‘The First of Mahler’’ was the title of the opening concert of New England Conservatory’s season commemorating the 100th anniversary of Gustav Mahler’s death. But what NEC offered at a packed Jordan Hall was a first in more ways than one, as the original version of Mahler’s First Symphony got what director of orchestras Hugh Wolff believes was its first performance since its Budapest premiere on Nov. 20, 1889. On Monday night, it was paired with Richard Strauss’s tone poem “Don Juan,’’ which debuted in Weimar on Nov. 11, 1889, and the NEC Philharmonia under Wolff was fully equal to the challenge of these two composers’ explosive early works.
What Mahler left as his First is a four-movement symphony that took more or less final form in 1899. In 1967, a five-movement version from 1893 - when the piece was a tone poem called “Titan’’ - came to light. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that most of the original 1889 version turned up in an archive at the University of Western Ontario. This summer, Wolff and NEC composition major Kristo Kondakci created a performing version of this 1889 “Tone Poem in Two Parts’’ from Mahler’s manuscript pages. The differences are primarily in orchestration, dynamics, and expressive markings, but after 1889 Mahler streamlined the finale, eliminating the return of the “Inferno’’ fanfare that opened the movement.
Both “Don Juan’’ and the Mahler First tell the story of a romantic hero. Strauss’s swashbuckler (this could be music for an Errol Flynn film) cuts a swath through the orchestra, seducing the ladies, pausing only for the briefest moments of self-reflection and doubt. Mahler’s (autobiographical?) young man strolls through the fields, regales his sweetheart with a trumpet serenade, and enjoys a village dance. Then the satiric fourth-movement funeral march announces that love has died. In the finale, Mahler’s hero is tormented by memories from the first three movements and can’t move on.
The NEC Philharmonia’s performance of “Don Juan’’ was loud, colorful, glib, self-assured, and swaggering - in other words, everything a Strauss performance should be. It pointed up the astonishing maturity of Strauss’s orchestration - in 1889, he was far ahead of Mahler - and also his compositional limitations.
As for the Mahler, Wolff’s opening movement was tightly coiled and could have used more fresh air. But he gave the second-movement serenade an unembarrassed naïveté, and Chuan-An Hou’s trumpet solo was gorgeous in both tone and phrasing. (This movement, later called “Blumine,’’ is the one that Mahler eventually discarded, even though its love themes seed the rest of the symphony.) Best of all was the finale, in which Wolff made it sound as if it were the protagonist rather than the composer losing his way. The reintroduction of the movement’s opening fanfare came as not just a dramatic coup but a logical one, and the orchestra’s ascent to the triumphant conclusion was as thrilling as any performance on record.
In between the Strauss and the Mahler, NEC music history and musicology chair Katarina Markovic came on stage and gave a brief lecture on how the two versions of the Mahler differ, with Wolff and the orchestra playing musical examples. Kudos to NEC for that, and also to Wolff for seating his first and second violins antiphonally, as Mahler and Strauss would have done.