Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D major ("Titan") [62:24]
Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig/Riccardo Chailly
rec. live January, 2015, Gewandhaus, Leipzig
Bonus: Riccardo Chailly comments on Mahler First—in Italian, subtitles in English, German, French, Japanese and Korean
ACCENTUS MUSIC ACC10335 Blu-ray [86 mins]
This is another entry in conductor Riccardo Chailly's second cycle of Mahler's symphonies. The first was for Decca with the Royal Concertgebouw on CD. This new one on Accentus with the Leipzig Gewandhaus is on video, both DVD and Blu-ray. It is nearing its conclusion now: only the Third remains. Actually, Chailly has done the Eighth twice on video, the most recent one with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra; that was a tribute to the recently deceased Claudio Abbado, who was nearing completion of his own Mahler Symphony cycle on video, with only the Eighth remaining at his death. Thus, Chailly completed the cycle for him, at the same time taking up the reins of Abbado's Lucerne ensemble, from 2016.
I have been following Chailly's Mahler series on Accentus right along (but somehow missed the Fourth). All of the previous performances in the cycle have been very fine, in some cases excellent. This account of the First qualifies as excellent: Chailly draws accurate, spirited and thoroughly committed playing from the Gewandhaus players. He consistently points up meaningful detail and thereby elucidating textures in Mahler's often dense scoring, and tempi are mostly judicious throughout. I must point out that the timing of 62:24 given on the back cover it includes applause as the credits are shown, and the performance does not start until about 1:15 into track 1. The actual timing is a bit short of 56 minutes.
The opening movement starts appropriately with a sense of mystery that gradually brightens as instruments seem to awaken and a two-note motif appears on clarinet and elsewhere in the woodwinds. Chailly effectively works up some tension as thematic development unfolds, but the movement remains largely serene and joyous. The coda is spirited and brimming with energy – a brilliant conclusion. The orchestra play the second movement "peasant dance" music with great spirit and accuracy; they deliver the Trio suavely and subtly, about as well as you are likely to hear it. The colorful and sassy ensuing movement, with its odd admixture of a distorted Frère Jacques (as a funeral march) and Klezmer music, is delivered with both an infectious jaunty spirit and a playful exotic character. This is one of the best accounts of this movement I have ever heard. The Finale opens turbulently and dramatically, the contrast with the previous music stark and unsettling. As the movement progresses, Chailly builds passionately and subtly toward a thoroughly powerful and effective climax. An excellent performance then, one featuring especially fine work by both the brass and woodwinds throughout.
The sound reproduction, camera work and picture clarity on this Blu-ray are first-rate. They seem to place you hovering above or standing inside various sections of the orchestra most of the time. In most respects, it would be hard to find any significant fault with this Accentus release.
As for the competition on video, Paavo Järvi has an excellent First in his cycle as does the aforementioned Claudio Abbado. Chailly stacks up well against both and probably has a slight edge in performance and engineering, but there is one factor that may tilt the scales in favor of Abbado: his Mahler First disc contains a splendid performance of the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto with pianist Yuja Wang, who was then a young artist on her way up, and who has now reached superstar status. So, if you are looking for just an excellent Mahler First, the Chailly effort will certainly not disappoint, but if you want value for your money, you might opt for the Abbado. But there is yet another factor: the "value for your money" rationale might arguably apply to the Chailly as well because his disc offers an interesting bonus feature wherein he talks at significant length (in Italian, with subtitles) about the Mahler First performance history, Mahler the composer and, most importantly, the work itself. Your choice then.