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Recordings

Gustav Mahler: Symphonies 1-10
21 Jan 2008

MAHLER: Symphonies 1-10

With its recent release of Mahler’s symphonies conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, EMI Classics makes available in a single place an outstanding contribution to the composer’s discography.

Sir Simon Rattle, conductor.

EMI Classics 50999 5 00721 2 5 [14CDs]

$116.99  Click to buy

Recorded over two decades between 1984 and 2004, this set includes all ten of Mahler’s numbered symphonies, as well as the three-movement, original version of his youthful cantata Das klagende Lied and the late symphonic song-cycle Das Lied von der Erde, as well a selection of eight orchestral Wunderhornlieder. (Of the Wunderhornlieder, the set includes Der Schildwache Nachtlied; Verlor'ne Müh'; Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?; Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen; Revelge; Der Tamboursg'sell; Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt; and Ablösung im Sommer.) In addition, EMI includes a bonus track of Rattle’s 1995 performance of Der Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde from a live performance with the mezzo-soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter.

Those familiar with Rattle’s recordings of Mahler’s works will find no surprises in this collection, but the convenience of having all of the works in a single place is welcome, especially with the set priced lower than the individual releases. With such a specialist as Rattle, the collection makes it possible to appreciate the consistent precision and well-considered phrasing that the conductor brought to his interpretations of Mahler’s music. It is an impressive accomplishment that helped earn Rattle international recognition, especially with his recordings of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which was less than familiar when he began the cycle. With such a successful recording as the Second Symphony, which was released in 1987 (and remains available as a single release), Rattle became known as a formidable interpreter of Mahler’s music.

In recording Mahler’s works Rattle made some choices that distinguish this set from others. He opted to record the original, three-movement version of Das klagende Lied, rather than Mahler’s revised version in two parts. With Das Lied von der Erde, his well-known recording with Peter Seiffert (tenor) and Thomas Hampson (baritone) is part of this set, with the use of two male singers the voicing, rather than the more typical use of mezzo soprano or contralto, and tenor. Yet his inclusion of Der Abschied with Anne-Sofie von Otter is welcome, and enthusiasts of Rattle’s Mahler recordings should appreciate its presence in this set.

Of Rattle’s recordings with EMI, several stand out in the modern discography of Mahler’s music, such as his interpretation of the Second Symphony, a solid reading with soloists Arlene Auger and Janet Baker, which was recorded in 1986. That particular release stands out among recent recordings for the attention Rattle gave to the details of score, including the nicely placed off-stage musicians that augment the soundscape. In addition, Rattle’s recording of Deryck Cooke’s performing version of Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony has been well received, and it offers a solid reading of the torso.

While some quibble, at times, with Rattle’s interpretations, the consistent pacing that he conductor brings to each piece allows the score to be heard clearly and without some of the interpretative excesses that characterize other conductors. With the opportunity to review the body of Mahler’s symphonic works in Rattle’s hands, his faithfulness to the score emerges readily in all these recordings, most of which derive from live performances (as noted in the very useful program book included in the set). Rattle offers clear distinctions of tempo, as found at the beginning of the first movement of the Fourth Symphony, where the bells, Mahler’s erstwhile Schellenkappe, are, perhaps, slower than occurs in conventional recordings. Yet such deliberation sets up the quicker tempo that distinguishes the introductory bars from the principal theme and allows the reprise of the opening bars to serve as a transition when it recurs within the movement. At the same time, Rattle’s approaches Mahler’s shifting palette of orchestration with a sense of continuity that removes the pointillistic effects found in the notation itself. Again, the main theme of the first movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is an excellent example of such timbral shifts, with the idea moving from the violins to the horns, back to the violins, then the flute and oboe, and the low strings, before resuming in the violins. This attention to the rendering the score is apparent in this movement and throughout the other recordings included in the set.

A similar approach occurs in Rattle’s interpretation of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which benefits from the fine playing of the Berlin Philharmonic with a work that ensemble has performed well under other fine conductors. As in other performances of Mahler’s music, Rattle’s pacing allows the discrete sections of movements to emerge clearly, and this is apparent in the Scherzo of the Fifth Symphony. While some might quibble with the some of the relatively slower tempos that result, the reading is clear and distinct, such that the accelerandos, when they occur, never distort the music ideas that they support.

With music that is more motivically connected, like the first movement of the Seventh Symphony, Rattle’s approach is effective in discriminating between the thematic content and the various secondary ideas that support it. His reading of the transition from the ending the introduction of the first movement of the Seventh to the beginning of its exposition is notable in this regard. As the movement continues, the fluid tempos are useful in characterizing the thematic groups that Mahler develops in increasingly intricate ways, and Rattle offers a convincing sense of the structure. Yet the telling point of any performance of the Seventh is the Rondo-Finale, and the recording is compelling from the start. The vibrant opening helps to propel the movement forward. While Rattle sets the various episodes apart with distinct shadings and nuances of tempo, the recurring refrain never flags. This allows Rattle to maintain the tension throughout the movement, with the final section offering a dramatic conclusion. The balance between brass and strings, a contrast that is characteristic of this movement, works well in retaining the details in the strings, while never allowing the brass to become the sole orchestral timbre. The energy never flags, and the Coda of the movement retains the fresh and exciting style with which it opened. While some of the other recordings do not include it, the applause at the end helps to confirm the excitement Rattle created in this performance.

In recording the entire cycle of Mahler’s symphonic works. Rattle worked with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, except for three works: for Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and Deryck Cooke’s score for the Tenth, Rattle led the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; and Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is with the Vienna Philharmonic, the ensemble associated with the premiere of the work. As to the soloists, the recordings included some of the finest singers available during the 1980s and 1990s. Late in their careers, Janet Baker and Arleen Auger were involved with Rattle’s impressive recording of Mahler’s Second “Resurrection” Symphony, and their contributions help to set that performance apart from others. For the Third Symphony, Birgit Remmert is the soloist, with Amanda Roocroft for the Fourth; and Simon Keenlyside sings the selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The relatively recent (2004) recording of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony involves a remarkable international ensemble with Christine Brewer, Solie Isokoski, Juliane Banse, Birgit Remmert, Jane Henschel, Jon Villars, David Wilson-Johnson, and John Relyea. With the latter work, one of the latest ones in the set to be recorded, the quality of the soloists alone attests to the level of performers Rattle attracted in his explorations of Mahler’s music.

Those familiar with Rattle’s recordings of Mahler’s works will find this set to be a useful compilation of the entire set, and anyone who has not yet encountered Rattle in this venue will find much of interest. Released over two decades, Rattle did not operate under any kind of artificial timeframes that forced him to record the works in any particular order. While ten years separate the release of the Second and Third Symphonies, both recordings are convincing for the details that Rattle brought into each of them. Likewise, while one would expect the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to perform all of Mahler’s works well under Rattle’s direction, the set benefits from the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic, which bear the conductor’s careful attention in their respective recordings.

As a set of Mahler’s symphonic works, this collection is quite attractive, and enthusiasts will want to have both Rattle’s set and the other one that EMI offers, the set of earlier recordings conducted by Gary Bertini. With Rattle’s set, though, some further documentation in the accompanying booklet would be welcome. In addition to the details about each performance, including recording dates and other details about the various sessions, the booklet includes transcriptions of Mahler’s sung texts in German, French, and English (for the hymn “Veni, creator spiritus,” the booklet includes the Latin text, with translations into the three modern languages).

Yet some details bear further explication. As laudable as it is to include the “Blumine” movement with the recording of the First Symphony, its placement as the first track of the work – even with Roman numerals indicating the order of the revised, four-movement version of the Symphony – bears further explanation. While the notes identify Das klagende Lied as the original version (in three movements), it would be useful to confirm that the recording of the First Symphony is indeed the revised version, with only “Blumine” stemming from the earlier form of the work. As to other details, the recording of the Sixth Symphony, which was made in 1989, follows the movement order as Mahler revised it, with the Andante preceding the Scherzo. While much has been made about the movement order among some Mahlerians, Rattle’s decision makes musical sense, and follows the tradition that dates to the premiere of the work.

At another level, the tracking of some of the more complex movements, like the Finale of the Second Symphony and both parts of the Eighth, is quite useful. Yet such a details approached to the tracking of the other movements would be useful, since it would not interrupt the flow of each performance. Such a detail would contribute to the set, which is otherwise quite fine. Of the modern recordings of the entire corpus of Mahler’s symphonies, this set is an essential one. With Rattle’s consistently solid interpretations, fine sound, and excellent playing, this set of Mahler’s symphonies will stand as a touchstone for years to come. Rattle is one of the finest interpreters of Mahler’s works, and this set stands as testimony of his accomplishments with this continually fascinating set of works that remain attractive to yet another generation of listeners. With this set Rattle has made an important contribution to the discography of Mahler’s music.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, WI

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