"Slammin'!" was the way a friend of mine described this performance of Mahler's First Symphony, and that about sums it up. At a somewhat deeper level, it's also a classic case of interpretive points made not through obvious distortions of line and tempo, but via careful attention to phrasing, color, ensemble balances, and texture. Michael Gielen unearths a riot of color virtually anywhere that you care to listen. From the very opening, where the octave As in the strings have an altogether extraordinary sense of depth, and where the offstage trumpet calls are perfectly placed, this performance drips atmosphere. Listen to the way the strings really dig at the opening of the scherzo, or to Gielen's generous observation of Mahler's "wild" indication in the ensuing development section. Nor does he stint on string portamentos in the trio.
With his keen ear for the weirder nether-regions of Mahler's orchestration, it should come as no surprise that the funeral march is especially successful, with each successive canonic entry of the "Frére Jacques" theme deftly touched in. Note the attention to the quiet percussion writing, or to the eerie sound of the violins scraping the strings with the wood of their bows. The finale truly commences like a bolt of lightening, with a terrific crash and an ensuing sonic tornado of the utmost violence. Once again Gielen proves himself adept at the work's more lyrical moments, offering a second subject that never stints on passion (particularly at its final climax before the coda, which bespeaks real Romantic desperation). As for that coda: Watch out! It just keeps building, getting louder and bigger and faster until the final roof-rattling rolls of timpani and bass drum. Fantastic! In a very crowded field, this performance certainly takes its place among the handful of truly great Mahler Firsts.
The coupling, typically adventurous, also is very good. Gielen's Central Park in the Dark by Charles Ives may sound almost too polished, but there's no doubting his commitment to the cause, and The Unanswered Question is beautifully done, not a bit too slow or heavy-handed. The SWR engineers also have contrived superb Sonics, with a rich bass, a huge dynamic range, and ample space around the instruments that never compromises the extreme clarity of texture that Gielen conjures. As his Mahler cycle nears completion, it's quite clear that this is going to be one of the great ones.--David Hurwitz