Ruslan and Ludmilla – Overture
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Mahler recorded 28 January 1990 in Royal Festival Hall, London; Glinka 28 August 1981 in Usher Hall, Edinburgh
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: December 2009
CD No: BBC LEGENDS
Duration: 71 minutes
With so many fine conductors continuing to float their careers on their special relationship with Mahler, it’s gratifying that Klaus Tennstedt’s Mahler with the London Philharmonic still stands head and shoulders above some stiff competition. Tennstedt’s brief, mercurial career, late 1970s to early 1990s (he died in 1998), is now the stuff of legend, emphasised by this Mahler 1 appearing on the BBC Legends label. It’s a live performance from January 1990, after he had resigned as music director of the LPO, which reveals in all its difficult, stupendous glory his love-affair with the orchestra. Tennstedt’s Mahler seemed to be a distillation of the mystical approach of Furtwängler with the heart-on-sleeve emotionalism of Bernstein, and he had an instinctive grasp of what Mahler wanted from his scores and what he wanted them to express, a soundworld infinitely more varied than the glossy sumptuousness of Karajan, for example.
This Mahler 1 has more impact than Tennstedt’s EMI studio recording, very fine though that is (and there is also a live Festival Hall performance on the LPO’s own label). Above all, its sense of purpose come across with thrilling immediacy, giving the symphony a narrative drive that at times almost seems supra-musical – and the fact that you glean this from a recording, with, in the first movement, some lively coughing (it was in January, after all) is further witness to Tennstedt’s galvanising effect as a conductor.
The opening wall of sound onto which Mahler splashes his birdcalls and scraps of melody is as fresh and original as you’re likely to hear it. Rattle and the CBSO’s subliminal pianissimo here may be more sonically spellbinding, but Tennstedt integrates this unforgettable device into his overall vision of the piece. Its return is even more haunting, like an aural ante-chamber to the profound nature music of the Third Symphony; and the breezy Wayfarer music is very touching. Tennstedt piles into the scherzo with heavily accented, rhythmic bravura, a powerful, open brass sound and a barely contained feeling of abandon; the trio is brilliantly done, discursive, almost chatty and full of character. In the Frère Jacques movement, Tennstedt’s phasing in and out of the different material is masterly, and the balancing act between parody and tragedy and the pull between regret and moments of bliss are picked out with unfussy acuity. He plays up the grandstanding music of the finale with considerable panache, but doesn’t forget that the triumph is hard won.
The bright recording is fairly close and is a reminder that the Royal Festival Hall back then seemed to be a better recording studio than a concert hall, but the amount of detail you can hear in Mahler’s scrupulously scored tuttis is formidable. The affection between the LPO and its conductor is palpable, and people who were at the concert still remember the edge-of-seat involvement with the music.
Also on the disc is the Overture to “Ruslan and Ludmilla”, not core repertoire for Tennstedt, but thrillingly done, and there is also a short talk between John Amis and the conductor. A very strongly recommended release.