Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.3 in D minor (1895-96) [101:47]
Symphony No.10 (1910) - Adagio [22:40] and Purgatorio; edited Otto Jokl [4:03]
Hildegard Rössl-Majdan (alto)
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/F. Charles Adler
rec. 27 April 1952, Vienna (No.3) and 8 April 1953, live (No.10)
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1249 [66:00 + 67:05]
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 Woolf
Masterwork Index: Mahler 3
Charles Adler’s recording of the Third symphony is an important document and should be heard by all Mahler enthusiasts.
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