Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Music Webmaster Len Mullenger:

The Mahler Symphonies

A synoptic survey by Tony Duggan

Review of BOXED SETS of MAHLER Symphonies by Tony Duggan

When I'm asked for the best way to build a collection of Mahler's symphonies I always say compile it from single releases by different conductors rather than buy a boxed set conducted by one. The reason lies buried in the phrase by Neville Cardus that with each symphony Mahler "sheds a skin". Each work is different from the one preceding it, each needs a subtly different approach from conductor and orchestra, and, after more than thirty years of listening to Mahler, I'm convinced no one conductor is truly capable of responding equally well to all the symphonies - though a couple come close. This means that when you buy a box containing one conductor's cycle you usually end up with a number of the works in performances that fall short of the best available. I am, of course, aware that one person's definition of "best" will differ from another's but as a general rule I've found one-conductor cycles don't satisfy over the whole canon. The raison d'être for my survey of Mahler recordings has been to help navigation through the individual releases and to build that cycle.

In the past some conductors recognised all this. Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer never touched certain symphonies. Both admitted to not understanding the Sixth, for example. Klemperer himself only regularly performed a handful of Mahler's works yet based a reputation as a Mahlerian on that alone. Would that today's conductors had that humility. Today no conductor's career seems valid without his complete Mahler cycle to go with his complete Beethoven cycle. Indeed I have the impression that Mahler has taken over from Beethoven in the conductor's "wish list" when he signs the recording contract. Mahler is expensive to record but Mahler sells and so conductors continue to get their way. The winner in all this is certainly the collector. The downside is that there are more and more recordings of Mahler that will not last. There is also the nightmare scenario of conductors who should never be allowed within a mile of a Mahler score but who nevertheless get to play with their "train sets" in front of the public.

I do not, as some of my less charitable correspondents think, only favour recordings by conductors who are either very old or very dead. Anyone who has taken the trouble to read the whole of my survey of Mahler recordings will see I place some recent versions, some of them by young men, high on my lists. Thomas Sanderling, Gatti, Shipway, Tilson Thomas, Levi, Welser-Most, Lopez-Cobos and Rattle receive glowing mentions from me for some of their recordings. So I think that answers that canard conclusively. It's just that I believe for any recording to succeed it does have a lot of great acts to follow.

Great Mahler performances and recordings hit you full in the face. They insist themselves into any list of recommendations. But I have to say I do not believe it to be the case, as other correspondents have also insisted to me, that new necessarily means better. Quite the opposite can be true. I do accept that orchestras can play the notes with more efficiency now than they did twenty or forty years ago and certainly no composer can expose the second rate quite like Mahler. There are also advances in recording technology to take into account as Mahler benefits from the very best sound engineering. But I do feel that some recent recorded performances have lost something of the harder edge to Mahler's music earlier interpreters brought to it through their sense of discovery or of being closer the world of ideas Mahler came from. Certainly there has been an underlying tendency to make tempi slower, for example. As if by so doing the conductor can wring more emotion out of Mahler because they think that is what the public wants and therefore needs. This imbalance is to be discouraged. Poor, tragic, doomed, victimised Mahler seems to be the message in those instances. I say remember Mahler as a man of ideas, a man of action, a man who loved life and celebrated it in all its beauty and all its ugliness - and balance the whole man. These works are a lot more than orchestral showpieces, a lot more than "machines for pleasing" and a lot more than exercises in tear jerking and elation pumping. They are often uncomfortable "awkward squads" and the interpreter who misses that element is cheating the public badly. Great precision in playing is to be welcomed, and great recorded sound too, but neither should be at the expense of missing the real Mahler. If I have to sacrifice perfection of execution and recorded sound I will do so gladly, and so should you.

To be fair there are other considerations to take into account in the question of boxed sets which is why I've added this Appendix to my survey. For example, there's no question that it's easier to walk into a shop, or go to an online site, and come away with one purchase rather than twelve. You can also get good deals with regards to price when you "bulk buy" your Mahler. It's also interesting to have one person's view, one orchestra's performances, one producer and engineer's sound stage, to get an "overview. So I will give you a few ideas as to what I think are one-conductor cycles worth seeking out for all their drawbacks and those that I think are better avoided. As usual this is a very personal selection. There will be the usual disappointments. Supporters of this conductor or that conductor will, no doubt, ask why I have left out their favourites but if you have been following my survey you will be well used to my preferences. But first there is another class of boxed sets altogether. Those that are not one-conductor cycles (at least not in the conventional sense) but which contain performances gathered together for other reasons. I'll call these "special event" boxes and there are a four of them I want to draw to your attention as additions to your collections.

The first of these is "The Complete Symphonies", an eleven-disc bargain set on Brilliant Classics (99549) £29.99 of all Mahler's completed symphonies taken from different sources. I include it because at such a low price it would make a perfect addition to the collection of someone starting out in Mahler or wanting to experiment. The First Symphony gets a performance of contrasts and maximum involvement by the Royal Philharmonic under Yuri Simonov. The Second, by the Residentie Orchestra of The Hague under Hans Vonk, is the weakest link. The first movement is unimaginative and the sound recording lacking in impact. There is more charm in the second movement but this hardly compensates as the third shows the same shortcomings as the first. The last movement saves the performance from descending into boredom as Vonk keeps things moving, but again there's much more that can be made of this. Next I count the version of the Third conducted by Jascha Horenstein one of the greatest of all Mahler recordings and you can read a detailed review of this in my survey on the Third Symphony. Hartmut Haenchen's Fourth benefits from a big acoustic that allows lower woodwind to tell in a warm but very fluent performance. In the Fifth Vaclav Neumann's view of the first movement is stiff and unyielding, adding some excitement to the frantic central section though not enough contrast to stop me feeling cheated. Neumann's failure to bury himself in the second movement also means we hear mostly sound and fury only. Things improve in the Scherzo and the clear-headed Adagietto, but the last movement doesn't contrast enough with the first. On to Hartmut Haenchen's Sixth recorded "live", which probably accounts for some lapses. The first movement is under-powered with Haenchen unable to decide the mood. In the last movement the problems of "live" performance and Haenchen's inability to penetrate the terrible message confirms this as an average performance only. Kurt Masur conducts the Seventh in Leipzic and provides a clear nightscape in Mahler's "night into day" journey. In the first movement he is also good on the inner tempo relationships and brings clarity to the canvas. Neeme Jarvi conducts the Eighth "live" in Gothenburg. This has a fleet, athletic account of Part I rather lacking in critical mass". In Part II the Prelude is notable for clarity so some sacrifice of atmosphere is inevitable. This is a Part II for the brightest part of the day. Finally, the first movement of the Ninth under Neumann is a good Andante comodo that allows a course between nostalgic repose and penetrating drama. The sound balance also means we hear how good the Gwandhaus Orchestra is. Neumann knows how to deliver nodal climaxes, never losing sight of the big picture. To sum up, smart friends with money to burn might cast aspersions on this bargain basement set but if this is all that can be afforded it will last you quite well.

At the other end of the price range is the kind of set smart friends will have displayed prominently on their shelves but which I want to draw to your attention nevertheless. "The Mahler Broadcasts 1948-1982" is a lavish twelve-disc collection containing "live" New York Philharmonic performances - effectively an NYPO Mahler cycle. order It comes with a sumptuous 500-page book with essays, interviews, notes and reviews, photos from the archives, documentation of Mahler's time with the orchestra and a list of the orchestra's Mahler performances. Completing the set is the famous radio documentary "I Remember Mahler" containing recollections by musicians who played in the NYPO under Mahler. The elderly Alma Maher herself was in the audience in 1959 for Sir John Barbirolli's ripe reading of the First Symphony. The performance itself moves from the sunshine meadow of the first movement to ethnic revelry in the second and a splendid Mahler funeral march in the third showing Sir John in tune with the mix of irony and beauty. The fourth movement is an excellent, triumphant crown with fine brass playing bringing this distinctive performance to a fine conclusion. The Second Symphony comes from the NYPO's 10,000th concert in 1982. Zubin Mehta was Musical Director and rises to the occasion with a performance superior to his Decca version with the Vienna Philharmonic. The marvellous Maureen Forrester adds lustre to the performance too. The NYPO's next Director was Pierre Boulez who conducts the Third Symphony. This will strike some as more romantic, more suffused with warmth, than they expect. But this is always the case with Boulez who seems doomed to be judged by people's preconceptions. There is fabulous brass playing in the first movement and Yvonne Minton is inspired in the fourth. Georg Solti then conducts the Fourth Symphony from 1962 and shows a different Mahlerian to the one heard in his Chicago cycle for Decca. He is relaxed and genial here, not at all the ruthless drillmaster. Klaus Tennstedt next delivers his characteristically involved and vital reading of the Fifth that can also be heard in his "live" London Philharmonic recording for EMI. The NYPO brass are superb and the strings appropriately lyrical with the Adagietto especially passionate. Tennstedt has his fanatical admirers and they will love this roller-coaster ride that demands to be heard at least once. Next a truly great performance of the Sixth under Dimitri Mitropoulos at Carnegie Hall in 1955. In my complete survey of Sixth Symphony recordings I deal with this in detail and recommend you to read that to see how highly I rate it. The playing more than justifies the NYPO's reputation as one of the great Mahler ensembles and proves beyond doubt they could play Mahler magnificently before Bernstein came along and usurped his mentor. The difficult Seventh Symphony gets a fascinating performance from Rafael Kubelik who is a surprise guest in this box. His performance is almost one third as long as his DG studio recording dealt with below. The outer movements are especially deep and profound and I confess to not being able to make up my mind about this performance. A brave and inspired choice for this box, though. Next comes Leopold Stokowski who was present at the first performance of the Eighth Symphony in Munich in 1910 and also gave the first American performance of it in 1916. His 1950 reading at Carnegie Hall is the stuff of legend and here at last is a transfer of the broadcast tape that does this great occasion proud. Forget any ideas about Stokowski the "liberty taker". The old wizard gives a scrupulous reading, inspired from first to last, with little allowance needing to be made for the age of the sound. This set also includes "Das Lied Von Der Erde" and the recording is the oldest here with Bruno Walter directing Kathleen Ferrier's American debut in 1948. We find her in even better form here than she was for Walter in her Vienna recording for Decca four years later. Set Svanholm is also inspired in the tenor songs and this transfer is far superior to the one you may have heard from acetates available on a Naxos release. Sir John Barbirolli then has the distinction of being the only conductor in the set to appear twice in complete symphonies. His Ninth from 1962 is characteristically eloquent though it doesn't quite match the level of inspiration reached in his Berlin Philharmonic recording for EMI a year later. The 1962 broadcast sound is not as good as some others in this set being a little thin-toned. Nevertheless, this is still a performance to be treasured. Bringing up the rear are excellent performances from 1960 and 1958 of the Adagio and Purgatorio from the Tenth conducted by Mitropoulos who seems to get under the skin of this music as it stands like few others.

Which brings us conveniently to the next "special event" box I want to deal with which is "Mitropoulos Conducts Mahler". This is a set collecting some "live" performances by a conductor of the previous generation who is often overlooked. A pity because Dimitri Mitropoulos's view of Mahler comes before what can best be described as that hint of "smoothing out" that has crept into Mahler performances as orchestras and conductors became more familiar with the works and which has not been to Mahler's advantage. In 1960 the NYPO mounted a festival to commemorate Mahler's centenary and Mitropoulos conducted the First, Fifth and Ninth symphonies, plus the Adagio from the Tenth. These make the majority in this six-disc set on Music and Arts (CD-1021 with ordering and samples at: Mitropoulos Conducts Mahler CD-1021). The first movement of the First Symphony strikes a balance between a romantic, dark-hued world of the Wayfarer theme and sharp birdcalls. The second movement is wilful and could irritate but the coarse-grained double bass solo at the start of the third movement shows Mitropoulos never prettifies Mahler. He then tears into the finale with abandon and encourages his players to go for broke. Next is the Fifth Symphony where Mitropoulos has the measure of the mood swings in the first and second movements. Problems start with the Scherzo, though. The way Mitropoulos tears into it says a lot about how I think he misses the point and with it that of the whole work, because the symphony pivots on the way this movement provides a "junction box" for the war between positive and negative. The reprise of the Adagietto in the last movement is interesting in that Mitropoulos takes it slowly and makes the connection between the two movements better than many. Finally in the Ninth Symphony the first movement is forward-looking and edgy, which is a surprise after the Fifth for the restraint and clarity Mitropoulos brings. The second movement then receives a quick performance with the Tempo I Landler especially testing the orchestra and the Tempo II Waltz wild and turbulent. In the Rondo Burleske the basic tempo is steady enough for each note to tell and this is followed by a searing performance of the last movement. At twenty-one minutes it is one of the quickest on record but since all Mitropoulos's tempi overall are quicker you shouldn't really notice. Following these 1960 recordings the Third is with the NYPO in 1955. There are cuts in this and some fast tempi injecting impatience, so on its own this would be a recording to give a wide berth to. There is, of course, a better Sixth by Mitropoulos in the "Mahler Broadcasts" box dealt with above but I still believe this Cologne Radio version from 1960 deserves consideration. Mitropoulos was more interventionist in this performance, especially in his deliberate treatment of the fate rhythm in the first movement. There are awkward gear changes too but, as so often, Mitropoulos can bring out the sharp, uncomfortable sound of Mahler very tellingly. The Eighth from the 1960 Salzburg Festival is the most distinguished performance here. Mitropoulos's tempo in Part I stresses grandeur and solidity but then, as the central double fugue progresses, a sense of momentum builds up. In Part II Mitropoulos's ability to bend with the music delivers a moving experience, contrasting the first part admirably. Then, as the soloists appear, their fine qualities are confirmed in every case. To sum up, this is an essential box for admirers of both Mahler and Mitropoulos. A window into Mahler performing styles prior to the boom of the 1960s.

Finally in these "special event" boxes is what might seem a one-conductor cycle but which isn't quite. "Mahler Kerstmatinees" is a nine-disc box from Philips (Dutch Masters 50) only available from Holland. order by e-mail. For a number of years on Christmas Day in the 70s and 80s Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra would perform a Mahler symphony in Amsterdam with the concert televised "live" to most of Europe. I'm pleased to say the stereo broadcast tapes have now been gathered in this box. The Sixth and Eighth Symphonies are absent as these were never performed in the series so what we have are 1,2,3,4,5,7,9 and some songs. However you can always supplement a Sixth from Haitink's studio recordings. (Haitink's studio recording of the Eighth is bland and dull in the extreme.) The booklet interestingly mentions the difference in Haitink "live" and Haitink in the studio, which is something I have always noticed. So often his "live" performances have more life, intensity and sense of involvement than his studio recordings so this set is important since few conductors know these score better and no orchestra plays them better. Here you will hear conductor and players taking risks and seeming to respond to the sense of occasion these concerts brought with them. The Third, Seventh and Ninth Symphonies are especially fine and the Concertgebouw Orchestra is on top form throughout. Netherlands Radio was responsible for the sound and they have done this wonderful orchestra proud with better sound to that you will hear in Haitink's first and complete studio cycle on Philips (4420502). From the deepest bass to the highest treble everything is heard in superb balance. Highly recommended.

So now to single conductor cycles and two that can be recommended almost without reservation as they are by conductors whose views of Mahler, whilst being personal and distinctive, reach a level of achievement that is consistent over the whole canon to give that "overview" I mentioned earlier as valuable. They are by Rafael Kubelik on DG and Leonard Bernstein on Sony. If you want only one interpreter's views on the whole cycle these should be at the top of your list for consideration.

 [Crotchet  £59.95 Amazon UK  £60.99] Rafael Kubelik's cycle on DG (463 738-2) has truths in it corrective to many more "demonstrative" versions. He is especially good in Mahler's "Wunderhorn" moods but can surprise in later works where a more Modernist approach is called for. In the First Symphony he recognises a young man's work tied to nature and rejected love. Notice the purity of the opening, the piquancy of the birdcalls, the unfussy phrasing of the main theme. In the third movement he is aware of the grotesques but never distorts or smooths out. Then he crowns the recording with a dramatic last movement though not at the expense of ardour. In the Second Symphony the first movement has weight with electric tempi and the big ascending theme strong on "Wunderhorn" character. Kubelik is almost as fine as Klemperer is in bringing out stranger sounds too. The start of the fifth movement has all the drama you could want and the "voice in the wilderness" is imposing with delicate horns over harps and woodwinds and fluttering violins with growls from basses and contrabassoons with bass drum. Admire too the sense of architecture and the piercing Bavarian brass. Kubelik's Third Symphony is a classic with unity and purpose that pays as much attention to inner movements as outer with playing of poetry and charm. In the first movement Kubelik echoes Schoenberg's belief of a struggle between good and evil and listen to the savage basses and cellos and raw trombone solos. In the last movement no one offers a more convincing tempo either. Next in the Fourth Symphony Kubelik recognises a chamber-like work. Tempi are quicker but never at the expense of detail. Again there is a nice line in grotesques. Then in the slow movement I hear the same singing line as Bruno Walter. Also woodwind against strings are reproduced beautifully. The Fifth Symphony then gets a lean performance from Kubelik. No "fat on the bone" in the first movement and a bit lacking in tragedy. The second movement is fierce, the abrasive recorded sound a trial, but the pacing is faultless. In the Scherzo there is spring in the step, joy and carnival, though the sound is still a problem. This is the weakest performance in the cycle but still worth hearing. The Sixth Symphony is riveting, however. Though the first movement is fast it stresses the classical nature of this classically structured movement and it also makes us see Mahler's "hero" prior to the Tragedy that overwhelms him. The compelling Scherzo reinforces the rigour of the first movement: consistent and uncompromising it reminds us Kubelik was an exponent of 20th century music. The third movement is unselfconscious, but notice the nostalgic trumpet. Then in the last movement Kubelik suggests menace and tension in the opening and the rest balances the first movement in being sharp with Tragedy integrated into the structure. After this the Seventh Symphony gets a performance consistent with Kubelik's general approach. The first movement is fluent with symphonic structure paramount; alive to the new sounds Mahler experiments with, accentuated by a close balance. In the second movement Kubelik remembers this is a march and doesn't smooth out. The malevolent Scherzo finds every nerve exposed and after a tense second Nachtmusik the last movement goes off like a rocket with those prominent "baroque" trumpets. On to the Eighth and Kubelik's recording suffers first from restrictions of sound. There is an element of grandeur missing in Part 1 with Kubelik direct to the point of correctness as well. Part 2 fares better. The Prelude is impetuous and notice passages where Kubelik brings out the "Chinoisserie" Mahler will rely on in "Das Lied Von Der Erde". This recording has a fine solo team too. The first movement of the Ninth Symphony gets a dynamic reading with the building bricks of the movement clinically presented. A tough reading aware of the jagged contours of Mahler's late sound world with lines clear. The second movement is full of character and the Rondo Burleske contains tension though there are more "unhinged" versions out there. Less than twenty-two minutes might seem short for the fourth movement but what matters is overall pacing fitting with those of the other movements. Finally in the Adagio from the Tenth Kubelik is the one of the few who makes it seem like a complete work in itself. To sum up, listen to this cycle "in one" and its virtues become apparent. You will gather I regard it as nearly indispensable.

 £114.94 Amazon UK  £108.99 Amazon US $164.67] There are two recorded Mahler cycles from Leonard Bernstein. The first is with the New York Philharmonic (and the LSO for the Eighth Symphony) for Columbia made in the 1960s and the second for DG made in New York, Vienna and Amsterdam in the 1980s. Along with Kubelik Bernstein is one of the two conductors on record who for me reaches a level of consistency over the whole cycle that is deeply impressive, even though there are aspects I have disagreements with. In contrast to Kubelik Bernstein is more emotionally engaged and there is frequently a "life or death" struggle going on that can be compelling when appropriate if irritating when not. It's a set of attitudes Bernstein delivers every time without fail and for that his cycle must go into this particular survey as a leading recommendation because here is another set to give you a specific and consistent "overview" from one interpreter's viewpoint. Of the two Bernstein cycles I prefer the earlier one that now resides with Sony, but the one on DG (459080) is almost on the same level of achievement. How very alike his individual interpretations are after twenty years is more proof of Bernstein's consistency but I find the younger Bernstein's energy, sense of wonder and discovery even more compelling. The versions by him of the Third and Seventh Symphonies remain among the greatest Mahler recordings ever set down and I reviewed them in some detail in my surveys of those works to which I direct you. At the point of writing this earlier cycle is not in the catalogue but I'm assured Sony will be reissuing it early in 2001 at bargain price.

2009 update - see reissue of remastered Sony set

£59.95  Amazon UK £56.99] Bernard Haitink's studio cycle on Philips (4420502) is another one-conductor set which, as a set, I rate almost on a par with Kubelik's and Bernstein's for the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra's authoritative playing and Haitink's integrity. These are central, solid interpretations of depth and stature if a little lacking in character. You could say they are a "third way" between Kubelik and Bernstein. Apart from the Ninth and Seventh there isn't one individual symphony in this set I would recommend on its own but, as a set, it does have a lot going for it, even though Haitink himself is heard to much greater advantage in the "live" Christmas Matinee set already mentioned.

There are many other boxed sets containing complete cycles by one conductor and orchestra. You will often see some good bargains among them too. But I remain convinced that none of them can compare with either building your own cycle from individual recordings or relying on Kubelik, Bernstein or even Haitink to give that overview I mentioned. However, let me round some of them up in case you see them. First there is Sir Georg Solti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Decca (4308042) or London (30804). He is certainly consistent in his approach to each work and there's no questioning the stunning precision and power of his orchestra. But Solti's Mahler is, for me, almost unvaryingly presented in the full glare of a clinical spotlight with too many passages driven to the point of ruthlessness such that I'm usually left admiring the performance rather than the music. I also think this orchestra, on the evidence of these recordings, has no real Mahler sound when compared with the Concertgebouw, for example. Many also rate Klaus Tennstedt's London Philharmonic cycle on EMI (5729412) very highly. I find it uneven. Indeed, I often find Tennstedt's approach within each work uneven. As with Haitink, Tennstedt was often better experienced "live". Also his type of "hands on" interpretative style is much better experienced under Bernstein whose knowledge of the scores is greater. Though I must say there is no doubting the sumptuous, upholstered playing of the London Philharmonic who deliver Mahler's darker hues gloriously. Next there's Claudio Abbado's cycle on DG (4470232). This too is variable and, in the end, too self-conscious too many times to warrant a strong recommendation over and above convenience or special offers. There are a couple of the symphonies worth having individually but for me this cycle just falls short of convincing, even though it is superbly played and recorded. Leif Segerstam on Chandos delivers his Mahler in sound recordings that are huge and imposing but his style can sometimes be grossly mannered almost to the point of distortion. Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Philips (4388742) provides superb orchestral playing and excellent sound recording but too often there is failure to penetrate much beneath the surface of the notes. Lorin Maazel's cycle on Sony with the Vienna Philharmonic is self-conscious to an extent that is ultimately self-defeating and though his Fourth Symphony is excellent the rest do not live up to that high point. In the end I return to where I began and stress once more that I firmly believe you should compile a Mahler collection from single releases by different conductors rather than buy a boxed set by one conductor, unless for reasons I have outlined.

Mahler recordings keep coming. There is a bewildering choice for even the experienced collector. I hope that in the course of this long survey I have provided newcomers with a "road map" and older hands with something to think about.

Tony Duggan

Return to Jan Reviews
Mahler pages

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