Like many people of my generation I learned my Mahler in the late-1950s and early-1960s just before the craze for this composer took off. Indeed the first recordings I ever heard of his music were the Otto Klemperer ‘Resurrection’ with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the Kirsten Flagstad recording of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Later I discovered Bruno Walter’s Mahler and the trail-blazing versions of Leonard Bernstein. In the midst of all this I can still remember being bowled-over by a broadcast performance of the ‘Resurrection’ conducted by the young Lorin Maazel with the BBC symphony Orchestra. The year was 1960.
That performance led me to explore Maazel further, at concerts and through recordings, and I have never failed to be amazed by the mastery of the art of his conducting and his affinity with the music of Mahler. In the late-1970s, I was fortunate enough to attend the complete Mahler cycle he gave in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra and therefore I was eagerly anticipating the 2011 cycle with the same forces. I was struck by both the consistency of approach and the deepening of Maazel’s interpretations – a privilege to attend, with some performances being totally overwhelming.
I therefore approached this set of the first three symphonies from that cycle with great excitement and was delighted that time and the recorded medium had not dimmed the memory of these stupendous occasions which now make a wonderful addition to the Mahler discography.
Maazel has always excelled in the visceral excitement of Symphony No.1 and his 1977 performance had one sitting on the edge of one’s seat. The years have broadened the tempos and maybe lessened the ‘edge of seat’ effect but this is a performance of such refinement, joy and beauty that no one could fail to fall under its spell.
In the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony, Maazel displays his usual grasp of structure and the ability to build tension reminiscent of Toscanini at his best. The advancing years have once again brought a broadening of speed to which must be added an extreme concentration that makes this a performance that leaves one spellbound with its intensity and. The BBC Symphony Chorus is in sensational form from its miraculously quiet first entry to the utter glory of the final bars. Both vocal soloists, Sally Matthews and Michelle DeYoung, rise wonderfully to the challenge and provide superbly integrated and sensitive contributions which together with the magnificent Chorus and the monumental playing of the Philharmonia make for a cataclysmic finale which leaves one totally and magnificently drained.
With Symphony No.3 Maazel’s control and concern for clarity of texture bring the wonder of this music superbly to life. It is difficult to imagine a more atmospheric and tonally beautiful performance. Sarah Connolly provides a wonderfully dark contribution in the Nietzsche fourth movement and the contributions from the Tiffin Boys’ Choir and Philharmonia Voices are excellent. Once again, Maazel builds the (slow) finale to an almost terrifying climax. This is a performance which is totally at one with Mahler’s idiom and from the very forceful beginning with the horns declaring their melody reminiscent of the last movement of Brahms’s First Symphony to the hushed and incandescent beauty of the very end leave one in no doubt of the greatness of this Symphony and of Maazel’s interpretation.
I intended to listen to these recordings over a period of a several days. So taken was I by each performance that I ended up listening to all three on the same day. I marvelled not only at Maazel’s formidable interpretations but also at the sheer beauty of the orchestral playing and the excellent contributions from chorus and soloists. It is good to know that the whole of the 2011 cycle will be issued on compact disc and I cannot wait.
The discs themselves are very well presented in three jewel-cases inside an outer slip case. Particularly welcome is the layout of Symphonies 2 and 3 where the respective opening movement of each takes up the first CD, thus allowing the listener to take a pause for thought (as Mahler intended) and then play the rest of the work without interruption. The recorded sound is faithful to the venue as well as being dynamic, and Signum’s presentation includes texts and translations.