I’ve been keen to hear this performance of Mahler’s
Third Symphony for a long time. It is the first recording of
the work and that in itself would be sufficient to merit listening
to it. However, as the late Tony Duggan indicated in his survey
of recordings of the symphony, it is a commendable recorded
performance in its own right and, as Tony said, it tells us
a lot about performing practice in Mahler.
So, I was aware that this is a pioneering issue. What I didn’t
realise until I read Mark Kluge’s comprehensive booklet
essay, is how remarkable a figure was Charles Adler and I will
draw on Mr Kluge’s fascinating essay for a very brief
summary. Adler, who was christened Frederick Charles but never
used his first given name, was born in London in 1889. His father
was a banker and young Charles narrowly escaped a career in
business. Instead he went to Germany where he studied under
Felix Mottl. He got the Mahler bug at an early stage and helped
prepare the choruses for the first performance of the Eighth
symphony in 1910. Adler’s early career was spent in Germany
and he rose to become Music Director of the Berlin State Radio
(1924-1933). He fled Germany when Hitler came to power and settled
in the USA, his base for the rest of his life. He established
a career in the US, though not without some difficulty. The
key to his later career was becoming artistic director to a
small independent record label, SPA, which was established in
1951. The following year Adler went to Vienna and established
a relationship with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. He was to
pay regular visits to the city to give concerts and make recordings
with the VSO until his death from cancer in February 1959.
Adler’s repertoire was nothing if not varied and enterprising;
it ranged as far back as Frederick the Great and as far forward
as a good deal of contemporary music. Mahler featured strongly
and for SPA he made the first recordings of the Third and Sixth
symphonies as well as one of the earliest recordings - the third,
in fact - of the torso of Mahler’s Tenth.
Having waited so long to encounter Adler’s version of
the Third I’m delighted to say that it doesn’t disappoint.
The trouble for someone hearing it in 2012 is that we have been
spoiled by hearing so many very fine recordings of the work
set down since Adler’s pioneering account. For myself,
when listening to the Third I find it very hard to dislodge
from my memory Leonard Bernstein’s superb first recording
of the work, made for CBS in April 1961 (review)
or Jascha Horenstein’s very different but equally memorable
1970 traversal (review).
It’s a measure of Adler’s achievement that his recording
can be compared with these two market-leaders. It’s also
worth noting that this massive symphony was set down in a single
day - a feat repeated by Bernstein nine years later.
In the immense first movement Adler adopts quite a sturdy basic
tempo for the march. I have to admit that there are several
moments in this long movement when I wanted him to move the
music along more. You won’t find the flamboyance of Bernstein
here, nor the drama of Horenstein. However, Adler is by no means
dull and in his hands the music is strongly projected - not
least by the solo trombone. Adler has the measure of the music
and conducts with grip and an excellent sense of purpose. You
may feel that his tempi are careful, even cautious. I confess
I thought that at first but I came to feel that in fact what
we have here is a case of a broad conception of the music; essentially
Adler’s is a firm, confident view of Mahler’s great
march. His is undoubtedly a spacious reading: he takes 37:42
compared with Bernstein’s 33:16 and Horenstein’s
33:09. However, he maintains concentration well and he certainly
carried me with him. He obtains good playing from the Viennese
orchestra - as he does throughout the symphony - though it would
be idle to pretend that we’re listening to the same level
of virtuosity as is provided by the New York Philharmonic (Bernstein)
or the LSO (Horenstein).
In the middle movements Adler’s timings are pretty similar
to the other two conductors - though, of course, we’re
considering much shorter movements here. In the second the VSO
give him some graceful playing - and some nimble playing also
- and Adler seems to me to be very successful and idiomatic
in his use of rubato and in negotiating tempo changes. There’s
more characterful playing on display in the third movement and
once again Adler conveys the essence of the music. That said,
it sounds a bit deliberate at times and there’s no doubt
in my mind that Bernstein, for one, is much more adept at inflecting
the rhythms with the right amount of spring. The post horn solo
episodes are well managed; the instrument is decently distanced.
However, the soloist is not the equal, I think, of Bernstein’s
player or of Horenstein’s and I think there’s rather
more magic in both the rival versions.
Hildegard Rössl-Majdan is a good, expressive soloist in
the fourth movement and Adler’s account of the fifth is
sprightly; here he gets some good, lively choral singing. He
sets the seal on his performance with a dedicated reading of
the long, slow finale. He’s patient in this movement,
over which he takes 26:00 (Bernstein takes 25:04 and the somewhat
more flowing Horenstein 22:43). It’s a deeply felt interpretation
by Adler, who gets some eloquent playing from the VSO. I think
he displays vision as well as patience in this movement and
he brings the symphony to a majestic conclusion.
Mark Kluge asserts that Adler’s reading is “something
more than merely an earnest effort”. I agree entirely.
It’s a well-considered and idiomatic interpretation in
its own right and even if it were not the first recording of
this symphony I think it would merit a secure place in the recording
history of this work. I’d say that as a pioneering achievement
it’s up there with Eduard Flipse’s recordings of
the Sixth and Eighth symphonies (review).
Music & Arts also include the two movements of Mahler’s
Tenth which were all that were ever played until scholars such
as Deryck Cooke produced performing versions of the full score.
The music included here is given in the edition by Otto Jokl.
Adler recorded this music for SPA in April 1953. Interestingly,
however, M&A have chosen not to issue that recording but
instead give us a live performance - with separately tracked
applause - that Adler and the VSO gave on the day before the
recording sessions. Apparently, this live performance has not
previously been issued on disc. Adler leads a dedicated reading
though for some reason that I can’t quite put into words
the performance didn’t engage me in the same way that
the Third did.
These recordings appear in 2010 transfers by Aaron Z. Snyder.
As usual he’s done an excellent job and the sound quality
on these sixty-year-old recordings is pretty impressive. The
recording of the Third, in particular, is an important document
and should be heard by all Mahler enthusiasts.
see also review by Jonathan
Masterwork Index: Mahler