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Recordings

Mahler: The Complete Works
10 Nov 2010

Mahler: The Complete Works

The commemorate the sesquicentennial of Mahler’s birth in 1860, EMI has released an exceptional set of its recordings in a single box.

Mahler: The Complete Works

Click here for contents and performance details.

EMI Classics 5099960898524 [16CDs]

$53.99  Click to buy

The compilation is at once a celebration of Mahler’s enduring music in sound and also extraordinary performances by generations of performers, whose interpretations offer solid readings of the music. EMI has been an excellent source of fine recordings of Mahler’s music for decades, with recordings in its catalogue that predate the revival of interest in his works that occurred in the early 1960s. Among the early recordings in this set is the famous recording of the song cycle Kindertotenlieder led by Mahler’s protégé Bruno Walter, with Kathleen Ferrier, which dates from 1949. EMI also includes the 1952 performance of the cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler included here — latter release that offers the interpretation of a young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Yet EMI’s Mahler: The Complete Works is not limited to older performances, since some of EMI’s recent releases of Mahler’s music are included, as with the “Blumine” movement from the 1888 five-movement version of the First Symphony conducted by Paavo Järvi (2007) and Ian Bostridge’s set of three early Lieder, a 2010 release. Encompassing studio and live recordings released in the course of sixty years, this comprehensive set pays tribute to many fine performances which define the standards of Mahler interpretation.

Like EMI’s recent comprehensive collection of Puccini’s operas, the present Mahler set bears consideration for the choices made regarding the music, the singers, the conductors, the orchestras, and also the accompanists. With regard to the music, EMI made some laudable choices to present a comprehensive selection of Mahler’s works. All the major works are present, but for the Lieder, the orchestral versions are in the set, with the versions with piano accompaniment omitted. Absent from this set are the piano-vocal versions of the set of Des Knaben Wunderhorn that Mahler orchestrated; Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (which differs in detail, rather than substance from the orchestral version); Kindertotenlieder, and Das Lied von der Erde. These are relatively small points, but important when it comes to distinguishing this set as complete. The welcome inclusion of several different performances of the piano-vocal version of the Rückert song “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” one of the outstanding features of this set, would, by extension, merit the include of performances of those Lieder with piano accompaniment.

Nevertheless, the effort for comprehensiveness emerges in various ways. For example, the “Blumine” movement from the First Symphony is presented separately, since Mahler cut it from the revised four-movement version of the work customarily performed — a case could be made for including the five-movement version with its original orchestration, since such presentation would demonstrate the shift in timbre Mahler achieved. Likewise, substantial differences exist in the two versions of the early cantata Das klagende Lied because of the number of years between the three-movement version (1880) and the revision as a two-movement work (1898-1899), with Rattle’s 1984 recording of the earlier one included in this set. In addition the tone poem Todtenfeier, which Mahler reworked as the first movement of the Second Symphony is not part of the set. Since this set focuses on music by Mahler himself, arrangements like the composer’s Bach Suite are not included, yet even then the “Entr’acte” from Die drei Pintos is a short piece that offers a glimpse of the orchestral sound Mahler would take into his Wunderhorn symphonies. These are details that are useful in considering Mahler’s complete works, but should not be taken as diminishing the contribution EMI has made in offering this set of recordings.

That stated, the more difficult choices exist with determining the performances to include or, rather, the ones to exclude, and for the most part, the set is uniformly strong. Mahler’s works demand much of conductors in bringing the scores to successful performance. The works are large not only in terms of the forces required, but also in length. Single movements, like the first movement of the Third Symphony take half an hour to perform, and convincing performances, like the one from 1997 in this set with Simon Rattle conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, recreate the music vividly. Here the engagement of the conductor and ensemble result in a memorable performance that calls to mind the other fine recordings in Rattle’s Mahler cycle.

Rattle’s notable recording of the Second Symphony in comes to mind as an important contribution to the discography. While Rattle’s Second remains a compelling recording, EMI included in this set Otto Klemperer’s extraordinary 1962 performance, which deservedly has a place in the label’s series of Great Recordings of the Century. That recording is a defining one, with Klemperer realizing in performance this important score of Mahler’s early career. It remains an engaging performance that retains its sense vitality half century after its release.

A similar chemistry was involved in Klemperer’s 1966 recording of Das Lied von der Erde with Christa Ludwig, Fritz Wunderlich, and the New Philharmonia Orchestra. That classic interpretation of this posthumously premiere score deserves a place in a celebratory set like this one. While it may be familiar to many, Klemperer’s recording not only endures, but stands well when compared to others; this is not only a fortunate confluence of performers, but also an example of Klemperer’s affinity with Mahler’s style. This should not take away from the effectiveness of other older recordings, like the well-known one by Bruno Walter, with Julius Patzak and Kathleen Ferrier. Das Lied von der Erde is a work that benefits from the perspectives gained by rehearings both in live performances and through recordings. Of the latter, Klemperer’s recording retains its attraction and brings together two of the finest vocalists of the time.

Other venerable performances are part of this set, like the recording of the orchestral Wunderhornlieder that George Szell recorded in 1968 with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, with the London Symphony Orchestra. This classic recording includes the dialogue songs performed by two singers, something implied in the text and not explicitly scored. With these performers, the result is engaging and natural, with the London Symphony providing a solid accompaniment to these pieces. The approach is lively and evocative, with appealing singing from both soloists. The inclusion of Szell in this set calls to mind his other contributions to the Mahler discography, which remain worth exploring. (Among his efforts are outstanding recordings of the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies; as well as a live recording of Das Lied von der Erde performed while the Cleveland Orchestra was in Berlin.)

Another fine Mahler interpreter, Carlo Maria Giulini is represented by his impressive recording of the First Symphony with the Chicago Symphony (1971). While that recording is respected, Giulini’s other performances merit attention, including his expressive Ninth and other music by Mahler. The inclusion of this piece in the set also calls to mind the representation various orchestras in this set for their tradition of performing Mahler’s music well. While the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has a number of recordings of Mahler’s works in its discography, this selection is an impressive performance of the First Symphony that stands well among the excellent recordings of the work not only in EMI’s catalogue, but elsewhere.

Along these lines, the contributions of Klaus Tennstedt to the Mahler discography are represented by two works from his Mahler cycle, the Fifth Symphony (1988) and the Eighth Symphony (1986). The latter is an extraordinary performance that stands well in comparison with other notable recordings, like Sir Georg Solti’s famous recording of the work. With its massive forces and complex structures, the Eighth is challenging score, and when executed well, it still poses challenges for effective recordings, because of the extreme contrasts in sound and timbre. Yet Tennstedt’s efforts are match with the excellent sound reproduction provided by EMI in this classic interpretation of the work. This recording merits attention for it the solid conception of the work that Tennstedt offers, and serves as tribute to the late conductor’s legacy as an interpreter of Mahler’s music.

With Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, the performance selected for this set is a good choice among Tennstedt’s other recordings of the work. This intensity of this performance comes across well on CD and suggests well the dynamic approach Tennstedt took on the podium. While other recordings are also compelling, like Abbado’s live performance on Deutsche Grammophon or the historic recording that is part of Bruno Walter’s legacy, the one by Tennstedt reissued here has much to offer, including a spacing account of the monumental Scherzo at the center of the Fifth Symphony.

Other venerable conductors are present, as is the case with Sir John Barbirolli, whose performances of the Sixth and Ninth Symphonies are exemplary, and both are included in this set. The earlier of the two recordings, the Ninth, is with the Berlin Philharmonic (1964), while the Sixth is with the New Philharmonia Orchestra (1967). While David Gutman’s essay included in the booklet included with the set capture Leonard Bernstein’s comments about the relevance of the Ninth for a new generation, Barbirolli belongs to the tradition of performing the Ninth that may be traced to Bruno Walter, who led the premiere of that Symphony in Vienna in 1912 and recorded the work throughout his career. Barbirolli’s interpretation remains a solid one, as does his conception of the Sixth. With the latter, the textual problems of the score have been a concern in recent years, because the edition in the composer’s collected works reverses the order of the inner movements as Mahler intended them. This has resulted in decades of performances based on a structural choice that the composer himself complicated when he temporarily switched the order in print, but never performed the work that way. The conundrum is a critical matter in the performance practice, and an issue that calls for an editorial method that will serve Mahler’s music well. While the discography demonstrates that it is possible to perform the Symphony both ways, the interpretations change; Barbirolli’s recording is based on the order the composer himself used in performance, with the Andante followed by the Scherzo.

In addition to these classic accounts of Mahler’s scores, some more recent recordings are part of the set, with Sir Simon Rattle’s 1991 recording the Seventh Symphony. This is significant for the incisiveness of this particular performance of a work that has only come into its own in recent decades. In the 1960s the enthusiasm for Mahler’s music was equivocal for the Seventh, which some regarded a kind of step-child in the composer’s symphonies (this may be ascribed to the criticism of Theodor Adorno, who found that Mahler emerged as a poor yes-man in this score). Yet as scholars and conductors explored the strengths of this score, interpretations brought audiences new understandings in effective performances, like the famous one by Claudio Abbado with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from the 1980s or the one Bernard Haitink contributed to his Mahler cycle on the Philips label. The Rattle performance in this set stands well with the outstanding modern interpretations of this work, with its persuasive treatment of the Rondo-Finale and the more intimate style of the two Nachtmusik movements that flank the central Scherzo.

As to the vocalists, EMI’s set offers essentially a record of Mahler singing. Again, with Fischer Dieskau’s early interpretations of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, listeners have the chance to hear how Mahler was presented to the public in the early 1950s. Likewise, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, whose contributions also include a fine recording of Mahler’s Fourth, Fischer-Dieskau, Dame Janet Baker, and other were known in the 1960s for their performances of Mahler’s music, and their inclusion in this sets represents an important part of the Mahler discography. Along these lines, some classic performances exist from that time, and this EMI set reissues the impressive recording of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony conducted by Jascha Horenstein, with Margaret Price performing the Song-Finale, “Das himmlische Leben.” (The Fourth Symphony benefits from a number of solid recordings, and this work alone may be the subject of a set of famous performances from the 1940s through the early twenty-first century. A similar retrospective approach could be taken for Das Lied von der Erde, for which recordings exist back to the late 1930s.)

Taken as a whole, the recordings of the famous vocalists in this set represent a level of interpretation on which other performers built, as found with the outstanding soloists for Tennstedt’s Eighth, which includes Felicity Lott, Hans Sotin, and others. The more recent vocalists include Thomas Hampson, whose recording the Kindertotenlieder with accompaniment Wolfram Rieger (1996); Katarina Karnéus for various early Lieder (1999) and the later song “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (1998), and others. In fact, the choices made for the three volumes of Mahler’s early Lieder und Gesänge on disc 4 comprise a survey of singers and pianists who recorded those songs at various times for EMI.

Finally the accompanists for the Lieder are also impressive, with Gerald Moor, Irwin Gage, Roger Vignoles, Julius Drake, Daniel Barenboim, Antonio Pappano, prominent in this set. The pianists are well-known interpreters of Lieder, and they approach Mahler well from that tradition. Those interested in the interpretations may wish to seek out their recordings to hear Mahler’s Lieder in the more intimate settings for voice and piano, which merit attention along with the nuanced orchestral settings the composer also left in his oeuvre.

The release of these recordings in a single set not only calls attention to Mahler’s legacy in sound, but also to the quality of the efforts. From this perspective, the set benefits from uniformly excellent sound, despite the varying conditions involved, including studios and various live venues (the details of each recording are included the in accompanying book). At the same time, it is impressive to find all the music on 16 discs; yet that involved splitting multi-movement pieces between discs, which has been done in various ways with some of the existing sets of Mahler’s symphonies. This does not pose problems, but allows space for the useful set of various interpretations of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” on the final disc, which also contains the texts and translations for the entire set. (Note that the booklet is the only source of information on the specific tracks and releases. Each sleeve contains information about the music, but not the performers and details on the original releases, as found in the booklet. While such data is available at the URL listed above, for convenience, it could have been included with the useful PDF that contains the texts and translations.)

Those interested in this set may also wish to pursue EMI’s recent two-disc set of Mahler’s Adagios, that is, the slow movements from the composer’s ten symphonies. While it includes several movements from the “Complete Works,” the Adagio collection draws from a number of other recordings, notably Tennstedt’s Third, Klemperer’s Ninth, and several others. More than that, the focus on the slow movements calls attention to Mahler’s development of that part of his symphonic structures in terms of the content of the movement and its function in his works. If the slow movement in the nineteenth-century symphony served a secondary role in the context of the gravity of the outer movements, Mahler shifted that perspective from the start with the innovative content of the third movement of the First Symphony or the intensive double variations of the Fourth. With the Fifth, the transformation of a song into the Adagietto brings a level of self-reference into the work that has a parallel with the Scherzo of the Second. Yet with the Third and Ninth Symphonies, Mahler used slow movements as the Finale of each work, and with that created monumental structures that shift the weight from the conventional way of ending the work. At the end, he reconceived the slow movement and used his magnificent Adagio as the opening of his unfinished Tenth. An examination of the slow movements in either set merits attention; yet the larger box-set also afford listeners the chance to explore Mahler’s Scherzos for the same purpose, and thus appreciate the composer’s accomplishments in the context of all his works.

All in all, this commemorative set serves Mahler well, and more than that, the generations of performers who have interpreted his music. This set affords listeners not enjoy the fine recordings conveniently and, given the quality of the performances, should spur further explorations of the Mahler cycles by Tennstedt, Rattle, and others, along with the recordings of other conductors included in this set. As Mahler’s music reaches into a second century of performances, this kind of review of the discography is an excellent opportunity to return with renewed attention to music which has certainly become familiar, yet has never lost its relevance. Unquestionably Mahler’s time has come for audiences who can appreciate his works through the efforts of interpreters who renew the music in performances and recordings that continue this strong tradition into a second century.

James L. Zychowicz

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