I’m kind of in the zone with making lists right now. I thought it would be interesting to make one listing my favorite recordings of each of the Mahler symphonies. I’m a huge Mahler fan and have thought a lot about his music for years. In another life, I was going to be a Mahler specialist, but… now we’re getting too deep. Back to fanboydom. Honestly, the idea for doing this mostly came about as I started sorting through my recordings to figure out what was worth hogging up space on my aging iPod classic. (Side note: the song cycles will have to wait for another day).
Very quickly, here is the closest thing I’ve got to a general philosophy of Mahler recording: I’m pretty picky with his stuff. Many conductors turn Mahler into pseudo-Wagnerian fluff. Everything gets slowed down and overwrought, as if the Grail knights took a detour through the Alps and set their oaths to Ländlers. Others overcorrect this tendency, trying to simplify Mahler’s music in a way I find equally disappointing. While I’m a big fan of HIP(-ish) recordings of late 19th century century rep (eg. Harnoncourt & Fischer’s Bruckner), that approach generally feels too rigid for me when brought to bear on Mahler. Time and again, I’d choose Mitropoulos’s quirky 1940 first with Minnesota over Fischer’s rather bureaucratic read of the same.
In the end, I have a big slant toward sixties performances by the likes of Kubelik, Solti, Klemperer, and Bernstein. I think they strike a great balance between the early Wild West years of Mahler recording and some of the more dominant approaches in recent years. Conductors in that era were willing push the boundaries in the service of a reading. But unlike some of the earlier stuff, I usually can get behind the reading. For this reason, sixties records are dominant in what follows.
Anyw ay, here goes:
Symphony No. 01: Kubelik with Bavaria (1967)
This one is a pretty obvious starting place. Kubelik’s first, recorded with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, is a standard on many best-of Mahler lists. But its place is well deserved. For me, Kubelik’s recording really is without rival. (I’d also recommend his box set, which is probably my go-to for a single conductor cycle). Kubelik epitomizes the balance I seek in Mahler records. He is never afraid to get his hands dirty, a fear that often stifles Mahler conductors. And yet he knows when to pull back, unlike Solti (I adore him, but he tends to conduct everything like it’s the Walküre Vorspiel. I mean, it’s probably the most metal recording of classical music ever made, but that doesn’t make it a good template for Mahler).
In my book, if you want to evaluate a Mahler 1 recording, skip to the second and third movements. If they are played like Parsifal, it’s a good sign that something is wrong. Kubelik’s rendition is truly dynamic, stretching from the exalted to the crass. Here, the inner movements are downright raunchy. The rest is great, too. The opening glistens and the finale is simply tremendous.
Symphony No. 02: Mehta with Vienna (1975)
Mehta’s beloved Mahler 2 is one of the truly special records on my shelf. The first movement is staggering. The opening funeral march is played with a ferocity unmatched by any other set I’ve listened to, and yet Mehta always knows when to pull back or blend. The second theme is luminescent, and “Urlicht,” here sung by the amazing Christa Ludwig, can’t be touched by anything other version on my shelf. Rattle’s 2 with Birmingham or Klemperer’s Munich read are close seconds, but I’d reach for the Mehta over them any day.
Symphony No. 03: Horenstein with LSO (1970)
Just like my pick for the first, Horenstein’s gem with London on the wonderfully named Unicorn imprint is an obvious choice. But here again, I just can’t seem to break away from the crowd. Bernstein’s and Chailly lauded sets are overrated in my book, leaving this piece without contenders. Choosing a Mahler 3 is easy… you know after listening to about a minute of the piece whether or not you’ve got a keeper. Horenstein’s recording is electric. From a forceful opening through the pastoral second and third movements to the exhalted finale, he nails every moment.
Symphony No. 04: Kubelik with BRSO (1968)
I hate to sound like a one-trick pony, especially in a list dominated by sixties recordings, but Kubelik’s 4 is the only one that isn’t totally insufferable. That Wagnerian tendency I’ve been rambling on about is most damaging for this symphony, turning the whole thing into mush. This strategy just hasn’t worked on any record I’ve heard. Meanwhile, lots err on the other side. Boulez, who I love but generally find unlistenable when he does Mahler, transforms the work into a puppet-show version of “Les Augures printaniers.” Given this choice, I’d rather bail on the whole thing.
But Kubelik strikes a perfect balance, finding the swing in a piece that desperately needs it. Honorable mention goes to Klemperer’s creepy 1961 recording with London Philharmonia. This is one of the most intriguing Mahler records I’ve come across. It really undermines the Mozartean gracefulness of the piece, transforming it into what sounds like a soundtrack for a slasher movie. That opening entrance of the flutes is like knife on bone. One could imagine Adorno wanting it this way; it’s one of the most persuasive “Art After Auschwitz” reads of orchestral rep I know. That’s also what makes it completely unlistenable.
Symphony No. 05: Nézet-Séguin with Philadelphia (2010)
Breaking my streak of sixties/seventies worship is this take, recorded live in 2010. Up front, a full confession: I grew up in Philadelphia and see the orchestra in pretty much the same light that Philly sports fans see the Eagles or the Flyers (untouchable, even when they are anything but). I saw the group regularly throughout childhood and college and own dozens of records they’ve released. Nézet-Séguin is also one of my favorite young conductors out there. If that all doesn’t totally void my credentials, the real smoking gun is that I was at this very concert!
But truthfully, Nézet-Séguin’s Mahler is kind of hit-or-miss for me. His first with BRSO and his fourth with Orchestre Métropolitan are serviceable but not mind-blowing. Even so, his style here is perfectly suited to the work. I love Nézet-Séguin for striking a perfect balance between the grandiose old Germans and the peppy HIP conductors. He dances like Harnoncourt, but he isn’t afraid to get heavy when needed. Of all of his recordings, this is my favorite (his Rite of Spring with Philadelphia is a close second). This Mahler 5 truly breathes. When the primary theme enters, it almost feels like the piece is being sung. I’ve tried to find something that beats it, and I just haven’t.
Symphony No. 06: Solti with Chicago (1970)
Of the 1960s conductors, Solti is probably my favorite. The intensity of his music-making is unrivaled. His Ring cycle is what sold me on Wagner as a kid. His Mahler isn’t always great, though. Both in his beloved sixties/seventies period and his eighties recordings, there is a lot that is unconvincing. Even so, his sixth is stellar. The opening of the symphony is almost frightening. It’s about as close as I can get to the Klemperer’s 4 without feeling like I’m watching Saw. This fervor carries through an equally robust Scherzo, backs off for an eerily beautiful Andante, and then returns for a thrilling Finale.
Symphony No. 07: Abbado with Berlin (2001)
Proving I’m not totally skewed toward old recordings, is this recent set recorded live in 2001. Mahler 7 is an odd piece, and I suspect the deluge of weak recordings are the reason people underrate it. Abbado’s two sevenths really call into question the work’s general neglect. His first attempt, recorded in the eighties with Chicago, is pretty good. My one complaint with it is that the opening is a bit of snooze. But this later read is really stellar. Abbado totally lets loose, producing a 7th that really grooves. The best part: the whole thing can be watched on YouTube.
Solti’s CSO recording is a solid alternative.
Symphony No. 8: Tennstedt with London (1986)
There are a lot of awesome recordings of this symphony, from Solti’s aggressive seventies read with Chicago to Chailly’s meditative 2001 recording with Royal Concertgebouw. It’s tough to choose just one. I think Tennstedt’s version beats those two out by a small margin. Possibly more than any other of Mahler’s symphonies, this one traverses huge spans. Where Solti leans toward fire and brimstone and Chailly hovers in the clouds, Tennstedt seems to follow each moment wherever it takes the piece. His recording is a bit controversial among collectors for using a relatively small ensemble (only about 500 people!). For what it’s worth: that doesn’t come through on the record, which is plenty heavy.
Symphony No. 09: Bernstein with New York (1965)
Now we’re back on-brand, talking about 1960s records again. I’ll start this one with a confession: I actually can’t stand most of Bernstein’s Mahler and I’ve never been super into his conducting in general. But his 9 glows. I find this is the one best served by those grandiose Karajan-isms; Herbert’s classic read with Berlin is one of my absolute favorites. Bernstein’s edges him out slightly, because it is better played and breathes in a way that I don’t think anything else I own really does. The opening is just too beautiful, and there are few moments in music that move me more than the way he carries the symphony to its end. On the Columbia LP, the mastering makes it sound a bit like the piece was played on kazoos. So the remastered (and affordable) box set of the NY Phil recordings is a true gift.
Symphony No. 10: Rattle with Berlin (1999) & Boulez with Cleveland (2010)
I’ll bypass the question of whether or not Mahler 10 should be performed in its one movement version or one of the later completions (I kind of prefer the shorter version, but I don’t really care that much). I’ve chosen one for each. Rattle’s 1999 Berlin recording of the Cooke completion is the go-to for the full tenth, and I won’t say much about it.
I think Boulez’s Cleveland version of the first movement is worth a few more words. Though I said above that I’ve never loved Boulez playing Mahler, I think he shines here. Boulez has his moments with late romantic rep. His Bruckner 8 is staggering, for reasons I think also carry over to Mahler 10. Dark and cryptic, Boulez’s take on the tenth dwells on its impenetrability. The angular and the dissonant rule the roost, and he really sells that “modernist turning point” read of the work that often accompanies mythologies of Mahler. But here, there is little of Bernstein’s cheeseball claim that Mahler had to die with the work unfinished. Boulez’s recording seems to agree with a version of the claim, but there is no hint of triumph in the thought.