Two days before, Bernard Haitink’s Mahler 6th with the Chicago Symphony had drawn a capacity crowd. In contrast, this Prom was woefully under-attended. Yet it was by far the superior performance, appealing not to celebrity followers but to those interested in the music.
Mahler’s 1st Symphony may be familiar but it reveals a great deal about how well a conductor really understands the composer. Eschenbach hears the symphony in the context of Mahler’s entire output, from the very early songs through to the later symphonies. This is perceptive, for some have even suggested that the composer's whole oeuvre is one huge symphony in different stages. This performance thus presumes more engagement from listeners than does the current fashion for loud and bombastic. But a conductor with integrity goes for insight, not short-term popularity. This performance was rewarding because it shed light on where Mahler was coming from and where he was heading.
Of all Mahler’s symphonies, the First is perhaps the only one that can survive an arrogant, noisy interpretation, because adolescence involves being full of oneself ! But Eschenbach showed clearly how the symphony is far from one-dimensional.