Ives & Mahler – Michael Gielen

0 of 5 stars

Central Park in the Dark
The Unanswered Question
Symphony No.1 in D

SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Michael Gielen

Mahler recorded June 2002, Konzerthaus, Freiburg; Ives recorded February 1995 in Hans Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: October 2003
Duration: 69 minutes

On paper, they may appear an incongruous pair, but Mahler spoke admiringly of Ives – presumably as a result of having seen scores rather than experiencing any performances which were virtually non-existent in the first decade of the last century – and the eerie conclusion of The Unanswered Question, with high strings, chattering flutes and lonely trumpet, is not a million miles away, in tone and texture, from the opening of Mahler’s First Symphony.

In Michael Gielen’s hands, Mahler’s first symphonic essay is given a fresh and bracing reading. He does not linger, tautening a structure that can, especially in the outer movements, have a tendency to sprawl. Perhaps this means that, to a certain extent, atmosphere plays second fiddle to textural elucidation, but Mahler’s youthful inspiration benefits from this clarity of approach and one can follow the thematic development rather better than when Mahler is treated as a mere tone-poet or simply a creator of angst-ridden moods.

Thus the opening of the first movement is less a series of nature sounds, proto-Bartók in character, than a genuine symphonic introduction, with fragments of ideas ripe for development. Off-stage trumpets are not too far away, and it is good to hear their phrases being clearly articulated. The cellos and basses declaim their theme (taken from one of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer) with purpose, and initial climaxes are notable for their lack of forcefulness. The culmination of the movement has a genuine sense of having been striven for, and is all the more gratifying for not being too driven and becoming merely hectic.

One might argue that the basic tempo for the second movement is a shade on the fast side for Mahler’s qualification ’nicht zu schnell’ (not too fast), but it fits perfectly in the context of Gielen’s perception of the symphony as a whole. Although brisk, the movement is not hurried, and there are some telling instrumental details, such as the horns’ stopped notes and scrupulous staccato string articulation. Woodwinds pipe rustically (there is a superbly characterful principal clarinet) and the Trio is amiably delivered.

Excessive sentiment is also absent from the third movement, with its tongue-in-cheek funeral procession to the tune of “Frère Jacques”, and its quasi-gypsy ’fiddle’ music. These latter passages are not milked for all they are worth, but still register in their irony. Gielen’s meticulous attention to balance ensures we hear the varied strands (shades of Ives again?) with all their contrasting elements.

The finale begins tempestuously as if to suggest a switch to more weighty matters – musically and emotionally, and whilst Gielen pulls no punches in the earlier part of the movement, his reserves of power are conserved for the final pages which are revealed as the true summit of the whole symphony. More than usual there is the sense of cumulative impact with a blazing D major being perceived as the ultimate goal.

Often, Mahler’s 1st symphony is allotted a disc to itself, but on this Hänssler issue, the two Ives pieces follow. I am not sure if one wants to hear them immediately after the Mahler, but they are fine performances and, as I have suggested, The Unanswered Question makes for an uncanny link with the symphony.

I cannot imagine that this repertoire is encountered frequently by the players of the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, but they play splendidly in this comparatively alien territory. Central Park in the Dark is a rather more brightly-lit affair than in some performances, but the myriad details of Ives’s scoring are fascinating – and Gielen ensures they register. In terms of balance, I would have preferred the piano more a part of the orchestra then the prominence it is given here, but its phenomenally difficult part is played extraordinarily well, although no player is credited. He or she should have been. If one were being excessively pedantic, it could be argued that the strings should be placed more distantly in The Unanswered Question, but again it is good to hear the notes Ives actually wrote rather than a vague hint of them.

In sum, Ives’s pieces receive unusually assured performances, which complement a perceptive and thoroughly well played interpretation of the Mahler. This is altogether a highly recommendable release.

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