It was only logical that Claudio Abbado should start his tenure with the Berliner Philharmoniker in December 1989 conducting Mahler’s First Symphony. Firstly, because Abbado was even then considered one of the great Mahler conductors of his time, and secondly because this symphony by the still young composer is infused with an irresistible expression of freshness and new beginnings. Even today we can feel the special magic of this new beginning in this video document.
The election of Claudio Abbado came as a surprise to the music world – not least to the conductor himself. In many ways he embodied a contrast to Herbert von Karajan who, particularly in his later years, had became ever more remote from his musicians. Claudio Abbado, however, made it clear from the outset that he was simply “Claudio” to everyone. Furthermore, he followed new musical directions; he aimed at a more transparent sound, and put an emphasis on new music – and also on Mahler who had only occasionally appeared in Philharmoniker concerts under Karajan.
Mahler was only in his mid 20s when he composed his first symphony. It is particularly astonishing that even in this work, all the features of his symphonic style are already present: the sounds of nature, the parody, the monumentality and the affinity with folk song. On top of that, there is the consummate compositional craft which nevertheless never hems in the optimistic naturalness of this work: an expression that perfectly reflects the sense of optimism for the future that shines through in everyone involved in this concert.