Top 10 Mahler symphony recordings

Gramophone Mon 16th May 2016

Gustav Mahler said, 'My symphonies represent the contents of my entire life.'

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No 1

Symphony No 1

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Rafael Kubelík


This distinguished coupling has already been available at bargain price so its appearance in The Originals livery comes as something of a surprise. That said, the packaging is first-rate and the notes interesting and thoughtful. On the first appearance of the symphony in 1968, Deryck Cooke observed that Rafael Kubelik was “essentially a poetic conductor and he gets more poetry out of this symphony than any of the other conductors who have recorded it”. Bruno Walter was, he felt, Kubelik’s only rival in this regard and he was much taken with the “natural delicacy and purity” of the interpretation. Unlike Walter, Kubelik takes the repeat of the first movement’s short exposition. Strange, then, that he should ignore the single repeat sign in the Landler when he seems so at ease with the music. Notwithstanding a fondness for generally brisk tempos in Mahler, Kubelik is never afraid of rubato here, above all in his very personally inflected account of the slow movement. This remains a delight. The finale now seems sonically a little thin, with the trumpets made to sound rather hard-pressed and the final climax failing to open out as it can in more modern recordings. The orchestral contribution is very good even if absolute precision isn’t guaranteed. In the first movement we do not get genuinely quiet playing from the horns at 9'30'' whereupon the active part of the development is rather untidily thrust upon us.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s second recording of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen has worn rather less well, the spontaneous ardour of his earlier performance (with Furtwangler and the Philharmonia – EMI, 6/87) here tending to stiffen into melodrama and mannerism. There is of course much beautiful (if calculated) singing and he is most attentively accompanied, but the third song, “Ich hab’ ein gluhend Messer”, is implausibly overwrought, bordering on self-parody. By contrast, Kubelik’s unpretentious, Bohemian approach to the symphony remains perfectly valid. A corrective to the grander visions of those who conduct the music with the benefit of hindsight and the advantages of digital technology? Perhaps. David Gutman (February 1997)


No 2 

Symphony No 2 

Royal; Kožená; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle 

The first movement was something of a sticking-point in Rattle’s CBSO recording of the piece and it’s still after all these years a bone of contention – only here it’s the well-upholstered Berlin Philharmonic strings that sound the first unconvincing notes. Even that naked tremolando at the outset has what can only be described as a “covered” sound such as might be deployed by a singer of the old school. The shuddering declamations from cellos and basses are similarly devoid of that rosiny edge. And though this might be a by-product of EMI’s handsome Philharmonie recording keeping its distance, the circumspection and low-tension plod of the opening paragraph most certainly isn’t.

With the first appearance of the second subject the Berliners’ famed sostenuto comes into its own, with Rattle’s pronounced rubato perhaps over-accentuating the keening harmony – but the theme’s return, shyly emerging from the mists of time, is very beautiful, with voluptuous cor anglais again pointing to the BPO’s exceptional pedigree. But this is an orchestra so reluctant to make an ugly sound that perhaps what I miss most of all at the dramatic extremes of this movement is the coruscating effect of shrill, demented woodwinds and the brassy penetration of trumpets and trombones. Time and again the tutti sound strikes me as too blended.

The pacing, too, feels overly expansive despite Rattle’s meticulous adherence to Mahler’s frequent and often extreme tempo fluctuations. Certainly we’ve come a long way from Otto Klemperer’s celebrated EMI studio recording in which he systematically disregarded all such indications as if he were still conducting Todtenfeier, the first incarnation of the movement where none of these markings exist. One might include in that assessment the unmarked but traditional ritardando into the battering dissonance at the climax of the development. Rattle makes a meal of that. But surely it’s more shocking not to signal the arrival of the molto pesante? Isn’t that the reason Mahler pointedly avoided suggesting any slackening of pace in the moments before this shattering derailment?

The life-in-retrospect inner movements bring playing of exquisite tone and quick reflexes, with Rattle making much of the headlong panic which snaps us out of rosy reverie in the second movement. Again, in the Trio of the third movement, the trumpets are too blended for my taste, the “barbershop” harmony not cheesy enough to convey that old rustic charm. And when the quirky little ditty goes cosmic at the climax I just wanted more definition of trumpets and horns spinning the movement off its axis.

Magdalena Kožená brings her customary depth of feeling to the still maternal voice of “Urlicht” (though one or two switches of register evidence some discomfort); and notwithstanding moments where I would like the veneer stripped off the brass (especially the first trumpet), the finale – with magical spatial effects – is magnificent. Rattle’s famous piano-pianissimos are deployed to breathtaking effect, the choral passages (radiantly illuminated at the top by Kate Royal) sound pure, mysterious and very Bachian, and the returning resurrection hymn is tremendous.

There is still no completely ideal recording of this inspiring piece: if we could somehow conjure an amalgam of Rattle, Fischer, Bernstein and Tennstedt we’d be getting close. I personally am drawn back to Iván Fischer, while the recent live Tennstedt lays bare the whole burning issue of mortality with uncompromising force. If he is the Beast, then Rattle is undoubtedly Beauty. If only we could bring them together. Edward Seckerson (March 2011)


No 3 

Symphony No 3

Lipton; Choir of the Transfiguration; NYPO / Leonard Bernstein 

''This is the first time I have ever heard Bernstein conduct Mahler, and I certainly hope that it will not be the last.'' So wrote the late Deryck Cooke in these pages in December 1962 of this very symphony. And the rest, as they say, is history. For me too, that particular recording made an immeasurable and lasting impression. To this day, I have regarded Bernstein's handling of the last movement alone—that majestic D major hymn to life and love—as the model against which all others must be measured. The courageous breadth of line (only Abbado on DG has since taken a comparable overview), the sustained intensity, the nobility, the inwardness—this is quite simply one of the finest pieces of Mahler conducting in my recollection. So here we are, nearly 30 years on, with Bernstein no less, if anything more, in awe of the movement, communicating still an overwhelming sense of its transcendental reverence, and coming, what's more, to within five seconds of his previous timing over a duration of some 25 minutes. That in itself is remarkable. Remarkable, too, is the orchestra that makes it all possible: the New York Philharmonic. They have always surpassed themselves in this movement, this symphony (after a decade-plus at their helm, Bernstein chose it for his final concert as Music Director—so it is significant).

They do so again here. If I might single out the 'final paragraph' from fig. 25 (CD2, track 9) where the solo flute seems to levitate above the orchestra and three trumpets and one trombone (in the most exquisitely blended sound) softly voice once more the noble hymn, right through to the big release at 5'19'' of track 9 with its ecstatic brass harmonies (as fine an example as I know of consonance through dissonance). This is marvellous.

Of course, one has to contend here with the somewhat thankless acoustic of Avery Fisher Hall, and DG have once more attempted to divert attention from its lifelessness by taking us in close to the action. I do miss the spacial perspectives of the old CBS sound, though arguably the reverse was true in that case and one craved a degree or two more impact from the flabbergasting sonorities of the first movement. One certainly gets that here: the dark grainy colour of low horns and contra-bassoon just after the opening summons, the dry rattle of bass drum triplets, the hollow oscillation of the woodwinds, the dramatic upsurges of cellos and basses as nature stirs, twitches from slumber. Bernstein injects great urgency into these seemingly involuntary impulses. Where Mahler marks bewegt (with mobility), one really feels movement in the phrasing. No one profiles the advancing march quite as zealously as Bernstein (piccolos, glockenspiel, trilling horns et al): the chaotic climax of the development, the passage Mahler himself dubbed ''the mob'', is given the full 'fife and drum' treatment, while the euphoric coda is precisely that, with Bernstein making even more now of those panoramic chords as summer sunshine floods the scene with light. A word, too, for the trombone soloist whose long solos progress so eloquently from primitive severity to melancholic regret.

As for the inner movements, Bernstein is possibly a little more relaxed and spontaneous of manner in his earlier account of the charming 'flower' minuet. One is marginally more conscious now of the rubato—the little nudges and hesitations—to say nothing of the puckish contrasts of the trios. In the 'animal' frolics of the third movement scherzo, there is little to choose between the two readings. Both are boldly characterized, Bernstein and his uninhibited New Yorkers revelling in the rough and ready polka rhythms and raucous bird calls. The magical post-horn obbligato of Mahler's second trio is as far-off and misty-eyed as it is possible to be without actually blurring clarity; perfect. My only serious disappointment concerns the Nietzsch ''Midnight Song'' setting—nothing, I hasten to add, to do with Christa Ludwig, who is fine, but a question of dynamics. The recording (surely not Bernstein?) never allows us a true pianissimo, leave alone the pppp marked at the close. The profound darkness, the inky misterioso of the opening page is all but lost here the murmuring cellos and basses (much too loud), and then muted horns, do not steal, as it were, into our consciousness.

But then, other contenders have their draw-backs too and none quite matches Bernstein's unique aura, not least in that wonderful last movement. I very much like the Tennstedt (EMI) Inbal (Denon), and—most of all—Abbado (DG) recordings. But even Abbado, for all his insight and sensitivity (his is unquestionably the most sheerly beautiful of current options), must yield to Bernstein in the matter of Mahler's elemental and uncompromising sound world. Tennstedt, too, scores heavily in this respect. If pressed, I might confess to having a slight preference for Bernstein's earlier CBS account (now on CD coupling the Ruckert and Jungendzeit Lieder), but tonally-speaking, the newcomer is not surprisingly the more vivid and opulent of the two. Either way, Bernstein's Mahler Third is special — and that cannot be overstressed. Edward Seckerson (June 1989)

No 4 

Symphony No 4

Persson; Budapest Festival Orchestra / Iván Fischer

What no one will deny is the amazing unanimity and precision of the playing here and the superlative quality of the sound engineering. But how to read a work that can feel brittle as well as heart-warming and graceful? Despite Iván Fischer’s eminently sane and central pacing overall, he courts controversy with inconsistencies of tone between (and individualised inflexions within) the four movements.

Some maestros choose between neo-classical modernity and old-world Gemütlichkeit. Fischer gives us both and more: he gives us instability. Rather than taking his cue from the opening bars in which the jingling sleigh bells might be construed to lose their way, Fischer mixes them down, introducing his own eccentric nuance a fraction later. He permits an oasis of exquisite repose just before the movement’s final flourish yet much of the rest is unsettling. While details unearthed are revelatory – often linear, maybe functional, certainly more than merely illustrative – the quest can seem obsessive, at odds with the sense of ease indicated by the composer. Make no mistake however, the playing has character and conviction, the divided violins enhancing transparency albeit at some expense of weight and blend. Less self-regarding or at least less wilful since the idiosyncrasies are intrinsic, the Scherzo goes wonderfully well, with solo violin and clarinets in particular excelling themselves. The slow movement is just a little pale, as if Fischer were deliberately avoiding the calculated sublimity and cushioned string tone associated with big-band performances of late Beethoven. The gates of Heaven are flung open with a great blare, possibly a bit much for home listening but replicating the immediacy of the concert hall. In the finale, Fischer achieves novelty chiefly through understatement, mindful of the need to avoid coyness at all costs. Miah Persson is ideally cast and as she invokes Saint Martha at 3'56" it’s as if we’re transported to a small village church, the organ made tangible in the exquisite treatment of the accompanying instrumental texture.

This is just one of countless imaginative touches on an exceptional hybrid SACD. That said, I’m still in two minds about it. Is Mahler’s emotive force blunted by Fischer’s careful manicure? David Gutman (April 2009)


No 5 

Symphony No 5

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

Philip Larkin famously suggested ‘Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three… Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP’. The seeds of Mahlermania were sown at much the same time, though not in Berlin where the Philharmonic barely knew who Mahler was. Barbirolli knew, of course, but there is no disguising the fact that this fondly remembered 1964 Mahler Ninth is orchestrally inadequate. The performance of the Adagio could be said to be a ‘Great Recording of the Century’. It is the earlier movements that are the problem. Barbirolli’s pacing of the first movement is forward-moving but the performance seems sluggish, the textures foggy, everyone waiting for someone else to make the next move. No wonder the recording soon died the death as a ‘selected comparison’.

Barbirolli’s 1969 Mahler Fifth already has its place in ‘Great Recordings’, and rightly so. The work is a terror to bring off but, brought off, is a joy beyond measure. It made a fine nuptial offering for Rattle and the Berliners on September 7 – festive yet challenging, a tragi-comic revel and a high-wire act to boot. ‘The individual parts are so difficult,’ wrote Mahler, ‘they call for the most accomplished soloists.’ I watched the television transmission slack-jawed as the principal trumpet performed dazzling feats of virtuosity without for a moment violating the tenets of good ensemble playing. Rattle brought the prodigious first horn to the apron of the stage for his obbligato contribution in the Scherzo. Mengelberg’s conducting score, which Mahler used for the work’s Amsterdam première in 1906, has an annotation to this effect, and the practice was followed at the work’s English première in 1945, but I am left wondering what would have happened had Rattle not brought the player forward. EMI’s recording is splendidly explicit, but the horn section, which plays a crucial role at key moments in the symphony, seems oddly distant on CD.

The tutti sound Rattle draws from the orchestra is clean and sharply profiled, not unlike the Mahler sound Rafael Kubelík tended to favour. Like Kubelík, Rattle separates the first and second violins, a mixed blessing in the Fifth Symphony where Mahler exploits the use of an antiphonal layout in contrapuntal passages yet also experiments with the sonic possibilities of unison fiddles. On the other hand, I doubt whether Kubelík would have been as solicitous as Rattle is of the Berlin strings with their suave legato and potentially inaudible pianissimi. Rattle’s tempo for the Adagietto is a good one by modern standards (not too slow) and the string playing has a lovely diaphanous quality, but you may find the playing over-nuanced.

Over-nuancing was a problem with Bernstein’s early New York recording. As Deryck Cooke observed in July 1964, it should have been a much more moving experience than Bruno Walter’s surprisingly brisk and uninflected 1947 account with the same orchestra. In the event, the Bernstein was less involving, not more. Nowadays it is not unusual to hear rhythm and line sacrificed to detail and nuance as old-established symphony orchestras are made to re-think their readings by conductors schooled in the arcana of ancient performance practice. Rattle has done his fair share of this. What is interesting about this live Mahler Fifth is the degree to which the detail is absorbed and the line maintained.

Like most latter-day conductors, Rattle tends to underplay the march element in the first movement. Mahler in his 1905 piano roll, Walter, and Haitink in his superb 1969 Concertgebouw recording all preserve this. Some may find the approach too dry-eyed in the long-drawn string threnody at fig 2. But an excess of feeling can damage both opening movements (the second is a mirror of the first) if the larger rhythm is obscured. Rattle, like Barbirolli and Bernstein in his superb Vienna Philharmonic recording, treats the threnody more as a meditation than a march but the pulse is not lost and the attendant tempi are good. The frenzied B flat minor Trio is particularly well judged. The second movement is superb (the diminished horn contribution notwithstanding) and none but the most determined sceptic could fail to thrill to the sense of adventure and well-being Rattle and his players bring to the Scherzo and finale, even if Barbirolli (studio) and Bernstein (live) both reach the finishing line in rather more eloquent and orderly fashion that this talented but still occasionally fragile-sounding Berlin ensemble.As a memento, the CD is undoubtedly a triumph of organisation and despatch.

As a performance and as a recording, it has rather more character and bite than Abbado’s much admired 1993 Berlin version. Indeed, it can safely be ranked among the half-dozen or so finest performances on record. It is not perfect, but show me one that is. Richard Osborne (January 2002)


No 6 

Symphony No 6 

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Claudio Abbado 

Whatever the revolution in playing standards since January 1966, when Barbirolli conducted Mahler’s Sixth in Berlin, I can’t remember hearing a tauter, more refined performance than this, nor one that dispenses so completely with the heavy drapes of old-style Mahler interpretation. The work concluded Abbado’s first Philharmonie programme since passing the reins to Sir Simon Rattle, an occasion bound to provoke standing ovations and a little myth-making, too. Only if one discounts Celibidache’s interregnum could this be considered the first time in the orchestra’s history that a former chief had returned to direct. Now, with the music repositioned on the sunny side of the Alps and seen through the prism of the Second Viennese School, an effortless, sometimes breathtaking transparency prevails.

In the first movement, Abbado’s sparing use of rubato precludes the full (de-)flowering of the ‘Alma theme’ in the Bernstein manner, and there are some curiously stiff moments in the Andante moderato, here an iridescent intermezzo quite unlike Karajan’s Brucknerian slow movement. This may not be a Sixth for all seasons and all moods – the Berliners rarely play with the full weight of sonority long thought uniquely theirs – yet I soon found reservations falling away. For all its fine detailing, Abbado’s finale lacks nothing in intensity, with a devastating corporate thrust that may or may not have you ruing DG’s decision to include an applause track.

A more serious stumbling block is the maestro’s decision to place the Scherzo third, following the lead of Del Mar, Barbirolli, Rattle and others. Purchasers of a a single disc CD version available in some parts of the world can re-programme, of course, but technical constraints for the hybrid SACD disc, available in the UK, have led DG to opt for a pair of discs containing two movements apiece. It must, however, be pointed out that the extra cost is borne by the manufacturer, not the consumer. And, apart from two curious pockets of resonance in the finale (on either side of the 10-minute mark), Christopher Alder’s team achieves a much more realistic balance than you’ll find in the conductor’s previous live Mahler issues. If a little cavernous, the effect is blessedly consistent, allowing us to appreciate that Abbado’s sweetly attenuated string sound is just as beautiful as Karajan’s more saturated sonority, a testament to the chamber-like imperatives of his latter-day music-making, not to mention the advantage of adequate rehearsal time!

I should add that the finale’s hammer-blows are clearer and cleaner than I have ever heard them. Abbado does not include the third of these before the final coda but the hard, dry brutality of his clinching fortissimo is guaranteed to take you by surprise. Donald Mitchell provides excellent booklet-notes to cap a remarkable release that I would expect to find on next year’s Awards shortlist. David Gutman (September 2005)


No 7

Symphony No 7 

Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Claudio Abbado 

Abbado's view of Mahler's Seventh Symphony, like Haitink's on Philips, is judicious and clear-sighted. The playing of the Chicago Symphony, like that of the Concertgebouw, is exceptionally refined, free of all inadvertent exaggeration and histrionic display. Both conductors, in collaboration with their engineers, favour natural sound perspectives, a mid-stalls view. Aided by a clean acoustic and poised, clearly-projected solo playing in the orchestra, the most intimate details of Mahler's huge score seem effortlessly to carry.

The difficult outer movements are neither urged forward in the Kubelik style (at mid-price on DG) nor broadened in the highly-tendentious manner of Klemperer on CfP. As ever, Abbado is the unpretentious, keen-eared elucidator. So conscientious is he that there are moments in the first movement when it's possible to think the score over-annotated by the composer. Yet it is a measure of Abbado's general skilfulness that the somewhat episodic structure is held in a reasonably clean focus. The central meditation is unusually fine in this performance, notable for the concentration and fine-grained sensibility of the Chicago playing.

Nachtmusik II is also played without exaggeration, Abbado allowing the orchestra to register Mahler's Andante amoroso directly, eloquently. In Nachtmusik I he is strikingly relaxed, sehr gemachlich; yet he conducts as quick a performance of the eerie central Scherzo as I recall hearing on record. (I suspect that Scherchen's distinguished old Vienna State Opera Orchestra recording, on Nixa mono WLP6211, 7/54—nla, was as quick, but I don't have it to hand for comparison.) I must say I like the movement played with a modicum of drive. Unfortunately, Mahler's instructions are ambiguous and could be taken equally as chapter and verse for Haitink's most recent, and to my ears rather flaccid, performance. This is a movement in which Kubelik on DG Privilege is superb; as, indeed, he is throughout the symphony.

You may conclude from all this that Abbado's performance is almost too respectable. A symphony as bizarre as this occasionally is (Deryck Cooke once dubbed it Mahler's ''mad, mad, mad, mad symphony'') could be said to require a touch of hype, Bernstein-style (CBS SBRG72427/8, 6/66—nla). Abbado's clear appraisal of the score should, none the less, win friends for the work, not least because of the Chicago orchestra's distinguished and distinctive realization of Mahler's difficult and, at times, technically innovative writing. Richard Osborne (March 1985)


No 8 

Symphony No 8

London Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra / Klaus Tennstedt

The Royal Festival Hall was never a natural venue for Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, and I remember well how Klaus Tennstedt’s choirs spilled from the choir stalls into the adjoining side stalls and how boxes were deployed to accommodate the offstage brass and, at the highest point, Susan Bullock’s Mater Gloriosa. But what we lost in breadth and magnitude (the acoustic was much drier then) we gained in an all-enveloping and electrifying immediacy.

And so, with the biggest upbeat in music (and from days when the Festival Hall organ was complete!), Mahler’s hymnic invocation swept all before it. It was almost as if Tennstedt was striving to compensate for the constrictive sound of the hall by building the spatial perspective into his reading. Come the mighty development, he takes the text “Accende lumen sensibus” (“Inflame our senses with light”) at absolutely face value. As the fervour mounts to fever pitch – his sopranos Julia Varady and Jane Eaglen hurling out top Cs like they could be the last they ever sing – one almost doesn’t notice that the tempo is getting broader and broader. Tennstedt is one of the few conductors in my experience to almost convince me that impetus has nothing to do with speed. And, of course, though there is no ritardando marked in the momentous bars leading to the point of recapitulation, Tennstedt (who was nothing if not a traditionalist) is having none of it – the heavens duly open but in the certain knowledge that they will do so again, only bigger, with the Chorus Mysticus.

Part 2 begins with a poco adagio which, thanks to the kind of high-intensity string-playing only Tennstedt could elicit from the LPO, tugs at the emotional fabric of the music as few dared to do. To some it will feel overwrought, to most (or at least to staunch Mahlerians) it will be another instance of Tennstedt’s total identification with this music. His painting of the Faust scene is characteristically craggy, with the arrival of the Doctor’s heavenly escort prompting angelic high jinks far rougher and readier in tone than in some accounts. So, too, the casting of the male soloists, with Kenneth Riegel’s Doctor Marianus eschewing head voice for an often pained rendition of the cruelly high tessitura.

But as the Mater Gloriosa duly floats into view (the lovely Susan Bullock) and the force of love becomes unstoppable, Tennstedt is overwhelming. Try topping the orchestral peroration, offstage trumpets stretching the “Veni, Creator Spiritus” motif from the interval of a fifth beyond the octave to a heaven-storming ninth. Edward Seckerson (June 2011)


No 9 

Symphony No 9 

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan

In 1980, Karajan and the BPO made a memorable LP recording of the Ninth Symphony in excellent analogue sound (DG). As a performance it went further than any extant recording in distilling the music's essentially impersonal, other-worldly character whilst at the same time suggesting what EG, writing in the Guardian, aptly called ''the emotional thrust of a live performance''. One or two critics here and in the United States thought Karajan held the work at arm's length; but the reading won plaudits from Mahlerians of many persuasions, for as Schoenberg observed, and as Karajan and his players so movingly reveal, ''this symphony is no longer couched in the personal tone. It consists, so to speak, of objective, almost passionless statements of a beauty which becomes perceptible only to one who can dispense with animal warmth and feels at home in spiritual coolness'' (Style and Idea, Faber, 1975).

And yet the reading continued to develop. It already had great precision, beauty and tonal clarity—all hall-marks, Schoenberg tells us, of the late Mahler style—but there was clearly more to say. Like Mahler, Karajan has been accused by some colleagues of achieving results through a super-abundance of rehearsals. But, says Schoenberg, the great conductor knows in the ninth rehearsal that there is more to say in the tenth, whereas most conductors have nothing to say after the third: ''the productive man conceives within himself a complete image of what he wishes to produce''.

All of which is germane to the present performance. In 1982, the BPO's centenary year, Mahler's Ninth was played in an unforgettable series of concerts in Salzburg, Berlin and New York. Two things were evident in the momentous first performance in Salzburg in April 1982. First, Karajan was bringing an added toughness and truculence to the opening measures of the second movement, strengthening still further an already masterly unfolding of Mahler's powerful essay in the metamorphosis of the dance. Secondly, the LP recording was no studio fabrication. Schwalbe and his men really did play the work from first note to last with a degree of technical address which, by normal standards of human perfectibility, was well-nigh incredible. As the 1980 LP recording was not in digital sound and as the reading had itself evolved, Karajan seems to have needed little persuasion to allow the taping of the final, Berlin performance in 1982, I say performance advisedly, for what we have here is a single performance, though the dress rehearsal was taped as a precaution and used (I would suspect in the concluding Adagissimo) where audience of platform noise was likely to be damagingly intrusive.

The result is again exceptional. Certainly this is the finest live performance of a Mahler symphony to have appeared on any kind of record since Mengelberg's 1939 account of the Fourth Symphony.

Interpretatively and orchestrally, it is superior to the historic live 1938 VPO set of the Ninth under Bruno Walter (World Records SH193-4, 9/74—nla). Walter never realized the concluding Adagio (on record, at least) as steadily, as lucidly, as eloquently, as dispassionately as Karajan; and the old VPO is no match for our own latter-day BPO.

Only in one respect does the old Walter recording seem preferable and that is in some degree of distance that exists between the microphones and the orchestra. Make no mistake, the digital sound on this live Berlin recording is wonderfully clear and thrillingly actual; but I am not always at ease with the conductor's-ear-view of the proceedings, though of course long stretches of the score—the ruminations and chilly declensions of the first movement, the rapt Trio of the third (fabulous violin- and trumpet-playing here) and paragraph after paragraph of the fourth—derive immense benefit from the absolute clarity and absolute quiet of the CD.

Technically, there are similar swings and roundabouts with Solti's studio recording on Decca, as EG pointed out last November. But good as the Solti is, it isn't in the Karajan class as an interpretation. Which is no disgrace, for Karajan's reading and the Berliners' playing of it—the Adagio in especial but much else besides in this latest performance—is one of the seven wonders of the modern musical world. Richard Osborne (July 1984)


No 10

Symphony No 10 (ed Cooke)

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

Sir Simon Rattle previously recorded Deryck Cooke's performing version of Mahler's incomplete Tenth in June 1980. He was not the first to do so. Eugene Ormandy taped an earlier, more tentative edition of the text in the 1960s (CBS, 6/66 - nla), and it was Wyn Morris's New Philharmonia LPs (Philips, 3/74 - nla) that unlocked the emotive force of the finale by the simple expedient of taking it at a more deliberate tempo. Rattle came in third, but the passionate sensitivity of his reading helped win over a sceptical public at a time when we were much less keen to tamper with the unfinished works of dead or dying artists. These days, it's almost as if we see in their unresolved tensions some prophetic vision of the life to come; Rattle's success looks to have been replicated by Paul Daniel's (second) commercial recording of Anthony Payne's speculative Elgar 3 (Naxos, 3/99). In truth, the hysterical edge of Bournemouth's Mahler will have owed something to the discomfiture of the players in what is, in every sense, a difficult score, although this is absolutely in keeping with the manuscript's scrawled invocation to unfaithful Alma: 'Fur dich leben! fur dich sterben!' ('To live for you! To die for you!').

Over the years, Rattle has performed the work nearly 100 times, far more often than anyone else. Wooed by Berlin, he repeatedly offered them 'Mahler ed Cooke' and was repulsed. He made his Berlin conducting debut with the Sixth. But, after the announcement last June that he had won the orchestra's vote in a head-to-head with Daniel Barenboim, he celebrated with two concert performances of the Tenth. It's a composite version that is presented here. Had the musicians ever played movements two to five? I doubt it, and it seldom matters: they have been rehearsed to within an inch of their lives even if the exhaustingly high writing for the trumpets is not quite without flaw and the brass can obtrude more cussedly than intended. As always, Rattle obtains some devastatingly quiet string playing, and technical standards are unprecedentedly high in so far as the revised performing version is concerned. Indeed, the danger that clinical precision will result in expressive coolness is not immediately dispelled by the self-confident meatiness of the violas at the start. We are not used to hearing the line immaculately tuned with every accent clearly defined. The tempo is broader than before and, despite Rattle's characteristic determination to articulate every detail, the mood is, at first, comparatively serene, even Olympian. Could Rattle be succumbing to the Karajan effect? But no - somehow he squares the circle. The neurotic trills, jabbing dissonances and tortuous counterpoint are relished as never before, within the context of a schizoid Adagio in which the Brucknerian string writing is never undersold.

The conductor has not radically changed his approach to the rest of the work. As you might expect, the scherzos have greater security and verve. Their strange hallucinatory choppiness is better served, although parts of the fourth movement remain perplexing despite the superb crispness and clarity of inner parts. Rattle allows himself some satiric palm-court stylization hereabouts, also pointing the parallels with the 'Trinklied' from Das Lied. More than ever, everything leads inexorably to the cathartic finale, brought off with a searing intensity that has you forgetting the relative baldness of the invention. The Berlin flautist floats his tone even more poignantly in the principal theme (from bar 29, 2'14''), while an older, wiser, albeit more self-conscious maestro, painstakingly avoids sentimentality and gets a real ppp for the entry of the strings - breathtaking stuff. Several conductors (Mark Wigglesworth is one) now impose a long glissando on the upward thrust of the heart-wrenching sigh that concludes the work; Rattle has no truck with this.

But then the Tenth is a work in progress in which the conductor has every right to innovate. With Berthold Goldschmidt's encouragement, some of Rattle's departures were signalled last time. In the first movement, he reallocates Cooke's bassoon line to a Nelson Riddle-ish bass clarinet (from bar 162, 14'37'') ; he enlivens the denouement of the first Scherzo with a cymbal clash (this revision got into the 1989 edition of the printed score), and he cuts out a drum stroke to pass seamlessly from the fourth to the fifth movement. In the finale, he still disagrees with Cooke, opting to reinforce the return of the Adagio's dissonant 'break-down' chords. At least the more obstreperous percussion has gone, leaving the low rumble of drums to underpin rather than obscure the harmony. There are other gains. The subtlety of the orchestral response allows more scope for special effects. Sample the gloriously scored, spaced-out cadence that concludes the Adagio. Or the achingly beautiful treatment of the episode marked A tempo aber sehr ruhig in the second scherzo (from bar 291, 5'32''). The woodwind playing in the Purgatorio is of a similarly exalted standard.

I had qualms about the recording quality, given that Rattle's live Viennese Ninth (EMI, 8/98) is by no means an easy listen. Nor is Berlin's fabulous Philharmonie the easiest venue: with everything miked close, climaxes can turn oppressive. In fact, the results here are very credible and offer no grounds for hesitation. What of the alternatives? Leonard Slatkin's CD, the first generally available commercial recording of Mahler's Tenth Symphony to use an edition other than Deryck Cooke's, is uncompetitive for that very reason, although, like Riccardo Chailly's, it represents a genuine attempt to engage with what Tony Benn would call the 'ishoos'. Chailly's own, eminently lucid account, deploying a sympathetic orchestral layout in the lustrous acoustic of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, has perhaps been underrated. That said, comparisons are pretty much beside the point when Rattle's new version sweeps the board even more convincingly than the old. According to press reports of the first night, the conductor was called back and accorded two Karajan-style standing ovations after the orchestra had left the stage. There is no applause here, but it is not difficult to imagine such a scene. Rattle makes the strongest possible case for an astonishing piece of revivification that only the most die-hard purists will resist. Strongly recommended. David Gutman (May 2000)


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