All the best: Mahler symphonies

We live in an era of unsurpassed richness for Mahler interpretation. A quarter of a century ago, there was no shortage of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms recordings, but the choice in Mahler was limited. Some of the biggest names of the LP era had little or no contact with his music. Now almost everyone wants to get their hands on it. Mahler is the new Beethoven, and CD cycles abound. With the shortest of the nine symphonies lasting just under an hour and the longest nearly two, they take a lot of listening.

Mahler presents a further conundrum in that his music looks forward into the 20th century as much as it looks back to the 19th, with lengthy movements often made up of disparate elements that are hard to weave and weld together. This leaves endless scope for interpreters to elasticise the music, exaggerate its effects and generally pull it around. More than any other composer in the classical canon, tempo, phrasing and emotional pulse in Mahler are an open book, which charlatan conductors take full advantage of.

Fortunately, there is a legacy of recordings by conductors who knew the composer. Otto Klemperer conducted the offstage band for some performances of the Second Symphony conducted by Mahler, and helped him prepare the premiere of the Eighth. Bruno Walter, a Mahler protégé, conducted the premieres of the Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde. This gives their recordings an undeniable authenticity. No Mahler fan should be without Walter’s recordings of those two works (Das Lied von der Erde in the 1952 mono version with Kathleen Ferrier and Julius Patzak) or Klemperer’s monumental Second. But even they differed in their approach, Walter offering a more lyrical, less neurotic Mahler than Klemperer.

What music of such expressive range tells us is that no interpreter has a monopoly on the truth. Expressionism or classicism? Thirty minutes for the opening movement of the mammoth Third Symphony, or 40? Both can work. That is why, tempting as it is to settle for a box-set, it is inadvisable to do so – even when it comes from such respectable Mahlerians as Rafael Kubelik, Michael Tilson Thomas or David Zinman. Some sets feature a different conductor for each symphony: I’d much rather listen to the New York Philharmonic’s excellent survey of historical broadcasts, however variable the technical results, than be confronted by the sight of Daniel Harding and Lorin Maazel on the Royal Concertgebouw’s DVD package.

DVD detracts from the big picture in Mahler, thriving instead on small instrumental groups and conductor-narcissism. The sole exception is Claudio Abbado’s Third Symphony with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Despite an audience of stuffed shirts, the performance radiates a visionary clarity. That is even more the case with Abbado’s Berlin performances on CD: no recordings capture the beauty, fragrance or ecstatic flavour of Mahler more compellingly.

The foundation for any successful Mahler recording is a muscular, colourful sound, allied to deep familiarity with the music – which narrows the scope to the leading orchestras of Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Vienna and the US.

Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw stress the classical foundation of the symphonies, whereas Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic (not a complete cycle, but superior to Rattle’s Birmingham set) highlight their expressionist urges. No conductor captures the visceral intensity and psychological fragility of Mahler’s music better than Klaus Tennstedt; go for his live performances on the London Philharmonic Orchestra label rather EMI’s studio versions.

Leonard Bernstein showed how to be a great Mahlerian – and a wayward one. Valery Gergiev tried and failed to understand the idiom, with the possible exception of the Seventh Symphony.

My choice for the First Symphony would be Tennstedt’s incandescent 1990 live recording; in the Second, Zubin Mehta’s vintage studio version with Vienna Philharmonic and soloists Christa Ludwig and Ileana Cotrubas; in the Third, Abbado and the Berliners, recorded live in London in 1999. I have a sentimental attachment to George Szell’s serene Fourth Symphony from Cleveland, and for Bernstein in the Fifth – his rapturous 1987 Vienna Philharmonic recording. Tennstedt, Abbado and Szell excel in the Sixth, Riccardo Chailly and Mariss Jansons (Oslo as well as Munich) in the Seventh. Georg Solti copes with the impossible Eighth better than most, and Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic version of the Ninth gets close to its heart. And the Tenth? That’s for Mahler speculators: he didn’t get anywhere near finishing it.

This is part of an occasional series on building a library of classical music.

For more ‘All the best’ round-ups from Andrew Clark:


Sergiu Celibidache

Wagner’s ‘Ring’

Carlos Kleiber


Handel’s ‘Messiah’

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