Having just heard Klaus Tennstedt's live version of Symphony No 2 Resurrection, I was expecting much from this live version of Mahler's Symphony No. 1. What I got was a mixed bag.
Compared to the studio version, the tempos here are more flexible, and much slower overall in the outer movements. The dynamic range is also a bit wider, and the instruments have more "bite" to them (as they did in the live Mahler 2nd). The first movement, however, is indicative of the weaknesses of this performance: sound quality and tempos. The strings sound scratchy in the upper ranges, while the brass "buzz" a bit (as does anything--strings included--in the mid-range). Wherever the microphones were, they did not capture the beauty nor the balance of this orchestra, as string playing is sometimes obscured behind the brass. Also, the tempo drags, and while Tennstedt makes the opening bars suitably creepy at a slow tempo, the meditative quality of this slower tempo throughout obscures the joy and youth (and forward momentum) that should be coursing through this sprightly piece. Only at the end does the tempo speed up.
The second and third movements fare better, for when Tennstedt relaxes and slightly slows the tempo down for the second movement's second subject (from about the 3:40 mark to 6:35 in), it allows him to indulge more in its lyricism. Still, a slightly faster tempo for the first subject might have added more of a lift to its waltz-like first theme. Plus, he sound quality retains its fuzziness.
The third movement works the best on this CD, with more emotional involvement than in the studio version. The tempo choices also work here, with a nice lilting quality brought out in the second subject (starting around 2:30), and nice lazy slides into the beat from the horns. The whole movement reminds me of a gypsy dance, with dreamlike qualities throughout.
The fourth movement shows slightly more energy in the loud thwacks on the tympani and bass drum than in the studio version, but Tennstedt slows down dramatically for the lyrical part of this movement, almost killing it. Also, a faster tempo may have added more of an element of farewell to the short string melody that starts at the 15:35 mark, as it would have had it been played with more emotion in the studio version.
As if to point out all the flaws in this version of Mahler's First Symphony, the "Ruslan and Ludmilla" Overture by Glinka is played quickly and in better sound. Not only is this music more joyful than what came before, the balance between the instruments seems better, probably due to the better recorded quality (even though this recording precedes the previous recording by nine years).
We also have excerpts of studio versions of Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony and Mahler's Sixth Symphony on the final track on this CD, an interview with Tennstedt by John Amis, recorded the same year (1990) that the Mahler recording was made. After a brief bio by Amis (including Tennstedt's recent and, at the time, successful battle with cancer--one that permanently left his voice sounding scratchy), Tennstedt tells him that he is "a romantic conductor, and I'm very happy that the LPO is a romantic orchestra." After briefly discussing his relationship with the LPO (one LPO player told Amis, "We play our hearts out for Klaus"), they discuss Mahler. In this section, Tennstedt cautions young conductors not to conduct Mahler too early, for one needs to know "his whole, terrible life" in order to be able to conduct him. He also says that now, in his old age, he feels he knows Mahler.
"You have to have much experience, maybe bad experience, and then you can come near, near Mahler," he says.
The interview ends with Tennstedt talking about the Sixth, followed by the excerpt mentioned above.
I confess that I have only heard two versions of Mahler's First Symphony, this one and Tennstedt's studio version. While I enjoy the emotion and spontaneity of this version, I prefer the tempos and sound quality of the studio version. For lovers of Tennstedt, there are two other versions of him conducting this symphony out there, which I recommend you check out before deciding whether to include this CD in your collection. For lovers of the First Symphony, there are better versions elsewhere, and while the "Ruslan and Ludmilla" Overture and the rare interview with Tennstedt are good filler pieces, the filler pieces shouldn't be a bigger draw than the main work.