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Mahler’s Best, From Klemperer to Dudamel: Norman Lebrecht

Sir Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra chief conductor. Source: EMI via Bloomberg
Sir Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra chief conductor. Source: EMI via Bloomberg

There’s going to be a glut of Gustav Mahler in the year ahead.

Starting today with the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth in an Austrian-Czech village on July 7, 1860, the commemorations will roll on beyond the centenary of his death on May 18, 2011. Mahler has become, in recent decades, the most popular symphonist in the concert repertoire.

Europe’s biggest arts center, on London’s South Bank, has scheduled no fewer than 27 performances. The Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic orchestras will tour the world with his works and China and Australia will hear their first-ever complete cycle.

For someone new to Mahler, getting started is no easy matter. Although he wrote just 11 symphonies and six sets of songs, there are almost 2,000 recordings to choose from in radically diverse interpretations. Mahler, himself a major conductor, instructed his successors to do whatever they felt necessary to make his music work.

“If something doesn’t sound right,” he told Otto Klemperer, “change it.” As a result, no two Mahler performances on record sound the same.

Two sets of the complete works on 16 or 18 CDs from the largest record companies, Universal and EMI, contain indispensable performances. Neither, however, is the final word. Having listened to almost all 2,000 discs over 30 years of intensive Mahler research, my tips for starters are these:

-1st Symphony (first performed 1889): Bruno Walter, the composer’s closest colleague, heard the work young but mellowed too much on record.

The most vivid account is the most recent -- Gustavo Dudamel with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, last year on DG/Universal.

-2nd Symphony, “Resurrection” (1895): Klemperer (EMI, 1962) is inarguable, while Gilbert Kaplan in Vienna (DG/Universal 2003) has the most authentic score. Paavo Jarvi, with dream soloists Alice Coote and Natalie Dessay (EMI, 2010), is my current cinch.

-3rd Symphony (1902): No living maestro matches Claudio Abbado in the pastoral beauties and terrors of this 90-minute work. His 1984 DG/Universal account with Jessye Norman is legendary, bettered only by the 2007 live DVD from Lucerne, with Anna Larsson.

-4th Symphony (1901): Swiss soprano Lisa della Casa captures the angelic innocence of the finale like no other in Chicago with Fritz Reiner (RCA/BMG, 1958). Of modern accounts, David Ziman’s in Zurich with Luba Orgonasova is most lyrical (RCA/ BMG, 2006).

-5th Symphony (1904): Walter’s premiere recording (CBS/Sony, 1947) is irresistibly affectionate, outshone only by the last concert of Georg Solti’s life (Decca/Universal, 1997). Klaus Tennstedt (EMI, 1988) is all passion and fury.

-6th Symphony: (1906) The bleakest ending in the whole of symphonic music is brilliantly reconceived by Leonard Bernstein (CBS/Sony, 1967), Dmitri Mitropolous (limited New York Philharmonic edition, 1955) and Tennstedt (EMI, 1992).

-7th Symphony (1908): Bernstein, Mahler’s great proselytizer in America, structured the five unwieldy movements as a modernist thesis (CBS/Sony, 1967); Rafael Kubelik, in Munich, evoked nostalgia for a vanishing rural landscape. Both views are compelling.

-8th Symphony (1910): The Symphony of 1,000, uncontainable on a normal stage, is almost impossible to capture on record. A 1960 Mitropoulos concert from Salzburg (Orfeo) has huge uplift, as does a parallel London performance from Jascha Horenstein (BBC Legends).

-“Das Lied von der Erde” (1911): Three indispensable recordings are different in every detail. Walter, with Kathleen Ferrier and Julius Patzak as soloists (Decca/Universal, 1952) is challenged note for rigorous note by Klemperer with Christa Ludwig and the short-lived Fritz Wunderlich (EMI, 1967). Among later readings, Carlo Maria Giulini’s with Francesco Araiza and Brigitte Fassbaender (DG/Universal, 1984) achieves kaleidoscopic coloration.

-9th Symphony (1912): Walter’s Vienna concert of January 1938, with the Nazis knocking at the door, is chilling and dramatic (EMI). Roger Norrington’s vibrato-free Stuttgart concert of 2009 (Haenssler) is thrillingly revealing. In between, Kurt Sanderling (Warner, 1992) delivers empathetic warmth for the dying composer.

-10th Symphony (1964): It is a lazy myth to claim that Mahler’s last score was unfinished. There are nine valid completions, none more exciting than 25-year-old Simon Rattle’s 1980 account in Bournemouth, England (EMI), or more precise than Riccardo Chailly’s 1986 Berlin concert (Universal/Decca), watched in frank envy by the aged Herbert von Karajan.

-The Song Cycles: Your entry point will depend on personal taste in singers. I cherish Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the early songs, and Kathleen Ferrier and Bryn Terfel in “Songs on the Death of Children.” But why stop there, when you can have anything from Kirsten Flagstad to Renee Fleming? Mahler is open to every kind of reinterpretation.

(Norman Lebrecht is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own. His book “Why Mahler?” will be published by Pantheon in the fall.)

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