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 Recording of the Week  Gustav Mahler

2010 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Gustav Mahler, who was born on 7th July 1860 in the small village Kalischt (now Kalište) in what was then part of the Austrian Empire, but is now in the Czech Republic. As 2011 will also be an anniversary (the 100th of his death) it will be a two-year celebration but with the combination of a couple of interesting box sets from EMI and DG and the launch of an innovative and exciting new website to tell you about, it seems a good time for me to feature him in one of these editorials.

Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler

Mahler seems to be one of those composers to attract real extremes of opinions from people. At the one end there are the almost hero-worshipers who won’t hear a bad word said about him while at the other there are those who dismiss his works entirely as hysterical and over-sentimental. In the middle there are probably the majority of listeners who continually marvel at his ability to startle, charm and excite, and enjoy immensely an hour or so (Mahler’s works tend to be quite long) of escape from the real world into one of Mahler’s symphonies. For what it's worth I definitely used to be at the hero-worship level - when I left school I went on a month-long tour of Europe visiting all of the places he worked and his composing huts (he composed in wooden huts which he built in the gardens of his various summer houses) - but now consider myself to be more mainstream (i.e. I enjoy Mahler immensely but can no longer listen to him all the time and after a particularly heavy session I often feel the need for a good dose of Schubert to recover!).

There is always a lot going on in Mahler’s music - building towards climaxes or expressing something either emotional or shocking. The orchestration is fantastic and as there is so much to hear you never tire of hearing new recordings as there is bound to be at least one thing you’ve never heard before. Despite this (and their often long length) Mahler’s music is really very accessible and in many ways much easier for a new listener to enjoy than something like a late Beethoven String Quartet where the complexity of harmonic language and structure are always going to make it hard to really understand what is going on until you’re familiar with the music.

There is an almost embarrassing number of great Mahler symphony recordings now available and Mahler enthusiasts enjoy nothing more than debating the relative merits of each of them and picking what they consider the greatest recording of each symphony. An old University lecturer of mine used to say that if a work had only one “great recording” it was probably not a great work. With Mahler this is more true than ever as so many different recordings contain so many different things to enjoy.

To mark the 150th anniversary, record labels DG and EMI have released special box sets which draw on the numerous excellent recordings from their catalogues. The DG set (which includes recordings also made originally for Philips and Decca) features a different conductor for each symphony and the list is awesome, while the EMI set doubles up on Barbirolli and Tennstedt and features three recordings from Rattle, but it is hard to argue with this decision considering the undisputed greatness of those conductors. We’ve secured special prices on both sets to the extent that they’re worth getting even if you already own several of the recordings.

DG have also just launched their ‘Dream Edition’ website which provides unrivalled access to listen to well over one hundred different recordings of Mahler symphonies in full for free! (You’ll need to register and login first but it is free to do so.) You also have the opportunity to create your own ‘dream cycle’ out of the numerous recordings in the Decca/DG catalogue. The most popular choice for each symphony will then go into a limited edition box set - “Mahler: The People‘s Edition” - which will be released on CD in November this year. There are a few oddities on the site (for example the 1951 Klemperer recording of the 2nd Symphony with Kathleen Ferrier and Jo Vincent is there to listen to but you cannot vote for it which is a bit frustrating as I might well have opted for that one!), and a few annoyances (like when listening to the albums online you have to endure gaps of a few seconds between tracks, which when a movement is split into several tracks is rather unsatisfactory), but overall this is a hugely valuable resource and well worth exploring. You have until September 15th to vote for your favourite cycle and you can access the site here.

The two recent boxed sets mentioned above are listed below with a very brief summary of who is conducting what. Full details as always via the 'More...' links.

Mahler - Complete Edition

Symphonies conducted by Kubelik (No. 1), Mehta (No. 2), Haitink (No. 3), Boulez (No. 4), Bernstein (No. 5), Abbado (No. 6), Sinopoli (No. 7), Solti (No. 8), Karajan (No. 9) and Chailly (No. 10).

Available Formats: MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Mahler - The Complete Works

Symphonies conducted by Giulini (No. 1), Klemperer (No. 2), Rattle (Nos. 3, 7 and 10), Horenstein (No. 4), Tennstedt (Nos. 5 and 8) and Barbirolli (Nos. 6 and 9).

Available Format: CD