Zander's Mahler Symphony No. 1
Jim Pritchard, MusicWeb International, February 2006
The release of Benjamin Zander's recording of Mahler's First Symphony
may be the last in what may disappointingly be an unfinished 'cycle'
of Mahler recordings. Certainly there appear to be no further
Philharmonia concerts or recordings planned. The previous releases
have generally been well-received and this one equally so.
The first disc pairs the tenderly expressed, acutely felt and
splendidly articulated account of Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen by
British baritone, Christopher Maltman. Am I alone in hearing Die
Meistersinger Act 3 'Dance of the Apprentices' pervading 'Ging heut'
Morgen übers Feld'? The songs are redolent of youthful passion and
reflect a doomed love-affair of the composer with the singer Johanna
Richter. Mahler gives these songs a generally light orchestration and
tone, so this enables soloist, conductor and the always reliable
Philharmonia to establish a recital hall/chamber-like intimacy at
times. Also I always find that by and large non-German singers seem
to take more care with the words. This is never better illustrated than here as Maltman gives a very dramatically compelling account of
During the five years Mahler took to compose this First Symphony he was working on his group of four Wayfarer songs. Some of the themes
from these songs are also used in the first and third movements of
the symphony. This use of song-like material was characteristic of
Mahler throughout his lifetime as was the use of folksong and
traditional dances. When Benjamin Zander performed this work at the Royal Festival Hall in January 2004 he gave one of his usual carefully balanced pre-concert talks, accessible both to experienced music-lovers and those new to music. He introduces the programme for the whole evening with many Victor Borge-like illustrations at the piano and some memorable quotes such as 'Rubato is to Mahler what
tomato is to Spaghetti Bolognese'. Apart from Ländler and Klezmer
this symphony most famously contains a setting of 'Frère Jacques'
('Bruder Martin' in German) in an unfamiliar minor key as a funeral
march in the third movement.
At his recent study day for the Gustav Mahler Society on 'Mahler and
Shostakovich' the music journalist and broadcaster David Nice used
this new release of Benjamin Zander's for several musical illustrations. This included playing a substantial part of the obligatory discussion disc that makes these releases invaluable for the listener wishing to explore more of what lies behind the music.
Mr Nice was comparing the influences of Jewish music on both these
composers but can I add how surprised I am, even after so many
performances and so many recordings of Mahler's First Symphony, to
find there is still resistance to - or 'shock and awe' at - the idea
that the Jewish/Slavonic music in the second movement is anything
other than what it sounds like: Klezmer. Even Zander on his
discussion disc wants to hedge his bets and goes from describing
music that is a 'sad Jewish lament' or from a 'Jewish wedding' to
that of 'Gipsy fiddlers'.
To counteract any analysis Mahler said -'It is quite irrelevant to
know what is being described - it is only important to grasp the mood
of what is being expressed and from which the fourth movement springs
precipitately ... It is simply the cry of a wounded heart which is
preceded by the uncannily oppressive and ironically close atmosphere
of the funeral march.'
Back to the first movement where, from the final cuckoo call on the
clarinet and its interval of a descending fourth, the principal theme
emerges from the cellos - it is 'Ging heut' Morgen übers Feld' again
- and Wagner again? In his discussion Zander paused to ponder how a
real cuckoo call - there is one excerpted on the disc! - is a falling
third whilst Mahler's is a perfect fourth, musically just right to
lead into the song. As Zander explains - 'Like any great artist he
(Mahler) changed nature to fit his artistic purpose.'
Originally next in the symphony - and performed at that Royal
Festival Hall concert - was a charming, romantic movement 'Blumine'.
This was subsequently dropped in an 1899 revision of the score. The
music was said to represent the serenade the hero (of the symphony)
sings to his heroine on a moonlit night on the Rhine. Mahler believed
it to be anachronistically 'sentimental' but it seems to be one of
his simplest and least affected creations and worthy of an
'Adagietto'-like life of its own. It must have been sheer economics
that prevented a recording of this being released on the CD; I
suspect Zander in an ideal world might have wanted the listener to be
able to interpolate the 'Blumine' movement into Mahler's four
movement final version to enable us to hear an approximation of how
his original concept for this symphony might have sounded.
Criticism of Zander's Mahler is invidious because he oozes respect
and understanding for the music from every pore and he gives us clean
textures and an unidiosyncratic account of the score. What was
thrilling in performance and also here on the recording is that it
all builds up a head of steam throughout the first three movements
towards the epic Finale. Here the stirring brass chorale with its
heroic final bars and the widely exultant celebration of the triumph
of life over death could never fail in such safe hands and with such
a wonderful orchestra as the Philharmonia.
As the music finished, in common with most of the audience, I was on
my feet applauding. At home listening to the CD I nearly jumped out
of my seat to do the same. However despite the masterly conducting
and the vibrant orchestral playing some doubts remained. Firstly the
range of recorded sound seemed too wide; by that I mean that
occasionally I found the loud moments too loud and the quiet moments
(like the off-stage brass) too ... you get the idea? Maybe that was
just the DSD recording on my CD player? I had certain qualms that in
the discussion Zander explains that Mahler had 'parodistic
intentions' for the high solo for double bass at the start of the
third movement and that 'Mahler would have expected it to sound quite
awful' - so why was it played so well on the recording?
Also since I had more time to reflect on the interpretation I was
reminded that Mahler thought of his first two symphonies in this way - 'My whole life is contained in them. I have set down in them my
experiences and my suffering ...'. I felt no sense of loss, for me my 'hero' had lived, loved and triumphed but was he dead ... and if not who is there to resurrect in the second symphony?