The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Up Next: Symphony No 1

71ckucssngl-_sl1400_First off, to all my readers out there, Happy New Year! After the rather dark ending of the Mahler 6 which rounded off 2015 for us, you might be happy to know that we’re starting 2016 on a much more joyful note with Mahler’s first symphony.

Hopefully, this is where blogging about the symphonies out of order will start to pay off, because from here on in, the remaining symphonies (and we’ve still got left the 1, 2, 3, 8 and 9) are all huge, moving, and exhilarating pieces of orchestral music. All of these are what I call “money’s-worth” pieces of orchestral music – i.e. if you went to hear them live, they would be almost guaranteed to be a spectacular orchestral concert that will sound better live than any CD recording you have. Huge orchestras, massive walls of sound. If that’s what you want from an orchestra (and many people do), then you’re going to get it in these last ones. (Except maybe the 9, but we’ll talk about that when we come to it.)

But coming up directly next, we have Mahler’s first symphony, one of the most audacious first attempts at a symphony ever attempted. It must be a tricky business for any composer to decide what their first large orchestral work is going to sound like, but I’m not sure anyone ever approached it with the boldness that Mahler did when he created this symphony.

The least you need to know with this piece is that when he first wrote it, Mahler gave it the nickname of “Titan”, named after a (now pretty obscure) German novel of the time called Titan. Thankfully, Mahler dropped that title after the first couple of performances, otherwise I would have to try to explain how the music fits in with the book. But now I don’t.

Another bit of useful pub trivia about the Mahler 1 is that it used to have five movements when it was first created. But Mahler decided that one of the movements (a lovely slow movement with a nice trumpet part) was a bit redundant, and so cut it back to the much more classical four-movement structure that we’re used to. However, a few CDs might throw in the extra movement as a bonus at the end, if you’re lucky.

Structurally, it works like this:

  • Movement I – an atmospheric opening featuring bird-calls and military trumpets, leads into a jaunty song, revamped for orchestra.
  • Movement II – an old-school Viennese Ländler (a dance, for those of you who haven’t yet seen Sound of Music).
  • Movement III – one of the quirkiest slow movements ever created.
  • Movement IV – a massive struggle between darkness and triumph.

Musically, it’s one of the greatest mash-ups of style ever created in the 19th century. It’s a strange mixture of classical music, folk songs, Jewish music, howling discordance and epic triumph.

It’s not my favourite, but I find it’s great fun if you don’t have the patience for the really long Mahler symphonies and/or you’re a huge fan of John Williams.

And for a recording, I struggled with this one, because I’ve never quite heard a recording that 100% sells the piece to me. (Except for a live performance I saw a couple of years ago with Donald Runnicles conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, one of the most exhilarating live concerts I’ve ever attended. Sadly, that was not recorded.)

But after Googling around a bit, I’ve heard great things about Rafael Kubelik’s version with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, which was a recording of a live concert from 1979, so we’ll give that one a try and see how we go …

See you soon for Movement I!