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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A Symphony Should Be Like the World

Some essential Mahler grooves.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Gustav Mahler, out for a walk.
July 7 marked the 155th birthday of composer, conductor and former Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic music director Gustav Mahler. A controversial figure in his lifetime, Mahler is now revered as the father of the 20th century symphonist, a forward thinker whose death at the age of 50 robbed the world of his own unique, driven genius. In celebration of his birth here are my favorite recordings of each of the ten Mahler symphonies plus Das Lied von der Erde, a symphony in all but name.

Symphony No. 1 (Titan)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Cond. Leonard Bernstein (DG)
This recording was part of the "second" Bernstein cycle for the Yellow Label, made exclusively from live recordings toward the end of Bernstein's life. Excellent ebb and flow between movements and superhuman brass playing in the finale elevates this performance, and the conductor's touch with the funeral march makes the slow movement at once moving and quite funny.

Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection)
San Francisco Symphony cond. Herbert Blomstedt (Decca)
This Swedish conductor is a dark horse against many big names that have recorded this symphony, but his orchestra and chorus bring commitment and drama to this most spectacular of Mahler's Wunderhorn symphonies. Underrated.

Symphony No. 3 
Chicago Symphony Orchestra cond. James Levine (Sony Classical)
This Third strong performance from Levine's never-finished cycle of Mahler symphonies originally recorded for RCA, now available as part of a bargain box if you can find it. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra shines. And fer crissakes the soloist is mezzo star Marilyn Horne.

Symphony No. 4
Cleveland Orchestra cond. Pierre Boulez (DG)
The Fourth is the most misunderstood Mahler symphony, a wolf clothed in charming, child-like themes and lighter-than-usual orchestration. Boulez' Mahler cycle is a series of retakes, with the works refiltered through his view and played by superb international orchestras. Here, one can here the composer-conductor's superb relationship with the Cleveland Orchestra. Mezzo Juliane Banse is ideal and child-like in the final movement.

Symphony No. 5
Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG)
Like Boulez in that his approach is iconoclastic, Sinopoli takes his own approach, a mix of clinical analysis and outre romanticism that is worth trying even though it's not everyone's cup of tea. The conductor's  controversial (and complete)  Mahler cycle goes against the grain in many of the symphonies but his Fifth boasts some majestic brass playing from the Philharmonia forces. The Adagietto is gorgeous. He maintains a sense of dramatic storytelling through its five movements.

Symphony No. 6 (Tragic)
Vienna Philharmonic cond. Pierre Boulez (DG)
The first and best entry of Boulez' 90s-00s Mahler cycle, this is a pounding and intense performance that captures the weight and grandeur of the composer's darkest symphony. And what a hammer blow.

Symphony No. 7 (Song of the Night)
New York Philharmonic cond. Leonard Bernstein (Sony)
Part of the conductor's CBS cycle this recording opened the sonic sound-world of this symphony for many listeners. I first heard it back when I was in grad school. A clear sentimental favorite with a jaw-dropping finale led by the Philharmonic trumpets and horns.

Symphony No. 8 (Symphony of 1,000)
Berlin Philharmonic cond. Claudio Abbado (DG)
The Abbado recording solves this symphony's considerable structural problems (two mis-matched movements, and a finale that is a a giant setting of the last scene of Faust) by treating it as a dramatic cantata with an all-star cast of high-end opera singers. Cheryl Studer, Sylvia McNair, Andrea Rost and a young Bryn Terfel are all featured. The Berliners play wonderfully here and three German choruses combine to create the mighty shout of humanity that Mahler had in mind.

Symphony No. 9
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Rafael Kubelik (DG)
It must be stressed that the Ninth is subject (more than most other symphonies) to the whim and concept of the conductor at the controls. Rafael Kubelik and his Bavarian forces manage to balance the twin emotions of tragedy and serenity in this, the crown jewel of their '70s cycle.

Das Lied von der Erde
Vienna Philharmonic cond. Leonard Bernstein (Decca)
Bernstein opts for two male soloists in this song cycle that is a symphony in all but name. Here, James King and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau make an unbeatable pair with the Vienna players living up to their sterling reputation.

Symphony No. 10 (unfinished)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra cond. Sir Simon Rattle (EMI/WBC)
This classic recording of the Deryck Cooke completion of Mahler's final unfinished symphony put Sir Simon on the map as a Mahler conductor. He captures the drama and power of the first movement and then delves into Cooke's reconstructed final four movements. The strange new directions of this music makes  one wonder what might have been had Mahler lived.

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