Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:

Symphonies 1 - 9

Maria Oran (2), Jard van Nes (2), Norma Proctor (3), Alexandra Coku (4), Ulla Gustafsson (8), Marianne Haggander (8), Carolina Sandgren (8), Ulrika Tenstam (8), Anne Gjevang (8), Seppo Ruohonen (8), Mats Persson (8), Johann Tilli (8).

Dutch Theatre Choir (2), Ambrosian Singers (3), Wandsworth School Boys Choir (3), Estonian Boys Choir (8), Brunnsbo Children's Choir (8), Gothenberg Opera Chorus (8), Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Choir (8).

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (1), Residentie Orchestra of The Hague (2), London Symphony Orchestra (3), Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra (4&6), Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (5,7&9), Gothenberg Symphony and Opera Orchestras (8).

Conducted by Yuri Simonov (1), Hans Vonk (2), Jascha Horenstein (3), Hartmut Haenchen (4&6), Vaclav Neumann (5&9), Kurt Masur (7), Neeme Jarvi (8)

Brilliant Classics 99549 (11 Discs) [11.07.24]

This is one of the great bargains. All of Mahler's completed symphonies for the same price you might pay for one of them at full price. How have Brilliant Classics done it? Presumably by licensing recordings for reissue from various smaller labels and driving a hard bargain. Are there any catches? I suspect a zeal to keep the cover price as low as possible has meant some compromises on quality, but it would be interesting to know what, if anything, was rejected on grounds of cost because, with one exception, they've done well. This would make a perfect addition to the collection of someone starting out as well as provide experienced collectors with alternative versions they may have overlooked. Smart friends with money to burn might cast aspersions, but if this is all that can be afforded here is a set of Mahler symphonies that will certainly last a long time even if it doesn't provide the very best versions on the market. (Though even here there is an exception.) Of course it's the case that recordings from many sources, dates, artists and engineers means you don't get the kind of consistent approach you get from a set made by one conductor and orchestra, but this is no bad thing. No one conductor has ever been suited to all the Mahler symphonies consistently.

The first recording that caught my eye when looking down the list on the back of the slipcase housing the individual boxes is one of the most famous Mahler recordings ever made: the Unicorn version of the Third conducted by Jascha Horenstein. Of all the recordings in this set this is the one I would count an essential purchase for any collection and Brilliant Classics must be congratulated for getting rights to it and giving it a new lease of life when it's becoming harder to obtain in home livery. The playing of the London Symphony Orchestra is remarkable for character, alertness and ability to reflect every aspect of Horenstein's view, one that grasps all aspects of the first movement and welds it into an expressive whole riveting attention. Something sadly lacking in a large number recordings. The second movement is the perfect Prelude to Part II and is distinguished again by the playing of the LSO's woodwinds, one of the glories of this recording. Then in the third movement there is a hazy, nostalgic feel, but when muscularity is called for Horenstein is not found wanting. Clarity is the keynote in the fifth movement where the boys are a joy - sharp and cheeky - and then in the last movement Horenstein manages to bring out the drama and tension alongside great beauty and a sense of contemplation. This is so good it doesn't really need much reviewing in this context. This is how great Mahler conducting sounds, believe me.

Two conductors are represented by two symphonies each: Hartmut Haenchen in the Fourth and Sixth, and Vaclav Neumann in the Fifth and Ninth. Haenchen's Mahler recordings with the Netherlands Philharmonic appear on a number of European bargain labels and have their admirers. The Fourth benefits from a big acoustic that allows lower woodwinds especially to tell. Haenchen's view is lyrical and full of feeling with the strings especially memorable adding distinctive slides that are very idiomatic. The first movement is deceptively quick, but such is the attention to detail it never seems so. The second movement is impish and shadowy at turns, which is a nice combination that leads to a rich and warm slow movement superbly played and then followed by Alexandra Coku as a pert and attractive soloist with excellent support from Haenchen. This is a really enjoyable Fourth with much in it to admire. In the Sixth Haenchen and the orchestra are recorded "live" which accounts for some lapses in ensemble and, I'm sure, the "original ideas" the timpanist has at the lead up to the first movement coda. The repeat is observed in the first movement but I cannot escape the feeling that things are a touch under-powered right through. Haenchen cannot seem to make up his mind whether the mood should be trenchant or energetic in the March material and then falls between them into a kind of emotional limbo. The playing, though good, is not outstanding and this carries over to the Scherzo which is placed second. Here again Haenchen doesn't seem to have made up his mind about how the music should go and rather misses the target - energy is dissipated, feelings of the world out of joint, Mahler whipped and driven, all missing. To bring off a Mahler Symphony the conductor must have a view clear in his mind and I don't think Haenchen does in the Sixth. In the last movement the problems of "live" performance and Haenchen's basic inability to penetrate fully the terrible message being conveyed confirms this as a sound but ultimately routine account of a work that, under the greatest interpreters, leaves you changed. Haenchen is better suited to the Fourth. Perhaps he's a Wunderhorn man at heart. He does include the discarded "Blumine" movement from the original First symphony as coupling to the disc containing the Fourth.

Vaclav Neumann's recordings of the Fifth and Ninth with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra originate from the 1960s and the old East German state recording company Eterna. The Fifth has also appeared on four other labels and is somewhat inferior to the Ninth coming as it does from early in Neumann's relationship with this orchestra. His view of the first movement is stiff and unyielding. This adds a touch of excitement to the frantic central section but this is not enough to stop me feeling a bit cheated overall. Where is the sense of loss, Mahler's unique grieving on the grand scale? Neumann's failure to really bury himself in the music of the second movement also means what we hear is mostly sound and fury signifying not very much. Things improve a little in the Scherzo. This is unsophisictated in the right sense with a homespun quality that has its advantages. As too does the clear-headed approach to the Adagietto fourth movement with sleek lines and emphasis on phrasing. The last movement doesn't contrast enough with the first, however. Indeed it almost feels as if it's out of the same mould, which is not how things should be at all. Also the general recording quality doesn't allow the music to fill space as it should being rather top heavy. Moving on to Neumann's recording of the Ninth Symphony from a year or so later there is no doubt this is more successful. The first movement is set out at a good Andante comodo and sustained at that which allows Neumann to steer an almost ideal course between nostalgic repose and penetrating drama. The fine recording balance, with rich but clear bass lines, also means we hear how good this great orchestra is in every department. Neumann knows when to press forward and rein back and deliver the nodal climaxes with vision and scope, never losing sight of the bigger picture. In the second movement there is bitterness contrasted against basic gayety which makes for a very Mahlerian mix and this is carried over to the third movement Rondo Burleske presented at a well-judged tempo allowing all the notes to be heard clearly. The lower strings are allowed to be heard accentuating the fugue element if this movement also. Something we know Mahler used deliberately to "get his own back" on detractors, real or imagined. At 22.32 this is not one of the slowest last movements on record but it has such sense of proportion and is so well tailored into the rest it emerges as totally natural. The strings deliver some searing emotion and the rest of the orchestra responds to the passages where the scoring is pared down, soloists especially fine. Only in the closing pages does Neumann's touch seem wanting in that he appears determined to keep his sharpness of focus to the end. In this he is similar to Bruno Walter in his 1938 "live" Vienna recording which, like Neumann, brings in a performance that fits on to one disc.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus appears for a third time in this box, in the Seventh Symphony where they are conducted by Neumann's successor Kurt Masur. He is not generally noted as a Mahlerian because what Mahler we have had from him (the First and Ninth Symphonies from New York) sounds too patrician, even Olympian, for general approval. That is the case here but this is still a worthy part of the set. It's a very clear nightscape indeed that Masur provides us with in Mahler's great "night into day" journey: more towards the Arctic Circle than the Equator, I think. In the first movement he is very good on the inner tempo relationships and also the clarity he brings to the instrumental canvas, showing some superb playing which is aided by an excellent recording. The second subject "Schwung" passage is held back rather and the "Brisk" marking at 487-522 is very brisk indeed. The distinguished playing carries on in the first Nachtmusik and Scherzo but the clarity, welcome in the first movement, robs the second movement of some mystery and the Scherzo of some novelty. All of this is a pity when more can be made of this music without impeding the argument. A warmer Nachtmusik leads into an account of the Finale that is fleet and neo-classical in feel. I also felt Masur was anxious to stress this as a Rondo that benefits from a lighter touch and a feeling for structure. It works out well even though, as in the rest, something more challenging and unbuttoned brings greater dividends still. For all that, in what is Mahler's most problematic work the box contains a fine version that deserves attention.

There are fewer recordings of the Eighth Symphony to choose from for a set like this so I imagine that must have presented a problem for Brilliant Classics. In the end they have gone to one of the major labels and secured the single disc recording of a "live" performance from Gothenburg conducted by Neeme Jarvi that originally came out on the Bis label in digital sound. Though "live" you would hardly know it until the very end and even then the audience waits a few seconds before they start to applaud. I'm not sure if this is such a good thing because I believe an element of the "live" experience adds something to Mahler's two great choral symphonies. There is the requisite "impetuoso" at the start of Part I but not much of the reining back further in which gives the first clue to what we are in for. This is a very fleet and athletic account that therefore lacks somewhat the kind of "critical mass" to be found in other versions. But there's no doubt the energy and drive is persuasive and doesn't tip over into harshness, as it sometimes can when the conductor hits the accelerator. The fugue following "Accende lumen sensibus" is well drilled and exciting but I would have liked more sense of ebb and flow. This work must be a nightmare to balance for the engineers and they do well with the soloists especially well placed in a general picture. They are a good team too with no one outstanding but no one letting down the side either. In Part II the orchestral prelude is notable for its clarity so there is some sacrifice of the extraordinary atmosphere Mahler brings. Not surprisingly following what has gone the "scherzo" sections are the ones that come off best. This is a Part II for the brightest part of the day and there is something refreshing in that. A fine performance well played, sung and recorded. Not top drawer, but satisfying and enjoyable even though I cannot say I was especially moved by it, as I think I should be. An example of this latter feeling is the account of the final hymn that moves too quickly.

There are far more versions out there to choose from in the case of the other great choral symphony, the Second. Which is why I find myself wondering why choice for this box fell upon one by the Residentie Orchestra of The Hague conducted by Hans Vonk. Was it a question of cost? Had too much been spent on acquiring an Eighth that Vonk's was all that could be afforded without driving up the set's cover price? Whatever, it's a pity it has to be the Second that is the weakest recording in the box when this work is one of Mahler most stunning experiences. The first movement receives an unimaginative performance. It's stiff and crucially held back by the rather correct playing of an orchestra that don't sound as if they know the music and have had to learn it especially, and by a conductor who seems semi-detached by missing so many points of detail. So this is only adequate when compared it with other versions, some which compete in price. The sound recording doesn't help either, being rather blunted and lacking in body and impact. Things do improve a little in the second movement. There is more feeling and some mellow charm but this hardly compensates especially as the third movement shows the same shortcomings as the first with no real impression of the orchestra digging into the peculiarities of this music. The last movement does save the performance from descending into boredom. Vonk keeps the music moving along well and the thread running through it is clear. But again there's so much more that could be made of this. The great central march is managed well with a steady hand and some welcome new determination from the orchestra that, at last, seems to have lifted itself. So all is not quite in vein and the conclusion of the work brings a certain sense of satisfaction. This performance is the weak link in the box but it's not quite a fatal one. It's from a "live" performance but this doesn't really help or hinder in any way.

I wouldn't want to end my review on a negative note so it's good to report that the First Symphony gets a very lively and enjoyable performance by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yuri Simonov. This first appeared on the Tring label as one of the "Royal Philharmonic Collection" and is the most recent recording in this box. It's a reading of great contrast and maximum conductor involvement. The horns whoop magnificently in the first movement's climaxes but Simonov is also able to bring out the deep and expressive world of feeling that emerges in the opening bars. He broods superbly when he has to and then whips his players into tremendous frenzy when the score calls for that. The second movement goes along at a great swing and then the third arrives, all dreamy and evocative of a lost world of feeling. Predictably the last movement is the most exiting with some rhetorical touches that might raise a few eyebrows. But Simonov knows when to bring back the world of the work's opening before rounding the whole thing off with overwhelming brass and percussion, all stops pulled out. The 20 bit digital sound is as lively as the performance and brings an experience that would have brought the house down in the concert hall. At home it might be a bit too high octane, not a reading that ultimately goes very deep, but I enjoyed it and I think you will too.

This box is an unbeatable bargain that brings you all the completed Mahler symphonies in performances that are never less than good and, on a couple of instances, are among the best on the market.


Tony Duggan

Overall rating:

Reviews from previous months

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers : - The UK's Biggest Video Store

Concert and Show tickets


Musicians accessories

Click here to visit

Return to Index