Maestro Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005) was among the most elegant, most sophisticated, most refined conductors the world of classical music has ever known. He was, however, also among the last conductors I would have considered a top choice in the Mahler First Symphony, a youthful, zealous, even ostentatious work. It always seemed to me that Giulini's style better suited the music of Mozart, Verdi, Debussy, Brahms, Schumann, and the like, than to Mahler, and that we were better off leaving Mahler's outgoing music to someone more like Georg Solti. But what do I know? I had never heard Giulini's Mahler First before, so I approached listening to this audiophile-remastered, 1971 EMI recording from Hi-Q Records with some small degree of hesitation, even trepidation. I should not have.
Whatever, let's start with some background on the music itself. As you no doubt know, Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) premiered his Symphony No. 1 in D major in 1889, saying at first it was a five-movement symphonic poem and, at least temporarily, being persuaded to give it the name "Titan." Before long, though, he revised it to the familiar four-movement piece we know today and dropped the "Titan" designation. The work became especially popular in the mid-to-late 1950's, the beginning of the stereo age, probably because with its large orchestra, soaring melodies, enormous impact, and dramatic contrasts the symphony makes a spectacular listening experience, and it became an ideal way for audiophiles to show off their newly acquired stereo systems. And we can't forget that the First is one of Mahler's shortest symphonies, making it an ideal length for home listening.
In the Symphony No. 1 Mahler said he was trying to describe his protagonist facing life, beginning with the lighter moments of youth and proceeding to the darker years of maturity. In the first movement, then, "Spring without End," we see Mahler's young hero as a part of the symbolic stirring of Nature before a long spring. In the second-movement Scherzo, "With Full Sail," we find Mahler in one of his mock-sentimental moods, displaying an exuberance that he may have meant as ironic. In the third movement we get an intentionally awkward funeral march depicting a hunter's fairy-tale burial, which comes off as a typical Mahler parody. It might represent the hero's first glimpse of death or maybe Mahler's own recollection of a youthful encounter with the death of a loved one. With Mahler, who knows. The movement has long been one of the composer's most controversial, and audiences still debate just what he was up to. Then, in the finale, Mahler conveys the panic "of a deeply wounded heart," as his central figure faces the suffering of life and fate. Still, because Mahler was a spiritual optimist, he wanted Man to triumph in the end. Therefore, in the final twenty minutes or so Mahler pulls out all the stops and puts the orchestra into full swing.
|Carlo Maria Giulini|
Giulini's reserved manner serves him well in the atmospheric introductory moments of the symphony, as spring awakens. From there, the conductor's innate poetic vision takes over, and the first movement has a sweet sense of beauty and repose leading to a vigorous conclusion.
Under Giulini the second movement seemed initially a touch slack to me, but it picks up as it goes along, and there's an attractive sweetness in the overall line. The funeral march, too, seemed at first a pinch underpowered, yet as with the second movement it's Giulini's way to build incrementally, and he does so with a satisfactorily mounting tension. Then the conductor opens the final movement with the huge burst of noise we know so well, and it is effective enough in startling us from the melancholy of the funeral march. Furthermore, Giulini again handles the lyrical sections with an easy lilt, the big Romantic melody blooming nicely, and he ends the score on an appropriately happy and positive note.
If I have any small reservation about Giulini's reading, though, it's that from time to time he tends to fall into a fairly conservative, somewhat studied rhythm rather than letting the momentum carry the day. In other words, the flow of the music occasionally seems impeded by Giulini's tendency to become too careful and slow the pace to a rather steady, predictable, and clocklike gait. Maybe the conductor lets his own sense of propriety get in the way of Mahler's exuberance, where a little more spontaneity might have been the order of the day. Despite this relatively small concern, however, Giulini's is an enlightened, heartfelt interpretation, full of passion and zest, if on a slightly reserved scale.
EMI producer Christopher Bishop and engineer Carson Taylor recorded the album at Medinah Temple, Chicago in March 1971. Engineer Tohru Kotetsu remastered the original tape at the JVC Mastering Center, Japan in 2014 using XRCD processing and 24-bit K2 technology. The results are much better than I expected, given that in my recollection of EMI's Chicago recordings of the period, the sound never seemed that great to me. Here, things sound considerably improved.
While the sonics are still a tad too bright for my taste, they are quite smooth, rich, spacious, and resonant, highly dimensional, and extremely dynamic. Indeed, the impact will have you thinking you're in the concert hall, with hushed silences building to huge climaxes before you know it. The sound is not at all hard or harsh as some of EMI's Chicago sound could be. Just don't play it too loudly, or it may appear to get a little piercing. Well, with its wide dynamic range, you shouldn't have the gain set too high, in any case, or the music will knock out of your seat in its stronger parts. If you like the performance, this remastering is undoubtedly the best you'll find, even though I would have welcomed a more-natural reaction from the upper mids and lower treble, a bit more lower range warmth, and perhaps a stronger deep bass response. OK, I'm being petty. It sounds great.
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To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: