Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Happy birthday, Gustav Mahler


Publication: The Day

Published 07/27/2010

(Austrian composer Gustav Mahler in 1909, as music director of the New York Philharmonic./NY Philharmonic Archives)

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

Starting 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.

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.

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

• 2nd Symphony, "Resurrection" (1895): Paavo Jarvi, with soloists Alice Coote and Natalie Dessay (EMI, 2010), is my current cinch.

• 3rd Symphony (1902): Claudio Abbado's 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).

• 5th Symphony (1904): Bruno Walter's premiere recording (CBS/Sony, 1947) is irresistibly affectionate, outshone only by the last concert of Georg Solti's life (Decca/Universal, 1997).

• 6th Symphony: (1906) The bleakest ending in the whole of symphonic music is brilliantly reconceived by Leonard Bernstein (CBS/Sony, 1967), Dmitri Mitropoulos (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).

• 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.

• "Das Lied von der Erde" (1911): 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).

• 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).

• 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.

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