Since the article was originally written several events have occurred which make we now wish to revise it: firstly the flood of Mahler recordings has hardly abated: Haitink and Tennstedt are on their second cycles, Rattle and Sinopoli continue with theirs, Segerstam and Inouye (and possibly others) have started theirs. Secondly there have been a considerable number of reissues (or first-time isses) of historic Mahler performances by major figures of the recent (and not-so-recent) past.
Even though I have continued to acquire Mahler recordings I feel that their sheer volume is beginning to overwhelm me, I have not - and probably never will - have heard all the available recordings of Mahler's works. Considering that only a few years ago I had heard every single recording ever made of the 6th, for example, indeed owned the majority of them, this situation is both rewarding and alarming.
Mahler's star has never been higher - witness not just the number of recordings, but also performances: I visited London (England) for four weeks last year (1992). During that period alone there were performances in London of the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 8th symphonies. I just missed the 9th by a few days. There was also another performance of the 8th in Brighton (50 miles away) during the same period. The London performance of the 8th, incidentally, was given by the Kent County Youth (sic) Orchestra.
So - please take this in the spirit in which it is written. I have lived with and loved the music of Mahler for nearly 30 years; I believe him to be possibly the most important and influential composer since Beethoven. This work is not definitive, it is a reflection of my own opinions. I know many people out there agree with them, I'm sure that many don't. If you are familiar with any of the recordings I recommend - or dislike - you'll get a feeling for how your tastes and mine coincide - or fail to.
Several reasons have been put forward as to why it took so long for the music of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) to be appreciated. (Except in Holland: the evangelism of Mahler disciple Willem Mengelberg - see below - who conducted a complete Mahler cycle at the Concertgebouw as early as 1920, ensured that, except during WWII, Mahler has always been popular in Holland. Mengelberg was followed at the Concertgebouw by other dedicated Mahlerians like van Beinum and Haitink.) The advent of stereophonic recordings was obviously a factor - especially true of the massive choral symphonies, nos. 2 & 8; the centenary of Mahler's birth in 1960 was another, as was the performance of the Adagietto from the fifth symphony at JFK's funeral (and yes, I can remember where I was when I heard the news) was another. Some devotees of the late Leonard Bernstein have even suggested that it took a conductor of his persuasive advocacy to convince people of the worth of the music; but this ignores, unfairly I believe, the sterling efforts of the previous generation of Mahler conductors (Walter, Klemperer, Horenstein, Mitropolous) who had spent so long as lone voices crying in the wilderness.
I believe that it was only the coming of age of the post-World War II generation, who had grown up under the everyday threat of extinction, that the music really had a chance for general popularity. I do not use the word lightly, for today Mahler is big box-office: the opening of a new concert hall will probably be celebrated by a performance of the 'Resurrection' symphony - or even the enormous 8th, the 'Symphony of a Thousand' - Mahler concerts invariably sell out, a conductor today is more likely to begin a recorded cycle of Mahler symphonies than of Beethoven.
What all this means, of course, is that once again, the average record buyer needs some guidance amidst a plethora of different recordings. Here, for what it's worth, are my personal favourites - and not-so favourites.
It has been suggested that there are four composers beyond criticism, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and your own particular favourite. I realised a few years ago, when idly counting through my record collection, that Mahler must count as my favourite. Apart from Beethoven, I possess more records of Mahler than of any other composer. Most of them, thankfully, are good; very few of them are downright bad, but then again not many of them are great either.
Here then is Deryk's guide to the Mahler symphonies on record.
This symphony seems to be very lucky on record and there are at least half a dozen recordings that can safely be recommended. My absolute favourite, though, of the over 20 versions I possess is also one of the cheapest: it's by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rafael Kubelik (DG). Not only does it cost well under $10 it also, unusually (actually this is becoming less unusual), comes with a coupling, the "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen" (Songs of a Wayfarer) cycle sung by the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. This is an appropriate coupling, as the song-cycle (Mahler's earliest) provides thematic material for the symphony. This CD does not enjoy the very finest recording, as it dates from 1968, and the orchestra doesn't quite rank with the very best (the trumpets, for example, sound a little thin), but the performance makes up for all that. As an example, listen to the way the strings in the final movement coda (about a minute before the end) just bounce out of the speakers at you. This is an effect that once heard spoils you for any other performance because you're always listening for it. An essential recording.
For those who insist on a digital recording (shame on you!) then look no further than the second Bernstein (DG) with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. This, for me, ranks a close second to the Kubelik, and is also now available, as part of the Leonard Bernstein Edition, at around $10; the final chord has even more of an impact than usual thanks to the extra thwack from the bass drum - not in the score but presumably sanctioned by the conductor.
A recent live release from EMI brings the CBSO under Simon Rattle recorded live in Symphony Hall, Birmingham. The hall has been widely acclaimed as one of the finest built in recent years: some, if not all, of this comes across in this recording. I feel this version ranks alongside the Bernstein, i.e. just a notch below Kubelik. It is beautfully played - the CBSO are really a superb band these days - and well recorded. The interpretation is searching, although some of the rits and accels sound a little too calculated and not quite spontaneous enough - cf. Kubelik who never sounds calculated. There are some interestingly different balances, which - for me - reveal certain details never before heard: there is, for example, a wonderful running passage for clarinets during the opening turmoil of IV; usually this is buried beneath the rest of the orchestra, but not in this version. The filler - presented, I am happy to say, separately at the beginning of the disk - is Blumine (see below). So much for the top 3.
The 1964 LSO/Solti (Decca/London) (most definitely NOT the later CSO remake which seems to lack any magic), is now available at mid-price, the recording is fine and the playing is superb; the 1969 LSO/Horenstein (Unicorn) - we shall be discussing this conductor in greater depth later; and I cannot leave this symphony without mentioning the 1961 Columbia Symphony recording conducted by Bruno Walter, Mahler's friend, confidante and protege. Walter first heard this music, conducted by the composer, some 70 years before he made this record: a valuable document indeed (Sony), this is now available at mid-price in a 2-CD set coupled with his even more important recording of the second (see below).
The - as far as I'm aware - very first LP recording of Mahler's 1st, VSO/Jascha Horenstein from 1953, has just been reissued by Vox as a 2CD set coupled with the same conductor's superlative recording of Bruckner's 9th. In some ways this is a finer performance than Horenstein's LSO version - and there is lots of lovely portamento, which Horenstein tended to abandon in later years - although the playing in places and certainly the recording are less good. For the budget-conscious, and those interested in what was going on before Lenny discovered Mahler, this is highly recommended.
There is a very cheap version on Laserlight, with the Prague Festival Orchestra under Pavel Urbanek. A decade ago this would have been of some significance, now it's just another less than great run through. There is also a live recording by the NYPO under new director Kurt Masur on Teldec. After decades of performing Mahler under Walter, Mitropolous, Bernstein - and even Boulez and Mehta - the NYPO could probably play Mahler 1 on autopilot. Which is exactly what this sounds like. The recording is only fair too.
Incidentally, there are known to have been 3 different versions of this symphony made by the composer, in 1888, 1893 and 1899. Furthermore, it was only the second version to which Mahler gave the subtitle 'Titan' (note, there is no definite article); there is no justification for any recording - other than the Morris discussed below - to use this title. We all know Mahler's music is titanic, and anyway the title came from a 3-volume novel of ideas by Jean-Paul (Richter) - also the literary inspiration of Schumann - hardly what most people associate with the word. (Sorry to belabour this point, but it is a pet peeve.)
The first two versions both had an extra movement ('Blumine' - placed second) which was dropped from the final version. This movement was not performed again in public until 1968, but it has seen its way into a few recordings since then. This is not really fair, as the revision of 1899 changed the orchestration significantly, and so a recording, like Ozawa's, Fischer's or Mehta's, consisting of the 1899 version plus 'Blumine' doesn't represent any stage of Mahler's development of this symphony at all. I have even seen a Hungarian recording (I suspect it's the Fischer on Hungaroton) of this combination describing itself as the 1888 version - this is absolutely untrue, as the 1888 version (if, indeed, it is still extant) has never been recorded. The new Mehta version also, rather disingenuously, describes itself as Symphony No. 1 (1888).
There was one major recording of the 1893 version, including 'Blumine', by the NPO under Wyn Morris. (The very first was, as far as I know, by a Canadian (sic) youth orchestra and has long since vanished.) Morris's is a good, if not great, performance and a fascinating document of Mahler's earliest skill with the orchestra: even the earlier works which we still have (the Wayfarer cycle and 'Das Klagende Lied') only exist in later revisions. It has been reissued on CD on EMI's Phoenixa label (as I recall); I have yet to find it in Canada and rumour has it that it has already been deleted in the US. If you see a copy of this, snap it up, it is unique.
The new live Tennstedt (EMI).
This was Mahler's first blockbuster, a five-movement 80-minute emotional roller-coaster guaranteed to tear your heart out. This music is surely what the CD was invented for, can there be anyone who does not respond to it?
My prime recommendation is for Simon Rattle's inspired 1986 version (EMI) with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. I first heard the conclusion of this coming over my tinny car radio and even then it brought a lump to the throat; it confirms Rattle, even more so than his recording of the 10th (see below), as potentially one of the great Mahler conductors. The recording is splendid, you can really hear the organ in the closing pages for example, and the CBSO play as if their lives depended on it: an obvious first choice.
One problem with the symphony, as with the eighth, is that the coda is played by the orchestra alone, after the choir have stopped singing. In the concert hall this rarely seems to be a problem, but on record it can be anticlimactic: for this reason, if for no other, I cannot recommend the recordings by Solti (either of the 2), Abbado or Sinopoli.
Gilbert Kaplan's version, while cheap and brilliantly (if somewhat clinically) recorded is a remarkable achievement for an amateur but doesn't really match the incandescence required by the music. Kaplan explains in one of the two accompanying 90-some (!) page booklets how he has examined vast quantities of contemporary material in order to arrive at as close an approximation as possible to the way Mahler himself would have conducted the work. Personally I don't think he's succeeded; there is considerable evidence (including the piano rolls Mahler himself made of the last movement of the fourth and first movement of the fifth symphonies) to suggest that Mahler's conducting style would seem much more eccentric beside the acceptable late twentieth norms. More on this later.
The most dangerous performance I know is the semi-legendary VSO/Scherchen made around 1960. This until recently changed hands in second-hand stores for considerable sums of money. Scherchen alternates between incredibly fast and incredibly slow tempi - frequently within bars of each other. There are parts of the 3rd movement when the conducting sounded so analytical that I thought to myself 'I bet this is how Webern would have conducted it', but on reflection I think this living on the edge waywardness is probably more akin to the way Mahler himself would have done it. If you already have a good modern recording, then supplement it with this one. No serious Mahlerian should be without it. It's coupled with Scherchen's fine - but hardly in quite the same league - recording of the 1st (MCA Double-Decker) One complaint: the CD is coupling is Symphony 2 mvts 1,2,3,4,5(i) on CD1 with 5(ii) and Symphony 1 on CD2. The break in Symphony 2 mvt 5 is exactly where the side break on my old Westminster LP set is. Why????? (Apart from the obvious answer I mean.)
Klemperer's gritty 1963 recording (EMI) is now remastered on to a single 79-minute CD - a real bargain. Klemperer's very first conducting assignment was directing the offstage brass in the Berlin premiere of the symphony: attended by Mahler, and conducted by Oskar Fried (see below). Stokowski's 1975 recording (RCA) is also very fine, (if this is not yet available on CD then it should be), Stokey was, almost unbelievably, in his 90s when he made this. The Stokowski/Mahler connection goes back a long way: he attended the first performance of the 8th symphony in 1910, and was the first to conduct it in the USA in 1916. Finally, of course, there is Bruno Walter's historic 1958 recording (Sony). Walter attended the very first performance, conducted by the composer, in 1895. The recording, while not up to the very latest, is still remarkably good for its age.
Recently there have also appeared - mainly on Italian labels such as Hunt - several historic Mahler recordings, of which two are especially worthy of mention in this context. A live (1965) Klemperer and a fabulous live Barbirolli (Stuttgart, 1970 the year of JB's death). Both are highly recommended, the recordings are reasonable stereo, and the Barbirolli shows what a truly great Mahler conductor he was. It comes in a 3CD set coupled with a BPO 3rd, which is a wonderful interpretation unfortunately disfigured by some poor orchestral playing, particularly in the finale - and yes, I did say it was the BPO.... Even they can play badly.
Other historical recordings of interest include a 1951 Holland Festival performance by Klemperer which has Kathleen Ferrier as the alto and Jo Vincent (Mengelberg's soprano in his 1939 4th., see below) as the soprano. This is an excellent performance, perhaps not the greatest ever, as the liner note writer suggests, but has a unique excitement, particularly in the closing pages. Just before the great upsurge at the words 'Oh schmerz...' there is an audible grunt (or shout) and thump presumably from Klemperer himself getting excited. The sound is more than adequate but there are some pops and clicks from the original masters.
Also worth considering in the historical stakes is a 1947 VPO/Bruno Walter which is excellent, although the recording leaves a good deal to be desired; and, speaking of poor recordings. And, at last, the very first recording of a Mahler symphony, from 1923/4 (!!) conducted by Oskar Fried, another Mahler friend and protege, has bee reissued. This is an acoustic recording - i.e. made before the advent of the microphone into the studio. The unnamed orchestra was apparently only 40 strong. Available on Pearl, coupled with Jascha Horenstein's 1928 Kindertotenlieder (another first recording) and two sungs sung by 'Mme Charles Cahier' - who was the alto in the premiere of Das Liede von der Erde (although well past her prime by the time of these recordings); this is obviously of interest mainly to fanatics and completists like myself. It does, however, cast even further doubt on Gilbert Kaplan's claims to authenticity - see above. (Incidentally, Pearl claims this 2CD set to contain the 'first 3' Mahler recordings - they obviously don't know about the 1926 Adagietto conducted by Mengelberg.)
For some time this has featured in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's longest regularly-programmed symphony. A six-movement monster, the movements once had titles such as "Pan awakes - summer marches In" and "What the flowers in the meadow tell me" (hard to see Mahler as a prototypical hippie!) - the originally intended seventh movement achieved a life of its own and became the fourth symphony - it can easily become a less than fascinating experience on record.
By far the best version I have ever heard is the 1970 LSO/Horenstein (Unicorn). Jascha Horenstein was one of the twentieth century's great unsung conductors. His recorded legacy is pitifully small and much of it, especially from the 50s, was made with 2nd-rate (or worse) orchestras. Only toward the end of his life did he get the chance to record with the finest ensembles, but with what effect! Despite the claims of, inter alia, Bernstein, Abbado, Inbal, Tennstedt this, for me, is Mahler's 3rd.
If you must have a more modern recording then Tennstedt (EMI), (recently reissued as party of a set) is fine, as is Inbal (Denon) - both of these are digital recordings, as is the new Bernstein (DG) which I have not heard, but it is reputedly at least as good as his 1960s Sony version which is very fine indeed.
Mahler's simplest symphony - well shortest anyway. This and the first are the only two that come in under an hour; the finale is a setting of a song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Youth's Magic Horn) a book of German folk poems which cast a great spell over Mahler: the fourth movement (Uhrlicht) from the Resurrection and the fifth movement from the third symphony also use Wunderhorn texts. In this case the setting is of a child's view of heaven, and very angelic it sounds too - providing you don't actually read the translation! In fact the child seems to think that the main point of heaven is that (s)he will finally get enough to eat. The symphony has been remarkably lucky and there are a number of highly recommendable versions.
Top of the list is probably the Cleveland recording under the late George Szell (1966) (Sony). Szell was a great Mahlerian and it is unfortunate that he only recorded two of the symphonies: his recording of the sixth has only recently been reissued after having been out of the catalogue for years, but this fourth has never been out of print, and is a wonderful testament to his skill.
Another historic version is the 1939 recording made live with the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam conducted by Willem Mengelberg (Phillips). Mengelberg worshipped Mahler and knew him well. He took great pains to note down every detail of Mahler's own performances in his own copies of the scores; this recording is, therefore, although dating from over a quarter of a century after the composer's death, the closest we are ever likely to get to the way Mahler himself would have conducted. The huge, unmarked, ritardando in the opening bars immediately indicates that this is a performance in what one might describe as the 'authentic' romantic tradition; it is almost impossible to imagine such a performance being given today or, indeed, what the critics might say about it. This mid-price CD is also, apart from a 1926 studio recording of the fifth Symphony Adagietto (available on a not brilliantly transferred EMI CD of the earliest Concertgebouw/Mengelberg recordings, although I have recently seen this in the delete bins), the only recording extant of Mengelberg conducting Mahler. Be warned, however, that the sound is less than hi-fi and there are a number of clicks, pops and swishes stemming from the original 78 acetate masters. Nevertheless this is an extremely important record.
As an aside, it is remarkable to discover that the very first recording of this symphony was made in 1930 in Japan, conducted by a Viscount Hidemaro Konoye. This version is also available on CD (Denon), but, although it is a surprisingly respectable performance, its chief attraction is doubtless its curiosity value. The last few bars are missing from the original masters - presumably the 78s ran out just too soon.
Among more modern versions those of Lorin Maazel with the VPO and Franz Welser-Most with the LPO are both highly enjoyable. They are both digital recordings and the latter, under the orchestra's recently-appointed chief conductor, features what must be the slowest performance ever of the heavenly third movement - and yet it doesn't seem a second too long. A highly auspicious debut for a new conductor.
"The symphony is accursed - nobody understands it.... I wish I could conduct the first performance 50 years after my death." (Mahler)
This is the symphony with the famous Adagietto movement - as featured in Visconti's "Death in Venice", and at JFK's funeral.
The obvious first recommendation for this is the legendary 1969 NPO version under Sir John Barbirolli. This has now been remastered onto a single CD: in fact a short horn passage, unaccountably missing from the original LP, was rerecorded by the original horn player (Alan Civil - who also played the horn on the Beatles' song 'For No One') in the same hall specifically for the reissue! There is a real sense of electricity about this performance, which you can feel merely by sampling the opening bars: when the entire orchestra enters after the trumpet's initial fanfares I guarantee a shiver will run down your spine. If the performance has a flaw it is that the finale is really too slow.
So, if you want a faster last movement, a modern recording and still on a single CD, then there are two choices: firstly Leonard Bernstein's VPO recording from 1987. A fabulous performance , and one of the best performances of his second Mahler cycle, it has also been reissued as part of DG's cheap Leonard Bernstein Edition. My other option would be the 1988 LPO/Tennstedt (EMI) recorded live in the Royal Festival Hall at Tennstedt's 'comeback' concert after a bout of treatment for cancer. This strikes me as being perhaps Tennstedt's finest Mahler to date; true there are a couple of minor fluffs in the playing, but there is real electricity here. The critics seem to have found this a controversial performance, but I can't see why.
There is a remarkable performance, again by Scherchen, on Harmonia Mundi. For some reason though - to get the work under an hour for radio broadcast? - there is a HUGE cut in the central scherzo, reducing it to 5 minutes and thus making it the shortest, not the longest, movement. (The cut is well-managed, but it's still a cut dammit!) Nonetheless, a remarkable achievement. Who says the French (it's the ORTF) can't play Mahler?
"My sixth will propound riddles the solution of which may be attempted only by a generation which has absorbed and truly digested my first five symphonies" (Mahler, in a letter to Richard Specht)
"The only Sixth, despite the 'Pastoral'." (Alban Berg, in a letter to Anton Webern.)
This, to me, is the heart of the Mahler canon; the "dark night of the soul" at the centre of his central instrumental trilogy. In many ways this symphony, if perhaps not the greatest of the 20th century (and I would certainly be prepared to argue that it is), is the work which, probably more than any other, captures the zeitgeist of the times - a remarkable achievement considering that it was written when the century was scarcely half a decade old.
Whereas all the other symphonies either end in triumph (1, 2, 5, 7 and 8), tranquillity (3, 4) or resigned acceptance (Das Lied, 9 and 10) the sixth is almost unremittingly bleak. "Life's a bitch and then you die" just about sums up this work. Mahler himself was superstitious about conducting this symphony, and reportedly burst into tears when told, by Richard Strauss, before the premiere in Essen in 1906, that he should include a funeral march in the concert, as the Mayor had just died. The finale features three great hammer blows (usually achieved by hitting a reinforced section of the floor with a sledgehammer) which represent the three blows of fate which fell the hero of the symphony - according to Alma Mahler, who is not necessarily the most accurate reporter, but in this case it seems appropriate enough. The last hammer blow (which Mahler removed from the published version of the score) is of course his death.
There seem to be three ways to approach this symphony, the conventional way, with moderate-to-quick tempi, is the most often taken. The best examples of this are the BPO under Herbert von Karajan (1975), the Chicago Symphony under Claudio Abbado (1980) now available at mid-price, the 1966 Stockholm PO/Horenstein (Unicorn - although the orchestra leaves something to be desired) and, probably - I have yet to hear this one - the new CBSO/Rattle recording.
Then there is the Bernstein approach: exceptionally, many would say excessively, quick tempi in the outer movements - you would have to run to keep up with Bernstein's march. His recent DG remake is apparently slightly less extreme than his 1960s (Sony) version but you really have to sample either in order to know whether you can take this view of the work or not. Kubelik (DG) is almost as fast in the first movement.
Finally, and my personal favourite, there is the 1968 NPO/Barbirolli recording. This is exceptionally (excessively?) slow in the first and last movements and the first, at any rate, is liberally accompanied by grunts from the conductor. These slow tempi make this perhaps the grimmest, most desolate of all recordings of this work - but how appropriate! My love for this version may well be influenced by my vivid memories of hearing Barbirolli conduct this in London a few days before the recording - a shattering experience indeed.
It has been suggested that those who first came to this symphony via either Bernstein's or Barbirolli's more extreme interpretations find it colours their view indelibly. This may well be true, and certainly has been for me. Alas, the Barbirolli has yet to be reissued on CD; there is a live 1969 Barbirolli on Hunt but the recording is pretty dire - I live in hope that EMI will finally see sense.
One recent issue though has caused a good deal of controversy. The recording by the Danish Radio SO under composer Leif Segerstam (Chandos). This was accorded two reviews in Fanfare, one a four-page rave, the other a four sentence dismissal. How could I resist? Segerstam adopts the medium-to-slow tempo route, and certainly digs very deeply into the music. His triumph may well be the finale, where he reinstates the third hammer blow. But whereas other versions which include it never quite seem to cohere, Segerstam makes it totally convincing.
The problem is two-fold: firstly the third hammer blow is not where one would expect it to be: at the climax of the final attempt to reach the major key, where the bottom falls out of the world and the entire orchestra is drowned by a massive stroke on the tam-tam. The third hammer blow comes a few bars later, at the top of the series of ascending harp arpeggios. Richard Strauss could never, according to Bruno Walter, understand why Mahler 'squandered' such a wonderful effect, which becomes weaker at each appearance. In this performance the reason is obvious: the final hammer blow doesn't need to be as string, because the 'hero' who is felled by it (as Alma put it) is exhausted by this point. The final hammer blow is fate almost casually destroying the hopes and aspirations of Mahler - and by extension mankind. The more I listen to this performance the more impressed I am by it. It is coupled with an equally controversial - because extremely slow - recording of Todtenfeier (Funeral Rites) the original version of the first version of the 'Resurrection'. This symphonic poem is sufficiently different from the final version as to now be accepted by the Internal Gustav Mahler Society as a separate composition. As it was written in late 1888, immediately after the completion of the first version of the first symphony, it may well also supplant the 1893 version of that symphony as the earliest example of Mahler's orchestra style. This is not the first recording, but I think it the most interestingly coupled.
One final semi-recommendation: the Philharmonia/Sinopoli version employs some similarly controversial tempi to the Barbirolli and is excellently recorded.
All of the above are double CDs, with the exception of Bernstein's CBS recording, which appears on a triple coupled with his 1966 eighth (see below).
The 1968 Cleveland/Szell has just been reissued by Sony on a single CD. Although very fine, and highly recommendable at budget price, this performance is not a patch on the harrowing account I heard him give with the LSO in London 1969 - now that was a great performance.
Despite much hoohah in certain quarters (the bozos in the Gramophone again) I really can't recommend the Tennstedt (EMI). (I recently picked this up second-hand especially for this survey, in order to confirm my impressions gained from hearing a live Tennstedt on the radio - see the lengths I'm prepared to go to for you, dear reader?). This performance strikes me as overblown, less well recorded than Barbirolli's of 15 years earlier, and ridiculously hysterical in the finale. There are numerous passages where Tennstedt pulls the tempo about for no apparently good reason; note that I am not against (excessive) unmarked rubato per se, but it does need to feel convincing musically; all too often Tennstedt's rubati in this symphony sound merely mannered.
Finally, as I type these words I am listening to the very first recording, from the early 50s Charles Adler conducting the VSO (I think - it's on tape). A very fine interpretation, although the playing and recording are something of a let down. Harmonia Mundi have reissued Adler's 3rd, perhaps they could do the same for this - it's an important recording, which, by the way, places the Andante 2nd, because the critical edition of the IGMG, which reversed the order didn't appear until 1960.
"The symphony was scarcely understood by the public." (Alma Mahler)
"The work is dominated by a tragic and elemental power, that of Death." (Willem Mengelberg)
This one is even more difficult to pull off than the third. Unless the conductor is really committed the symphony can seem to be a rambling succession of interesting moments which fail to cohere.
The versions by Abbado, with the Chicago Symphony (DG) and Bernstein's DG remake with the NYPO are both very fine; personally I prefer the Bernstein, but either can safely be recommended. However, EMI have pulled off something of a coup by issuing a live CBSO/Rattle performance, recorded at the Maltings, Snape, on a single CD (Abbado and Bernstein are both 2CD sets with no coupling). To their credit EMI agreed not to issue a studio version Rattle had laid down a few years back, as he considered it below par. Rattle's version is almost classical in feel, a surprising approach which works very well. this may well be a first choice now.
However, once again, for me Horenstein triumphs. His 1969 NPO seventh, recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall in London, is absolutely tremendous; there are, admittedly, small orchestral glitches, but Horenstein has a uniquely compelling view of the work. The Italian company, Descant, seems to have disappeared, and their 'Horenstin Edition' with them, but this has now been reissued by Music and Arts. The Descant was in good stereo, and I trust that the M&A is also.
There are also several (at least 3) live recordings by the uniquely quirky Hermann Scherchen. I have only heard the 1950 VSO recording (Orfeo); it is at the opposite pole to Rattle's view, but equally valid - if one can pull it off, which Scherchen certainly could. For the Mahlerphile and the Scherchenophile. (And the adventurous)
"Imagine that the Universe bursts into song. We hear no longer human voices, but those of planets and suns which revolve." (Mahler, in a letter to Mengelberg.)
Mahler's description of this symphony is an apt one; and certainly the experience of the music should be overwhelming, it should leave you feeling, however briefly, that this is unquestionably the greatest piece of music ever written.
A spectacular recording then, is a sine qua non, especially for anyone unfamiliar with the work. But a great performance is just as essential. I have heard this work live three times: the first time, in London in 1966, under Bernstein, was unforgettable, one of the greatest musical experiences of my life. The second time, twenty years later, was again in London, conducted by Sir Colin Davis. Even as I was overwhelmed by the sheer physical impact of the sound I was thinking to myself "this is wrong - it's Mahler, not Berlioz". A thought - which lunatic let Davis loose on Mahler, a composer with whom he seems to have no empathy at all? In the same series (Mahler, Vienna and the turn of the century or some such title) celebrating the 125th anniversary of his birth, most of the other symphonies were conducted by Abbado, with the Concertgebouw flying in with Bernstein for the 9th (and no, I didn't go - it sold out in no time at all). So why Davis? Anyone who's ever heard his pathetic Das Lied will know he is the wrong man for the job. Oh well.
The third time I heard the 8th, again in London, was by the Kent County Youth Orchestra. Only the conductor and the soloists were professional musicians. Despite some dubious choral singing, underpowered offstage brass and other shortcomings, so intense was the concentration of these young people (none over 21) that I was virtually in tears at the end. A great performance does not require perfection; an uninspired performance is worse than none at all.
Two versions at the top of the list then: the 1972 CSO/Solti, a stunning recording for its day, it still sounds extremely well and, for me, far outshines all of Solti's other Mahler recordings (except, perhaps, that 1964 LSO first). The other first choice is Tennstedt's 1987 digital recording, which won the Gramophone orchestral record of the year award for that year.
Because this symphony is so huge in its orchestral, solo and choral demands it is almost invariably left to last in a complete cycle. This is why we still have no version from Abbado and, tragically, why there will be no digital remake from Bernstein - he was slated to rerecord it in 1992 in New York. A 1975 live Salzburg version has since appeared, coupled with the Adagio (only) of the 10th. This is a genuine warts-and-all live recording (which, incidentally most of Lenny's later stuff wasn't, it was usually an amalgam of several performances - this is not unusual today) and has consequent lapses of singing and playing; also the recording leaves a good deal to be desired, and the organ sounds, to my ears, like a badly tuned Wurlitzer. I would not be without this version, but can't really recommend it. I do know of people who prefer it as a performance to his 1966 Sony; I am not of their number.
Despite its inferior recording, therefore, I must still enter a plea on behalf of his 1966 LSO (Sony) recording. This was made a few days after the live performance I witnessed and I have lived with it on LP and now CD for over a quarter of a century (and I find that hard to believe even as I write it). To my mind it is a greater performance than any other I have heard.
My overall rankings for this piece then would be, on grounds of performance: 1) Bernstein (1966), 2) Solti (1972) 3) Tennstedt (1987). If you want to know why I don't hold the Tennstedt higher than the others - unlike the BaG, for instance - listen to the very end of Part I. Tennstedt can't resist holding back slightly on the final 'saeculorum saecula', presumably for effect, but how much less effective and affecting it is than Bernstein's exhilaratingly precipitate rush for the finishing line. This movement is, after all, marked 'allegro impetuoso': but impetuousity is one thing Tennstedt can never be accused of.
On grounds of recording quality my recommendations are reversed: 1) Tennstedt, 2) Solti and 3) Bernstein.
I must qualify this slightly though: the Tennstedt certainly has lots of presence and a warm sound, but there is still something lacking: the soloists are often strangely balanced, and the extra brass at the ends of parts I and II don't come off at all - they should somehow sound 'other' or 'elseweher' not like the orchestral brass playing a littlfe softer. Both Solti and Bernstein (1966) are more successful from this viewpoint.
More recently there have been single CD releases by Shaw and Gielen. Robert Shaw, legendary chorus master for Toscanini, has produced a version on Telarc which has received almost universal thumbs down. Unsurpising really, he has no Mahlerian track record and the 8th is not the easiest of the symphonies to get right.
The much-underrated Michael Gielen's version (Sony) is possibly the cheapest yet, although far from the worst. An analogue recording made in 1981 at the reopening of the Frankfurt Alte Oper (incidentally also the site of Inbal's cycle on Denon, and Bernstein's VPO 5th - and Bernstein's 1966 version and Tennstedt's were both recorded in Walthamstow Town Hall, if you're interested) it has the genuine feel of an occasion. The first part is perhaps somewhat flabby, but the second part is held together remarkably tautly, certainly far more so than Tennstedt, and - for once - the conclusion of part two is actually mightier and more impressive than that of part 1. If you don't know this symphony and want a cheap way of discovering what all the fuss is about, I'd heartily recommend this.
Incidentally, is anyone ever going to release the legendary 1959 Horenstein performance, recorded live in the Royal Albert Hall? Credited as doing more than any other single event to spur the Mahler revival in England, this is an important performance, although not, by all accounts, without its flaws. Descant were apparently planning a release, but as they seem to have gone the way of all flesh.... Over to you, M&A?
"I stand vis-a-vis a rien (face to face with nothing)... at a single stroke I have lost any calm and peace of mind I ever achieved... now, at the end of my life, (I) have to begin to learn to walk and stand." (Mahler, in a letter to Bruno Walter, 1909.)
"Can this be endured at all? Won't the people kill themselves afterwards?" (Mahler to Bruno Walter, 1908.)
Shortly after completing the eighth, Mahler was diagnosed as having a valvular malformation of the heart. Not only did this prevent his indulging in his favourite activities, such as walking in the mountains, it also meant that he was living under a sentence of death.
This was the third blow of fate, as he had foreseen in his sixth symphony; the others being the death of his elder daughter "Putzi", from scarlet fever, and his forced resignation from the Vienna State Opera.
The Song of the Earth, based on translations of Chinese poems, he superstitiously refused to call a symphony: it would have been his ninth, and Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner and Dvorak had all failed to live to complete more than nine symphonies.
Nevertheless this profoundly moving work - I have seen audiences in tears at the close - is sufficiently symphonic to merit discussion with the other nine, and Mahler did subtitle it "Symphony for Contralto and Tenor Voices and Large Orchestra". Although written in the full knowledge of his impending demise, the work ends with an acceptance of the inevitably of death: we regret our passing but know that we cannot avoid it, and that the world will continue without us. Das Lied consists of six movements, alternating for the tenor and alto soloists. The last movement, Der Abschied (The Farewell) lasts for approximately 30 minutes and is longer than the first five combined.
Mahler died before the first performance of this piece, and the premiere was conducted by Bruno Walter. Walter's interpretation, therefore, has a unique authority and there are two wonderful recordings available to display it. Firstly a 1936 live VPO recording, the first ever, on Pearl. Although the sound is, inevitably, limited this is still a remarkable recording and very moving. It is coupled with a hitherto extremely rare Ruckert Lieder performance from the same concert, and with Walter's 1935 studio recording of the Adagietto from the fifth symphony.
Walter's other recording, with the VPO from 1951 (Decca/London) is even more legendary, as the contralto is Kathleen Ferrier who was herself dying of cancer when it was made. Ferrier had first performed this work with Walter at the 1948 Edinburgh festival; at the end of the performance she was in tears and could not sing the final few notes. When she apologised to the conductor afterwards for this "unprofessional" behaviour Walter made this unforgettably gallant reply: "My dear Miss Ferrier, if we were all such great artists as yourself, we should all have been in tears". (Incidentally: I recently met somebody who had been at this legendary concert. Through my intense envy I managed to discern that it was every bit as memorable as has always been suggested)
Both these recordings are, of course, in mono. Thankfully Philips have at last reissued the Baker/King/Concertgebouw/Haitink recording on their mid-price Silverline label. Janet Baker is quite superb in the finale, and this may well be the most recommendable modern version.
Other recommendable stereo version include the 1964/6 Klemperer: a typical Klemperer performance, he has what is perhaps overall the best team of soloists of any version: the tragically short-lived Fritz Wunderlich and the wondeful Christa Ludwig.
There is a new Tennstedt (well actually recorded in 1982 and 1984) which EMI have just released. Apparently the conductor wouldn't allow it out of the vaults before - I don't know why. Extrvagant claims have been made for this recording (guess where!) and it is very good, but doesn't displace any of my other recommendations, either on sonic or interpretive grounds. Tennstedt's 1st movement is actually 16 seconds slower than even Horenstein (see below) but this is not because of a slower basic tempo - in fact his basic tempo is fairly unexceptional - but because he lingers so much over the central 'das firmament' section. The recording seems fairly indifferent too.
But I have been keeping the best for last. Again on M&A is a 1972 recording, with the BBC Northern SO, of Das Lied. Horenstein had suffered a major coronary the previous year, and at the time of the recording had less than a year to live. The combination of an excellent orchestra (now renamed the BBC Philharmonic in recognition of their worth) who had, amazingly, never played the work before, together with a great conductor probably aware that he might never conduct it again, makes for the greatest performance I have ever heard. At 69 minutes it is also slower than any other - even Bernstein - but never seems to be a second too long. Jack Diether said in a tribute to Horenstein in High Fidelity that this was 'far and away' the best version he had ever heard. Me too.
Shortly before his own death, Horenstein said "one of the saddest things about leaving this world is not hearing Das Lied von der Erde ever again". Essential.
"Once again I have played through the first movement of Mahler's Ninth symphony; the first movement is the most heavenly thing Mahler ever wrote. It is the expression of an exceptional fondness for this earth, the longing to live in peace on it, to enjoy nature to its depths - before death comes." (Alban Berg, in a letter to his future wife.)
"Der Abschied might well have been used as the title of the ninth symphony. ... The first movement grew to be a tragically moving and noble paraphrase of the farewell feeling. A unique soaring between farewell sadness and a vision of Heavenly Light..." (Bruno Walter)
Having managed to cheat fate, as it were, by calling his ninth symphony a song cycle, Mahler returned to purely orchestral writing. The ninth is, like Das Lied, very much the work of a man who is aware of his mortality. The first movement, which opens with an irregular rhythm said to represent his faltering heartbeat, has been called the greatest single symphonic movement he ever wrote.
Again, as Mahler did not live to conduct this work, the premiere was given by Bruno Walter. Once again Walter leaves us two recordings: the first is an amazing live version, recorded in Vienna on January 16th., 1938. Not only is this a unique document of the work's first interpreter with the first orchestra that ever played it, it is also the swansong of the pre-war Vienna Philharmonic: mere weeks later the Nazis invaded Austria and the orchestra was purged of its Jewish members - including Walter. Allowances must, of course, be made for the sound but the intensity of the performance sweeps all before it. This version is on a single budget (EMI) CD and won the Gramophone's historic reissue award (non-vocal) for 1988.
Walter's second recording, from 1961 with the Columbia SO (Sony), is in surprisingly good stereo sound and is self recommending.
There are several other versions I should not want to live without: Klemperer's stoic 1967 recording (EMI), made after a serious illness; Haitink's 1969 version with the Concertgebouw (Phillips), beautifully recorded; Abbado's digital VPO version, which is much better than the live performance I heard him give with the LSO in London in 1986, and is possibly the best recorded of all; Barbirolli's 1963 Berlin Philharmonic performance, reissued on a single CD (EMI) is also a great bargain. Karajan would, for many years, for some reason, not conduct Mahler and it was Barbirolli who established a Mahler tradition in Berlin. Although even now, as Simon Rattle said with astonishment after conducting the sixth with the BPO, "there are still members of the orchestra who think that Richard Strauss was a greater composer than Mahler!"
That, of course, brings us to the famous 1982 BPO Karajan recording. Karajan recorded the ninth twice within 18 months. The first, analogue, recording only appeared on LP, the second, made live at the Berlin festival in digital sound, only on CD. Much hoopla was made of the performance at the time - it won the Gramophone's record of the year award - and still is: witness the Gramophone Good CD Guide which, ludicrously to my mind, claims that when the history of 20th century recording comes to be written, this will rank as one of its high points! Ridiculous! (But obviously written by Richard Osborne, Karajan's representative on earth). It is certainly very fine, but somehow, for me at any rate (and for others I know), it doesn't wear as well as the others I have mentioned - and anyway is not as good as his 1981 analogue version (LP only).
There is also a live LSO/Horenstein recording on the Music and Arts label - available in specialist shops. This was recorded live at a BBC promenade concert in 1966. I was present at that concert and am delighted to say that my memory of a very special occasion is not at fault. Despite some orchestral flubs and indifferent recording this is the most amazing Mahler 9 I know. Horenstein knew exactly how far he could push his orchestra: the final movement clocks in at 28:40, possibly the slowest ever (even slower than Bernstein I think) and the LSO can (just) handle it. Compare with his French National O performance of 1967 on Disques Montaignes, where with a lesser band he takes it several minutes faster. A very great performance indeed. For an example of Horenstein's superb control, try the third movement Rondo Burleske. After the slower central section most conductors go back to tempo I and then have something of a struggle maintaining the interest until the final accelerando. Horenstein leads back from the central section at a speed which is only slightly faster and then maintains a gradual acceleration right to the end of the movement. Incredible.
Horenstein's 1953 performance is also available - or announced anyway - on a Vox CD. Again a great performance in competent mono.
"Almschi, to live for you! To die for you!" (Mahler's scrawled note to his wife, across the pages of the finale of the unfinished tenth symphony.)
"I was moved to tears, I had not realised there was so much Mahler in it." (Alma Mahler, in a letter to Deryck Cooke, May 1963, after she had finally been persuaded to listen to a tape of his "performing version".)
As one writer once put it, Mahler's attempts to emulate Schubert with an unfinished symphony were frustrated by Deryck Cooke with his "performing version" of the tenth. (Previously such figures as Schoenberg, Shostakovich and Britten had been asked to complete it.) There is much controversy over this version, and many conductors (including Walter, Bernstein, Haitink, Sinopoli and Abbado) refused to perform it. Mahler's widow, Alma, who lived into the early 1960s, initially, with Bruno Walter's encouragement, put an embargo on performances. After Walter's death in 1962, she was persuaded to listen to a tape of a BBC broadcast; she unequivocally recanted her previous position, and even made previously unpublished sketches available to Cooke, which he incorporated into his revised version.
The argument about the tenth can never, of course, really be resolved. Undoubtedly Mahler would have made changes to the work in revision, but then he revised all of his symphonies after their first performances, and so, in a very real sense, we do not have Mahler's last word on either Das Lied von der Erde or the ninth symphony, neither of which he lived to hear.
What is certain, in my opinion, is that there is 'so much Mahler' in this symphony that to deny the world the opportunity of hearing what there is, in a 'performing version' - which is what Cooke modestly called his efforts - would be to deprive anybody who can't read music fluently of a truly wonderful experience. Make no mistake about it, even in its sketched version this is well-nigh a masterpiece; had he completed it it would have ranked among Mahler's very finest achievements. As it stands it is certainly considerably more complete than Schubert's 'Unfinished' or Bruckner's 9th., both of which are part of the mainstream repertoire.
The first movement of the tenth, the Adagio, was almost complete at his death, and the edition of this made by the composer Ernst Krenek, at Alma Mahler's request, is the one used in most recordings. Many of the records I have already discussed include the Adagio from the 10th as a filler (e.g. Sinopoli's 6th, Abbado's 9th) but none of them are sufficiently spectacular to effect my previous opinions of these sets.
If you want to hear Cooke's performing version then your choices are limited: there is Ormandy's 1964 recording of Cooke's first version, recently reissued on a single CD; Rattle's 1980 Bournemouth recording of Cooke's revision, Chailly's Berlin version and James Levine's portmanteau.
Ormandy was not the world's greatest Mahlerian but his recording, uniquely, offers us Cooke's first thoughts and is cheap - it's on a single mid-price (Sony) CD. Levine's is a hybrid: the Adagio is the Krenek version and was recorded in analogue sound. Some time afterwards Levine obviously had a change of heart and recorded the other four movements in the Cooke version digitally.
Rattle's version is of the complete Cooke revision, with a few minor emendations by the conductor, and is excellent, although the Bournemouth Symphony is not the world's finest orchestra. This has now been reissued on a single CD and is highly recommended.
The Chailly, with the Berlin Radio SO, is highly regarded in some quarters and is coupled with the orchestral version of Schoenberg's Verklaerte Nacht. It is certainly the best recorded by far - if your speakers don't have difficulty with the hammer-blows at the opening of the finale you have a very good (or very poor!) stereo indeed. And it is very well played, but doesn't supplant Rattle. It would be nice, though, if EMI would allow Rattle to remake this with his own CBSO - now that would be worth waiting for.
There is also a version recorded in East Berlin in 1979 by the Berlin SO under Kurt Sanderling, available on Ars Vivendi. This is hard to find but worth the effort. While not as well played as Rattle of Chailly, nor as well recorded, it may well be the most coherently convincing of them all. It's just a pity the recording doesn't allow the massive climaxes in the outer movements to make the impact they should.
Finally, it would be nice if Philips would reissued the 1976 NPO/Morris recording: these were the artists who premiered the revised version the previous year; this is a very well played and recorded version, which should be back in the catalogue.
I append here, for interest, a list of performances in my possession which I have consulted while preparing this survey. There are other performances which I have listened to but do not own, so this list is nothing like exhaustive.