Mahler’s First was one of them. I vividly recall the normally somnolent Thursday afternoon audience rising to its feet to cheer after his 2002 performance. Sadly, neither that, nor the 2008 reprise, has ever been issued. I think his reading had both more Innigkeit and sheer élan than this reading by Ashkenazy, who I doubt has anything particularly interesting to say in this work.
The opening string shimmer lacks mystery and expectancy. Is this, perhaps, because he’s a pianist, not a violinist and can’t convey the importance of a sustained string tremolo? The Wayfarer theme goes well enough but, overall, there is little sense of verdant nature awakening to a new day. The Scherzo needs more of what Germans call Schwung (“oomph”), and the trio should resemble an inebriated swoon, which doesn’t quite happen here. In the klezmer-meets-Kurt Weill third movement, again, the music is played a little too straight.
The final sprawling movement is always a challenge and Ashkenazy and co. don’t sweep the field here either. Even the famous molto expressivo string passage sounds slightly perfunctory in their hands. Leonard Bernstein is, as usual in Mahler, wonderful in both his recordings, but my favourite performance is Guilini’s in Chicago. Why do so many Italian conductors excel at this symphony?