No wonder early audiences didn’t know what to make of this strange, often wild new music. The task for twenty-first century performers of the First Symphony is rather different: rather than having to win over new, unsuspecting listeners they have to make their performance sound fresh and exciting to people who have heard the work many times before. How will Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic fare in the face of that challenge?

The start of the first movement is auspicious. Good tension is established immediately; those woodwind fragments and little horn and trumpet calls are ideally placed; it’s already evident that the woodwind section is pleasingly piquant. The melody of ‘Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld’ is presented by Bychkov in a nice, relaxed fashion; the mood is one of easy-going pastoralism. But then, as he prepares to return to the material of the opening, Mahler causes the skies to darken (especially from 9:14) and this change of mood registers well in this performance. The geniality associated with the main theme makes a welcome reappearance (just before 11:30). Bychkov ensures that the closing pages of the movement are full of high spirits. I’d say that this performance certainly passes what I might term the ‘freshness test’.

The scherzo is nice and tangy; the rhythms are sharply pointed and the dynamic contrasts are excellent. The Trio is deliciously inflected; the music is excellently characterised and played with a winning lightness of touch. At the start of the slow movement the ‘Bruder Martin’ canon is played in sepulchral tones, through which eventually the oboe, followed by other high woodwinds, cuts most effectively. What follows in Mahler’s surreal writing is a kaleidoscope of ‘mittel-Europa’ musical ideas and textures, including an ‘oompah’-band. The CPO get the orchestral colourings just right and Bychkov points the detail acutely. The ‘Lindenbaum’ episode (5:37) is a misty evocation – I love the subtle violins hereabouts and the woodwind contributions are lovely; Bychkov makes the episode flow very well indeed. The reprise of the ‘Bruder Martin’ material is even more Gothic the second time round.

The finale erupts, as it should do; Bychkov is clearly keen to project the music strongly and the orchestra needs no second bidding. The arrival of the great D-flat melody is imaginatively prepared and the tune itself is beautifully sung by the CPO violins (from 3:58). Once past this episode, Bychkov winds up the tension before the reminder of the movement’s opening; that then leads to a passage of great turbulence. After so much drama, the brief reminiscence of ‘Ging heut’ Morgen’ offers a welcome movement of relaxation. The last few minutes of the symphony sound terrific, with the CPO horns ringing out superbly.

I can think of three versions of this symphony that (for different reasons) have me on the edge of my seat. Leonard Bernstein in Amsterdam (review), Yannick Nézet-Séguin (review) and Klaus Tennstedt (review) all make Mahler’s First leap off the page in a way that Semyon Bychkov, for all the many merits of his performance, doesn’t quite manage. However, Bychkov leads a fine performance of the First Symphony and, referring back to my earlier rhetorical question, these performers do indeed make the symphony sound fresh. The music is interpreted idiomatically and with great understanding by Semyon Bychkov and the playing of the Czech Philharmonic is beyond reproach. The performance is enhanced by Pentatone’s pleasingly open and nicely detailed sound. This is a recording in which those who have been following the Bychkov cycle can invest with confidence.

John Quinn

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