The 50 greatest Mahler recordings

A beginner's guide to the 50 greatest Mahler recordings, featuring extracts from the original Gramophone reviews and an Apple Music playlist

Welcome to our guide to the 50 greatest Mahler recordings. There are many outstanding recordings of Mahler's music, far too many for us to include them all here, but we hope that this list will offer you some ideal points-of-departure in your explorations of Mahler's unique musical universe. 

We begin with recommending a few complete collections of Mahler's symphonies before moving through the 10 symphonies in turn, and finish with the vocal works. Many of the albums include links to the original Gramophone reviews, which subscribers can enjoy in the Reviews Database. For more information about the Reviews Database, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe.

Listen as you read with our Mahler: Great Recordings playlist on Apple Music:

Complete Symphony Collections

Symphonies Nos 1-10

Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks / Rafael Kubelík (DG)

When it comes to Mahler’s 10 symphonies (or nine and a half, given that only the Adagio of No 10 is played), Kubelík vies with the best of his rivals, offering us Mahler as pantheist, nature lover, humanist and only reluctant neurotic. Not for Kubelík the aspiring Christian, lapsed Jew, cynic or nihilist, but someone who embraced the world with love and a palpable sense of wonder, whether in the earthy blend of humour and drama in the First, the vast, unpeopled terrains of the Third, the sardonic alarms of the Fifth’s opening ‘Funeral March’ (the Adagietto is mercifully fluent), the phased catastrophes of the Sixth’s finale or the guarded anger and noble resignation of the Ninth.

And yet for me the high point of the entire set is Kubelík’s reading of the Seventh, Mahler as open-minded Bohemian, joker, romantic, the two atmospheric ‘Nachtmusik’ movements quietly playful, the Scherzo a slithery reptile, the ragbag finale unexpectedly conclusive. In the Seventh Kubelík lets Mahler have his say without the encumbrance of overheated emotion: this portrait of the artist off the leash is what we need to counter both excessively ‘beautified’ Mahler and the ‘me, me, me’ approach, which is just as unrepresentative. Or at least that’s how I feel when Kubelik is on the podium. Rob Cowan, August 2014

Symphonies Nos 1-10

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Claudio Abbado (DG)

The current pre-eminence of Gustav Mahler in the concert hall and on disc isn’t something that could have been anticipated – other than by the composer himself. Hard now to believe that his revival had to wait until the centenary celebrations of his birth in 1960. And yet by 1980 he was more widely esteemed than his longer-lived contemporaries Sibelius and Strauss, and could suddenly be seen to tower over 20th-century music much as Beethoven must have done in a previous age. By this time too, a new generation of conductors had come to the fore, further transforming our perceptions of the composer. Claudio Abbado is arguably the most distinguished of this group and, while his interpretations will not satisfy every listener on every occasion, they make an excellent choice for the library shelves, when the price is reasonably competitive and the performances so emblematic (and arguably central to our understanding) of Mahler’s place in contemporary musical life.

Of the alternatives, Haitink’s package has the fewest expressive distortions while Bernstein’s is the most ceaselessly emotive of them all; neither has Abbado’s particular combination of qualities. It’s probably no accident that Donald Mitchell’s notes for this set are focused on the nature of Mahler’s ‘modernity’. For it’s that ironic, inquisitive, preternaturally aware young composer who haunts this conductor’s performances. Not for Abbado the heavy, saturated textures of 19th-century Romanticism, nor the chilly rigidity of some of his own ‘modernist’ peers. Instead an unaffected warmth and elegance of sound allows everything to come through naturally – insofar as the different venues and DG’s somewhat variable technology will permit – even in the most searingly intense of climaxes.

Symphonies Nos 1-9; No 10 – Adagio. Das Lied von der Erde

Marianne Haggander, Krisztina Laki, Lucia Popp, Julia Varady, Maria Venuti sops Marjana Lipovsek, Florence Quivar mezs Anne Howells, Gwendolyn Killebrew contrs Ben Heppner, Paul Frey tens Alan Titus bar Siegfried Vogel bass WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne / Gary Bertini (EMI / Warner Classics)

Gary Bertini’s 1984-91 Cologne Radio Mahler cycle is the most consistently satisfying on disc, in terms of its lovingly idiomatic and world-class performances, plus robust, realistic engineering that truly replicates the dynamic impact and spatial depth that these scores convey in the best concert halls.

A colleague aptly and accurately likened Bertini’s emphasis on the proverbial big picture to Rafael Kubelík’s DG Mahler cycle, although Bertini’s Cologne musicians operate on an altogether higher level of first-desk refinement and chamber-like sensitivity to the composer’s extraordinary palette of orchestral colour. The strands of the Tenth’s Adagio’s pulverising climactic chords are powerfully yet clearly delineated to the point where you can take dictation from what you hear.

The brass sail through the Fifth’s difficult writing with equal aplomb to stare their he‑man Solti/Chicago colleagues in the eye, while the soft woodwinds and exposed strings create a haunting atmosphere in the Eighth’s second movement to gently joust with Tennstedt or Nagano for top position. At the same time, Bertini’s fervency sometimes gives Leonard Bernstein’s magnetism a run for its money, as one readily hears in the First’s klezmer tinges, the Seventh’s rollicking coda and the most rabble-rousing moments of the Ninth’s inner movements. By contrast, Bertini turns in one of the few very slow readings of the finale that rivets your attention in every bar.

Bertini also benefits from terrific singing, highlighted by a tightly knit ensemble in the Eighth (baritone Alan Titus especially stands out as Pater Ecstaticus), plus Ben Heppner and Marjana Lipov≈ek on ringing, communicative form throughout Das Lied (both this and the Eighth stem from live Tokyo performances). And in the Fourth’s finale, the late Lucia Popp surpasses her EMI recording under Tennstedt. To be certain, earlier reviews pinpoint weak spots, such as the Sixth’s relatively clunky first movement or the Second’s finale’s fleeting inaccuracies, but these are nitpicks in face of so much excellence elsewhere. For cost, convenience and quality, there’s no better Mahler deal on the planet.

Read the Gramophone review

Symphonies Nos 1-9; No 10 – Adagio. Das Lied von der Erde

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra; London Symphony Orchestra; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Leonard Bernstein

Video directors Humphrey Burton & Tony Palmer (DG) 

Little can be added to the many words written about Bernstein’s intense affinity for and ardent advocacy of Mahler. Indeed, the musicality and specificity of Bernstein’s body language often seem to create parallel universes to each score’s emotional peaks and dynamic valleys. One doesn’t have to turn up the volume to sense the exultation and drive with which Bernstein inspires the huge forces in the Eighth’s first part or the Second’s final pages, gauging the protracted climaxes as he clenches his baton with both hands in long, agonising downward strokes. Watch, too, how Bernstein’s eagle eyes and decisive hands anticipate tricky entries and tempo-changes in the Fifth’s second movement and the Seventh’s first with unshakeable authority, or how he instantaneously adjusts dynamics and aligns rhythmic vagaries (the Fourth’s opening bars, the Third’s percussion).

In general, Bernstein’s filmed Mahler interpretations represent a centre-point between the raw excitement characterising much of his pioneering 1960s CBS/Sony cycle and his riper, often more expansive late-1980s remakes. On balance, the video Fourth, Fifth and Ninth are Bernstein’s finest performances of these works. The Fifth is faster and more incisively shaped than his 1987 traversal and the Vienna players get better as the performance progresses. Edith Mathis looks as radiant as she sings in the Fourth’s finale. The Vienna Ninth is notable for the other-worldly stillness and delicacy of the final pages, while the central movements bring the sort of abandon he shows in his 1960s Ninth.

In an age when Mahler’s symphonies are ubiquitous, it’s fascinating to witness the missionary zeal of Bernstein in the 1970s, claiming how his ‘acting out’ the music rather than merely beating time helps him to convince his orchestras of its greatness. With Bernstein at the helm, one doesn’t take Mahler’s greatness for granted.

Read the Gramophone review

Symphony No 1

Symphony No 1. Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau bar Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Rafael Kubelík (DG)

On the first appearance of the symphony in 1968, Deryck Cooke observed that Rafael Kubelík 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, Kubelík’s only rival in this regard and he was much taken with the “natural delicacy and purity” of the interpretation. Unlike Walter, Kubelík 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, Kubelík 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 Furtwängler 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, Kubelík’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.

Read the Gramophone review

Symphony No 1 (Hamburg 1893 version). Blumine

Netherlands Symphony Orchestra / Jan Willem de Vriend (Challenge Classics)

Don’t miss this one. Where mainstream releases of the First Symphony from the likes of Sir Simon Rattle (EMI) have included the discarded Blumine movement as a species of makeweight, Jan Willem de Vriend has gone back to the earlier incarnations of the complete score into which Blumine slots more naturally as the second segment of what was then a five-movement ‘Symphonic Poem in Two Parts’. The smaller sonority isn’t primarily the consequence of employing the capable Netherlands SO. Rather it reflects the scoring Mahler required at this earlier stage in what was to prove, even for him, a long compositional process. Whatever the arguments for and against the rehabilitation of Mahler’s moonlit serenade, restored to currency only in the 1960s, this is the first recording of the complete 1893 version to acquire international distribution since that of Wyn Morris in 1970. As such it may be seen as required listening for Mahlerians.

Known principally as an early-music specialist, the Dutch conductor’s emphasis on clarity of articulation, helped by excellent sound, allows the unusual aspects of the instrumentation to register more clearly than in that older, more romantic reading. In several passages the oddities will bring you up short. Of course, where other composers might have tinkered with their scores to make them less risky in performance, Mahler, the flamboyant composer-conductor, was doing the precise opposite, acquiring more chutzpah over time. In this intermediate incarnation, the work’s opening fanfares are given, more traditionally, to muted horns, extra timpani strokes underpin the start of the Scherzo and the beginning of the funeral march has a solo cello doubling that famously exposed solo double bass. The very end of the piece would not survive unscathed either.

All fascinating stuff and unlikely to be trumped by a comparable issue. Don’t expect the grand manner and you won’t be disappointed. The music-making is winningly fresh and vigorous.

Read the Gramophone review

Symphony No 2

Symphony No 2 

Adriana Kučerová sop Christianne Stotijn mez London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Choir / Vladimir Jurowski (LPO)

A performance of revelations, big and small, and easily the most illuminating to have appeared on disc in a very long time. Jurowski wipes the floor with the recent Rattle and Jansons accounts and is probably now the prime recommendation, the “library” choice, that has for so long eluded us. And I include the excellent Ivan Fischer account on Channel Classics in that assessment. I was present at this live performance, what was a momentous evening at the Royal Festival Hall in September 2009 but wondered how it might translate to disc in the cool light of day. So often musical occasions writ large in one’s memory achieve optimum impact only in the moment of performance and pale on reproduction and repetition. Not so, this Resurrection.

The really big factor here is Jurowski’s command of Mahler’s very particular and very dramatic way with rubato and the shock of newness that comes from those explicit extremes. The urgency of the opening Allegro maestoso (the emphasis, unlike Rattle, on the allegro) is strikingly underlined with the premature arrival of the lyric second subject where Jurowski’s emphasis on the agitated bass-line has an edge-of-seat disquiet. When the music does settle – the balmy second subject now shyly reappearing – the effect is doubly magical. Weight in Jurowski’s reading does not necessarily mean sheer heft but rather the breadth of those big expansive ritenutos and tenutos. Rarely have I heard the wild neurotic contrasts in this music more scrupulously and uncompromisingly realised: emphatic marcatos, wild accelerandos so sudden and unexpected that you reach for the score for confirmation and then wonder why so many conductors downplay or simply ignore them.

Read the Gramophone review

Symphony No 2

Miah Persson sop Christianne Stotijn mez Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Bernard Haitink (CSO Resound)

Haitink’s previous recorded Resurrections date from the late 1960s and the early 1990s. In this one, captured live, he has drawn back from the dourness and deliberation of his Berlin account to offer a scrupulously prepared mainstream reading that only hardened sceptics will dismiss as merely stolid.

Not that any one incident is allowed to destabilise the organic development of the whole. Those accustomed to Rattle or Bernstein may be underwhelmed by the choir’s call to arms at ‘Bereite dich’ and, as you’d expect, Haitink eschews Solti’s ear-grabbing attack at the very start of the work. While the Chicago orchestra retains a corporate sonority of boundless heft, for good or ill some of its edges have been smoothed away. Woodwind detailing is exquisite if invariably rather strait-laced in matters of nuancing. After civilised and articulate accounts of the Andante moderato and Scherzo, Haitink’s ‘Urlicht’ is notable for the way Christianne Stotijn’s rich mezzo is integrated within a silky orchestral texture. The finale is firm and objective, the distancing of offstage brass nicely calibrated and the first choral entry exquisitely hushed (Miah Persson seems initially ill-at-ease).

Those who like more rubato in their Mahler – and perhaps a more self-consciously transcendent kind of experience – will look elsewhere. Lacking the ease and subtlety of the finest studio recordings, CSO Resound’s sound is immediate and suitably impactful once a higher-than-usual playback level is set. The conductor’s many admirers need not hesitate although they may regret that applause has been excised. They will be rewarded with an attractive, well-illustrated package containing detailed annotations, texts, translations and performer listings.

Read the Gramophone review

Symphony No 2

Auger sop Baker mez CBSO & Chorus / Simon Rattle (EMI / Warner Classics)

Rattle’s first – Gramophone Award-winning – recording of the work. Attention to dynamics is meticulous and contributes immeasurably to the splendour of the performance. Dame Janet Baker is at her most tender in ‘Urlicht’, with Arleen Auger as the soul of purity in the finale. The CBSO Chorus is magnificent. Indeed, the whole finale is an acoustic triumph.

Read the Gramophone review

Symphony No 2

Schwarzkopf sop Rössl-Majdan mez Philharmonia and Chorus / Otto Klemperer (EMI / Warner Classics)

You miss those elements of high risk, the brave rhetorical gestures, the uncompromising extremes in Klemperer’s comparatively comfortable, down-the-line response. He knocks minutes off most of the competition (yes, it’s a fallacy that Klemperer was always slower), paying little or no heed to Mahler’s innumerable expressive markings in passages which have so much to gain from them. The finale, growing more and more momentous with every bar, possesses a unique aura. Not everyone is convinced by Klemperer’s very measured treatment of the Judgement Day march. The grim reaper takes his time but the inevitability of what’s to come is somehow the more shocking as a result.

Symphony No 3

Symphony No 3

Martha Lipton; Choir of the Transfiguration; NYPO / Leonard Bernstein (Sony)

Few who experienced Bernstein’s passionate advocacy of Mahler’s musical cause in the 1960s were left untouched by it. These recordings date from those years and the flame of inspiration still burns brightly about them decades later. The CBS recordings were clearly manipulated, but the sound – at best, big and open but trenchant and analytically clear – suited Mahler’s sound world especially well. Bernstein’s account of the Third Symphony is as compelling an experience and as desirable a general recommendation now as when it first appeared. The New Yorkers are on scintillating form under the conductor they have most obviously revered in the post-war period. This is a classic account, by any standards.

Symphony No 3

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Riccardo Chailly (Decca)

Ultimately, it's the slow finale that holds the key to this memorable interpretation, with cleanly defined strings that don subtle portamenti (the cellos are especially vibrant) and the sort of expressive emphases that recall Mengelberg's Mahler. Chailly's Mahler might be warm but it is by no means comfortable. For example, how shocking in context the return of key material from the opening movement (at 16'35"), its effect almost as draining as the Sixth Symphony's hammer blows. The closing two-tier peroration sounds a note of fulfilment, redemption forged from suffering, joy in eternity. The journey completed, there are no retrospective uncertainties – at least that's how Chailly's Third leaves us. A fine production, then, but the finest? Various rivals still hold trump cards. I love the sculpted opulence of Haitink's Concertgebouw recording, the clarity and intensity of Abbado's live RFH performance and the unaffected naturalness of the Boulez VPO recording. Then there are Leonard Bernstein's epic statements from New York, the earlier version still communicating a sense of awe at what is after all Mahler's largest single structure.

Chailly holds his own, less granitic than Bernstein perhaps but better recorded. And he has an interesting fill-up in the Bach Suite 'arr Mahler', a concoction made up of movements from the Second and Third Suites, fleshed out Bach that paradoxically reminded me more of Mengelberg than ofMahler. Mengelberg's own Concertgebouw recording of the Second Suite 'proper' is far heavier than Chailly's take on Bach-Mahler, but both bear witness to how Bach was heard at the far end of the 19th century. Interesting, but the symphony is a lot more than that, a frontrunner in a field that nowadays is fuller than anyone years ago would have dared to imagine. We really don't know how lucky we are!

Symphony No 3

Mihoko Fujimura contralto Bamberger Symphoniker / Jonathan Nott (Tudor)

This is proving to be a searchlight among Mahler cycles – a conductor, Jonathan Nott, and an orchestra, the Bamberg Symphony, who throw up more revealing detail and say more about these symphonies than many of the established heavyweights. It isn’t the spectacle or power of Nott’s Mahler that singles him out (in that he must yield to the likes of Bernstein) but rather an intimate and highly idiomatic understanding of the style and sensibility of the music that sets him apart. No sooner has the great unison horn summons cleaved the wintry air at the start of this great pantheistic hymn than Nott spots the marking molto ritenuto and instantly, crucially, intensifies the sense of time and space inherent in the slowly oscillating motif in low horns and bassoons.

Nott is scrupulous about such details but, far more important, he knows why they are there. Note the seismic glissandos and withered harmonies of the opening paragraph, then the gradual freshening and lightening of texture, with sharply etched woodwind voices in marked contrast to those doleful trombone orations. The climax of the movement brings an absolutely thrilling sprint to the finishing line, euphoric trumpets provoking the final adrenalin rush.

But how special is Nott’s account of the great adagio finale. It isn’t just the heightened luminosity of the sound but the sense of a big string section made extraordinarily intimate through the suppleness and sensitivity of the playing. That great moment of stasis where a transfigured flute descends over the proceedings like a benediction ushering in the trumpet-led brass chorale is, as it should be, totally transcendent. Bernstein, Chailly and now Nott surely lead the field.

Read the original Gramophone review

Symphony No 4

Symphony No 4

Miah Persson; Budapest Festival Orchestra / Iván Fischer (Channel Classics)

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)

Read the Gramophone review

Symphony No 4

Battle sop VPO / Lorin Maazel (Sony)

The pick of Maazel’s 1980s cycle. Throughout it’s a very inward-looking performance, and in saying that one merely points to the fact that it is a very, very Viennese performance; in Vienna, Mahler’s Vienna or Maazel’s, introspection is an unavoidable condition of being. Battle is simply perfect in the last movement.

Symphony No 4

Juliane Banse sop Staatskapelle Dresden / Giuseppe Sinopoli (Profil)

‘Glorious’ and ‘sublime’ were among the epithets applied to the playing of Dresden’s ‘Royal Chapel’ ensemble when Mahler’s Fourth Symphony was first performed in the city in 1908. Both epithets could be applied to the playing on this latter-day realisation under Giuseppe Sinopoli. People obsess about the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics but, under the right leadership, the Dresden orchestra, which Sinopoli led from 1992 until his death at the age of 54 nine years later, can surpass either with its flawless ensemble and understated eloquence. There isn’t an ugly note or gratuitously unpleasant sound in the Scherzo, yet no jot of the music’s wit, grace and sinister humour is lost. After which, the playing of the slow movement really is a glimpse of musical heaven on earth, the string-playing glowing like old gold.

Sinopoli made a studio recording of the Fourth with the Philharmonia in the early 1990s. The Dresden reading is essentially unchanged but its realisation is in a different league. The start may seem unduly brisk but a series of exquisitely shaped transitions take us into calmer waters and a succession of ever more enchanted landscapes where the performance reveals its essentially introspective side. Some might think it too introspective in those espressivo interludes where the pulse marginally hangs fire.

In the finale’s calm opening and meditative close Sinopoli takes a very slow tempo indeed, way below the one Mahler himself adopts on his 1905 piano roll. Lorin Maazel takes a similar tempo in his celebrated 1984 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic (Sony). He, though, has Kathleen Battle, a brighter-voiced, less lustrous-sounding soloist than Sinopoli’s excellent Juliane Banse. He also guards against somnolence by sharper pointing of the music’s barcarolle-like rhythm. Not that straight comparisons are really in order here. Orchestrally, this is archive gold. It is also a happy reminder of a conductor whose prodigious intellect and idiosyncratic ways could never entirely mask the fact that he was a good man and a wonderful musician.

Read the Gramophone review

Symphony No 5

Symphony No 5

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (EMI / Warner Classics)

The tutti sound Rattle draws from the orchestra is clean and sharply profiled, not unlike the Mahler sound Rafael Kubelík tended to favour. 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.

Nowadays it isn’t unusual to hear rhythm and line sacrificed to detail and nuance as old-established symphony orchestras are made to rethink their readings by conductors schooled in the arcana of ancient performance practice. Rattle has done his fair share of this. What’s 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 isn’t 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 than this talented but still occasionally fragile-sounding Berlin ensemble.

As a memento, the CD is 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 isn’t perfect: but do you know of one that is?

Read the Gramophone review

Symphony No 5

New Philharmonia Orchestra / Sir John Barbirolli (EMI / Warner Classics)

Sir John Barbirolli’s Fifth occupies a special place in everybody’s affections: a performance so big in spirit and warm of heart as to silence any rational discussion of its shortcomings. Some readers may have problems with one or two of his sturdier tempi. He doesn’t make life easy for his orchestra in the treacherous second movement, while the exultant finale, though suitably bracing, arguably needs more of a spring in its heels. But against all this, one must weigh a unity and strength of purpose, an entirely idiomatic response to instrumental colour and texture (the dark, craggy hues of the first two movements are especially striking); and most important of all that very special Barbirollian radiance, humanity – call it what you will.

One point of interest for collectors – on the original LP, among minor orchestral mishaps in the Scherzo, were four bars of missing horn obbligato (at nine bars before fig 20). Not any more! The original solo horn player, Nicholas Busch, has returned to the scene of this momentary aberration (Watford Town Hall) and the absent bars have been ingeniously reinstated. There’s even a timely grunt from Sir John, as if in approval. Something of a classic, then; EMI’s remastering is splendid.

Symphony No 5

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Leonard Bernstein (DG)

Bernstein's tempo for the funeral march in the first movement of Mahler's Fifth Symphony has become slower in the 23 years that separate his New York CBS recording from this new one, made during a performance in Frankfurt a year ago. I think the faster tempo is nearer to Mahler's intention, but I much prefer the later interpretation as a whole. For one thing, the VPO play it much better than the NYPO of 1964, who were having a relatively bad day when the recording was made. The strings only passage at fig. 15 in the first movement, for example, is exquisitely played, so is the long horn solo in the Scherzo. And there is one marvellously exciting moment — the right gleam of trumpet tone, the Hohe-punkt, at one bar before fig. 29 in the second movement.

Best of all is Bernstein himself, here at his exciting best, giving daemonic edge to the music where it is appropriate and building the symphony inexorably to its final triumph. Thanks to a very clear and well-balanced recording, every subtlety of scoring, especially some of the lower strings' counterpoint, comes through as the conductor intended. As in the case of Sinopoli's underrated recording of this symphony (also DG), one is made aware of the daring novelty of much of the orchestration, of how advanced it must have sounded in the early years of this century. But whereas with Sinopoli this emphasis was achieved at the expense of some expressive warmth, that is far from the case with Bernstein. We get the structure, the sound and the emotion.

The Adagietto is not dragged out, and the scrupulous attention to Mahler's dynamics allows the silken sound of the Vienna strings to be heard to captivating advantage, with the harp well recorded too. It seems to me that Bernstein is strongest in Mahler when the work itself is one of the more optimistic symphonies with less temptation for him to add a few degrees more of angst. His Seventh and Fifth are great interpretations whereas I would be reluctant to include his Ninth among the really memorable accounts.

Symphony No 5

Lucerne Festival Orchestra / Claudio Abbado

Video director Michael Beyer (EuroArts)

Claudio Abbado’s Mahler Fifth is magnificent. It helps that the band is the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, that most exalted of all ad hoc ensembles, rather than the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester. It does make a difference in Lucerne to have a raft of seasoned players joining the core contingent from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. The visual dimension is stronger, too, with the option to switch to the so-called ‘Conductor Camera’ and experience Abbado from a player’s perspective. If this strikes some readers as a gimmick I can only say that I welcome it as a natural use of the new medium.

Listen without the images, though, and it quickly becomes apparent that Abbado’s previous, audio-only account (DG, subsequently revamped for SACD) is sonically superior, with greater hall ambience and less tendency for wind, brass and percussion to lose themselves in the mix. It’s not as if the conductor’s conception has changed a great deal. His Fifth has always displayed a tad less inner intensity than some of the great readings of the past but with compensating elegance and grace. Once again the famous Adagietto steals in with a magic inevitability that few have matched. Abbado’s music-making is as fine as you will find anywhere today and his admirers should be well satisfied.

Read the Gramophone review

Symphony No 6

Symphony No 6

London Symphony Orchestra / Valery Gergiev (LSO Live)

Valery Gergiev’s Mahler series in London aroused passionately divergent responses. If you prize the textural elucidation that Claudio Abbado brings to these scores you probably won’t care for Gergiev’s broader, coarser brush. The raw excitement he engenders may seem beside the point.

This Sixth is dark, sometimes impenetrable, an impression offset only by a raft of sublime pianissimos. The silken shimmer of the first movement’s central pastoral reverie with cowbells carefully distanced offers surprising relief. Elsewhere Gergiev drives the argument forward with the kind of sullen, monolithic power he applies to Shostakovich at his most barren. While his main tempo is only fractionally faster than Bernstein’s, it seems rushed even for this most neurotic of symphonic openers. The exposition repeat is taken. The serene Andante moderato, placed second as is now the fashion, is soon being harried towards a climax that blares unmercifully. There’s more variety of tone in the Scherzo, though it’s the finale which really hits home, the orchestra whipped into a frenzy that may or may not be idiomatic but certainly strikes sparks.

If you’re looking for a quick-fire, single-disc Sixth with a difference, Gergiev has more gravitas than previous Soviet-trained conductors, even when he’s racing. LSO Live backs him up with an impactful, immediate, rather airless sound encoded as a hybrid SACD. The bright-edged, multi-linear treatment favoured by exponents as ostensibly dissimilar as Bernstein and Boulez simply isn’t on Gergiev’s agenda. Instead, a trail is blazed for a visceral, even thuggish brand of music-making. Yes, these sounds thrilled many in the hall but would you want to revisit them at home? At mid-price you can afford to find out. The enthusiastic applause has been removed.

Read the Gramophone review

Symphony No 6

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Claudio Abbado (DG)

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.

Read the Gramophone review

Symphony No 6

Coupled with Kindertotenlieder. Rückert-Lieder

Christa Ludwig mez BPO / Herbert von Karajan (DG)

Karajan’s classic Sixth confirmed his belated arrival as a major Mahler interpreter. His understanding of Mahler’s sound world – its links forward to Berg, Schoenberg and Webern as opposed to retrospective links with Wagner – is very acute.

Symphony No 6

LPO / Klaus Tennstedt (LPO)

Tennstedt exposes every nerve-ending of the piece from start to finish. Trenchancy is there with a vengeance from the word go – big-boned and punchy with snappy trombone accents. So it’s a corker, this performance. It sounds pretty good for 1983, though the BBC fashion then for a more ‘open’ sound slightly compromises the unflinching immediacy of the reading.

Read the original Gramophone review

Symphony No 7

Symphony No 7

London Symphony Orchestra / Valery Gergiev (LSO Live)

For some, Valery Gergiev’s dark, pumped-up Seventh might prove to be the high-point of his Mahler cycle. True, the over-the-barricades manner precludes much in the way of subtlety but it does hold in tight unity a score that can sprawl into incoherence. Much is paced a notch faster than usual, though not the introduction which is spacious and strong. The playing is consistently assured; the sound powerfully immediate. The reading has a monolithic drive that is nothing if not distinctive.

What Gergiev doesn’t deliver is a sense of this music’s teeming inner life. No point looking here for either Claudio Abbado’s delicate attention to line and colour or Leonard Bernstein’s emotive, micro-managed rubato. Gergiev’s inner movements come across as diligent but brusque. While his idiosyncratic seating arrangements (including antiphonal violins) make for some interesting effects, it’s the resilience of the LSO brass at high decibels you’re likely to remember, not the meaningful interplay of independent and interdependent strands.

The applause which greeted this performance at London’s Barbican Hall has been surgically removed for this hybrid SACD incarnation. The critics will be as divided over its merits as they were following the live performance. Happily, LSO Live’s competitive pricing means you can decide for yourself.

Symphony No 7

Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Claudio Abbado (DG)

Abbado’s account of Mahler’s Seventh was always a highlight of his cycle and remains the ideal choice for collectors requiring a central interpretation in modern sound. Steering a middle course between clear-sightedness and hysteria, and avoiding both the heavy, saturated textures of 19th-century Romanticism and the chilly rigidity of some of his own ‘modernist’ peers, he is, as the original review reported, ‘almost too respectable’. That said, it’s all to the good if the forthright theatricality and competitive instincts of the Chicago orchestra are held in check just a little. Even where Abbado underplays the drama of the moment, a sufficient sense of urgency is sustained by a combination of well-judged tempi, marvellously graduated dynamics and precisely balanced, ceaselessly changing textures. For those put off by Mahler’s supposed vulgarity, the unhurried classicism of Abbado’s reading may well be the most convincing demonstration of the music’s integrity. This is a piece Abbado continues to champion in concert with performances at the very highest level.

Read the Gramophone review

Symphony No 7

New York Philharmonic Orchestra / Leonard Bernstein (Sony Classical) Recorded 1965

We are often assured that great conductors of an earlier generation interpreted Mahler from within the Austrian tradition, encoding a sense of nostalgia, decay and incipient tragedy as distinct from the in-your-face calamities and neuroses proposed by Leonard Bernstein. Well, this is one Bernstein recording that should convince all but the most determined sceptics. It deserves a place in anyone’s collection now that it has been transferred to a single disc at mid-price. The white-hot communicative power is most obvious in the finale, which has never sounded more convincing than it does here; the only mildly questionable aspect of the reading is the second Nachtmusik, too languid for some. The transfer is satisfactory, albeit dimmer than one might have hoped. It sounds ­historic, but historic in more ways than one.

Read the Gramophone review

Symphony No 7

Budapest Festival Orchestra / Iván Fischer (Channel Classics)

I honestly can’t remember hearing a performance of this extraordinary symphony that was so plainly in love with its ethos, its originality, its sonority. Iván Fischer reads the ‘small print’ of the score with such thoroughness that he makes most other readings feel like generalisations by comparison. It’s one of those performances that makes one think of the piece differently, and that in itself is cause for celebration and reassessment.

Read the original Gramophone review

Symphony No 8

Symphony No 8

London Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra / Klaus Tennstedt (LPO)

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. 

Read the Gramophone review

Symphony No 8

Heather Harper, Lucia Popp, Arleen Auger sops Yvonne Minton mez Helen Watts contr René Kollo ten John Shirley-Quirk bar Martti Talvela bass Vienna Boys’ Choir; Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna Singverein; Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Sir Georg Solti (Decca) Recorded 1971

Of the so-called classic accounts of the Eighth Symphony, it’s Solti’s which most conscientiously sets out to convey an impression of large forces in a big performance space, this despite the obvious resort to compression and other forms of gerrymandering. Whatever the inconsistencies of Decca’s multi-miking and overdubbing, the overall effect remains powerful even today. The remastering has not eradicated all trace of distortion at the very end and, given the impressive flood of choral tone at the start of the ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’, it still seems a shame that the soloists and the Chicago brass are quite so prominent in its closing stages. As for the performance itself, Solti’s extrovert way with Part 1 works tremendously without quite erasing memories of Bernstein’s ecstatic fervour. In Part 2, it may be the patient Wagnerian mysticism of Tennstedt that sticks in the mind. Less inclined to delay, Solti makes the material sound more operatic. Yet for its gut-wrenching theatricality and great solo singing, Solti’s version is up there with the best.

Read the Gramophone review

Symphonies – No 8; No 10 – Adagio

Erin Wall, Elza van den Heever, Laura Claycomb sops Katarina Karnéus, Yvonne Naef mezs Anthony Dean Griffey ten Quinn Kelsey bar James Morris bass-bar Pacific Boys choir; San Francisco Girls Chorus; San Francisco Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Michael Tilson Thomas (SFS Media/Avie)

First, from a purely sonic standpoint, it’s pretty spectacular, most demonstrably in the closing sections of both halves, the ‘Glory to the Father’ especially, where the sound frame expands with such ease and amplitude that one wonders whether it can possibly carry on building, which it does. Tilson Thomas’s reading is always warm and spontaneous-sounding but its real strength lies in the way phrases connect so that what can sometimes seem, on certain versions, merely a series of episodes (specifically in the Symphony’s much longer second half) emerges very much ‘of a piece’. The rocky soundscape that opens Part 2 is wonderfully atmospheric though never at the expense of detail – again the recording delivers a very believable perspective – and Quinn Kelsey’s Pater Ecstaticus is one of the best-sung performances on the set, rather better than James Morris’s intense but wobbly Pater Profundis that follows on from it.

There’s that unforgettable passage, just before the closing chorus arrives, where, flute, clarinet, harp and celesta set up an ethereal pathway for the resplendent journey’s end. And in this context it has been quite a journey, Tilson Thomas drawing more colour and variety (tonal and emotional) from the score than almost any of his rivals, so with wonderful sound, superb playing and generally fine singing (soprano Erin Wall is exceptional) this new version rates among the top two or three.

Read the Gramophone review

Symphony No 8

Banse, Brewer, Isokoski sops Henschel, Remmert contrs Villars ten Wilson-Johnson bar Relyea bass Toronto Children’s Choir; LSC; CBSO Youth Chorus, Chorus and Orch / Rattle (EMI / Warner Classics) 

Thrilling, euphoric, hair-raising – Rattle holds the score in a perpetual state of wonder. It’s in the driving tuttis – not least the great push of the central development – that Rattle achieves and maintains such thrilling impetus. The immediacy of the EMI balance contributes greatly to this impression. Rattle’s choruses are not just weighty but bright and punchy, the children’s voices cutting through the texture excitingly (hollering, I remember from the performance, through cupped hands).

Read the original Gramophone review

Symphony No 9

Symphony No 9. Kindertotenlieder. Rückert-Lieder

Christa Ludwig mez Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan (DG) Recorded 1979-80

Mahler’s Ninth is a death-haunted work but is filled, as Bruno Walter remarked, ‘with a sanctified feeling of departure’. Rarely has this symphony been shaped with such understanding and played with such selfless virtuosity as it was by Karajan and the BPO.

For this reissue the tapes have been picked over to open up the sound and do something about the early digital edginess of the strings. There’s still some occlusion at climaxes; and if those strings now seem more plasticky than fierce, it’s impossible to say whether the conductor would have approved. Karajan came late to Mahler and yet, until the release of his rather more fiercely recorded 1982 concert relay (below), he seemed content to regard this earlier -studio performance as perhaps his finest achievement on disc.

The attraction is greatly enhanced by Christa Ludwig’s carefully considered Mahler performances of the mid-1970s. The voice may not be as fresh as it was when she recorded the songs in the late 1950s but there are few readings of comparable nobility. She -articulates the text with unrivalled clarity, and ‘In diesem Wetter’ at least is positively operatic. How much of the grand scale should be attributed to Karajan? It’s difficult to say; the voice is sometimes strained by the tempi. This collection isn’t to be missed.

Read the Gramophone review

Symphony No 9

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan (DG) Recorded live 1982

Choice between the 1982 Karajan classic and the analogue studio recording is by no means easy. Both versions won Gramophone Awards in their day. This live performance remains a remarkable one, with a commitment to lucidity of sound and certainty of line. There’s nothing dispassionate about the way the Berlin Philharmonic tears into the Rondo-Burleske, the agogic touches of the analogue version ironed out without loss of intensity. True, Karajan doesn’t seek to emulate the passionate immediacy of a Barbirolli or a Bernstein but in his broadly conceived, gloriously played Adagio the sepulchral hush is as memorable as the eruptive climax. The finesse of the playing is unmatched.

Read the Gramophone review

Symphony No 9

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (EMI / Warner Classics)

In his previous recording of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, made live with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1993, Simon Rattle tapped into the music’s emotional extremes to produce a surprisingly volatile reading full of precipitous accelerandos and wrenching ritardandos. There’s some of that volatility in this new account from Berlin, too, though it’s certainly less pronounced. There are places where more tenderness wouldn’t come amiss: the entrance of the solo violin in the first movement’s recapitulation is so much sweeter in Vienna. But Rattle and the Berliners are also capable of taking one’s breath away. Listen later in the same movement, as they gather the seemingly chaotic tangle of melodic filaments together, creating a single, gigantic, darkly radiant chord.

The rustic dances in the second movement have a strong, rough-hewn quality, even if they sound slightly dour when compared with the more gemütlich charm of, say, Abbado’s Berlin recording. Rattle doesn’t push hard in the Rondo-Burleske until the end; instead, he aims for clarity and articulateness, and scrupulously observes all the dynamic twists and turns. It’s an effective approach, though less adrenalin- pumping than Karajan.

It’s in the final Adagio, however, that Rattle and his orchestra make the most powerful impact. The strings sound gorgeous, of course, yet there’s grit as well as radiance in their tone. And it’s only in the final pages that the earthy impurities are leeched, leaving a breath-like purity that ebbs into rapt silence.

Symphony No 9

Lucerne Festival Orchestra / Claudio Abbado (Accentus) Recorded live 2010

This, Claudio Abbado’s fourth commercial recording of the work, is even more luminous, elegant and subtly integrated than its predecessors. In some recent Abbado interpretations, the Mediterranean fluency and rapid pacing implies a hint of complacency or, at least, a reluctance to wrestle with those darker and more tumultuous corners of the score. But it certainly isn’t the case with this Ninth, which can only be described as unmissable.

The first movement, marked Andante comodo, now seems ideally plotted, more spacious than in his previous DVD recording with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra (EuroArts), with playing even more proficient than in his famous Berlin concert version (DG). There is perhaps less gain in the inner movements, where sceptics (who tend to be American with this conductor) will levy the charge that Mahler executed with the refinement and subtlety of chamber music is Mahler deracinated or Mahler-lite. Perhaps so, yet it hardly seems to matter: Abbado’s almost playful approach brings its own rewards. The great final Adagio, crowning the reading even more effectively than before, is as deeply affecting as one has ever heard it.

An interpretation that might seem too cool is in fact superbly gauged to provide maximal catharsis by the close – and there are intrusive post-performance shots of weeping concert-goers thrown in to prove it. When the music finally ends and, as in any truly great account of this highly affecting score, one feels that life itself is ebbing away, all present are held in awed silence. Even when the time comes for Abbado finally to lower his hands and for the players to put down their instruments, the spell remains unbroken for a while longer. The ovation when it comes is suitably tremendous.

Read the Gramophone review

Symphony No 9

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Bruno Walter (Naxos or Dutton mono) Recorded live 1938

This is a historic document – the Ninth’s first commercial recording conducted by its dedicatee. Few modern performances offer more intensity in the first movement (Rattle and Bernstein perhaps excepted). Don’t be taken aback by the technical lapses of the VPO; this is music-making in which scrappiness and fervour are indissolubly linked. 

Symphony No 9

WDR SO, Cologne / Saraste (Profil)

Mahler is all about weighing and balancing the extremes – heart and intellect, tempo and dynamics, tension and release – and Saraste’s judgement in such matters is sharp and instinctive. Yet it’s the tension between defiance and resignation that really shows Saraste’s perception and understanding. Mahler’s life passes before him in aching slow motion – not literally, as with Bernstein, but through the delicate balance of what is outwardly said and inwardly felt.

Read the Gramophone review

Symphony No 9

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Alan Gilbert (BIS)

On a technical level this must, I think, be the finest recording the work has received. Every note is audible – and the achievement of the orchestra (still more extraordinary than that of the engineers) is to play them and show how they all matter. So often the string parts overlap and finish each other’s sentences, as in a Haydn quartet or a Bach fugue (examples of which Mahler was studying intensively while composing the Ninth). In this case a studio recording is a distinct advantage, especially since the emotional charge hardly drops after the opening of the work. Gilbert juggles the many tempi of the inner movements to whip up the requisite hysteria (this isn’t a performance for those who must have their banality served on a silver salver) before offering true catharsis with the Adagio. Even in the last bars, the pulse and grammar of the music hold – just about; reminding us that at the beginning of the Tenth the violas pick up where they leave off here.

This first recording of Gilbert conducting Mahler is rather more than work in progress, but recent broadcasts of the Third (from Hamburg) and Das klagende Lied (from New York) suggest that we have much to look forward to. It is as exhausting and purifying an experience as any 80 minutes spent in your listening room has the right to be.

Read the Gramophone review

Symphony No 10

Symphony No 10 (ed Cooke)

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (EMI / Warner Classics) Recorded live 1999

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 in June 1999 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. A composite version is presented here. As always, Rattle obtains some devastatingly quiet string-playing, and technical standards are unprecedentedly high insofar as the revised performing version is concerned. Indeed, the danger that clinical precision will result in expressive coolness isn’t immediately dispelled by the self-confident meatiness of the violas at the start. We aren’t 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. 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.

Berlin’s Philharmonie isn’t the easiest venue: with everything miked close, climaxes can turn oppressive but the results here are very credible and offer no grounds for hesitation. In short, this new version sweeps the board even more convincingly than his old (Bournemouth) one. Rattle makes the strongest case for an astonishing piece of revivification that only the most die-hard purists will resist.

Read the Gramophone review

Symphony No 10

Seattle Symphony / Thomas Dausgaard (Seattle Symphony Media)

Those who have grown up with Rattle or Kurt Sanderling will notice some additional textual departures. While excising one of the indicated drum strokes to pass seamlessly into the finale has not become the norm, unsuspecting listeners might nevertheless suspect an editing fault when interpreters like Dausgaard stick by what the composer actually drafted. There are no percussive reinforcements at the return of the Adagio’s piled-up breakdown chord. Nor will you find bass clarinet deployed in lieu of bassoon for Cooke’s pastiche counterpoint from bar 162 of the Adagio itself. Perhaps Dausgaard’s Seattle music-making can be fractionally less emotive than was Rattle’s in Bournemouth but the results are rarely less than supercharged. The lugubrious tuba solo with which Cooke chose to initiate the fifth movement is as impressive as any. I haven’t mentioned the central ‘Purgatorio’ because it’s difficult to imagine it better done. The team’s absolute commitment to their principal guest conductor can scarcely be doubted.

To cap it all, the packaging is classy, with individualistic annotations from the conductor himself. Discussing the music in terms of biography and psychology does not give rise to a ‘sentimentalised’ performance. Heartfelt exclamations addressed directly to Mahler’s beloved Alma famously litter the manuscript – ‘für dich leben! für dich sterben!’ (‘to live for you! to die for you!’) – yet the outcome here is properly cogent, life-affirming and schmaltz-free. The recording per se is very vivid too, bringing everything a little close in order to exclude audience noise. In the event one can imagine the lucky patrons of Seattle’s state-of-the-art Benaroya Hall listening in rapt silence. This exceptional issue from the Pacific Northwest ought to be a game-changer for all concerned.

Read the Gramophone review

Symphony No 10 (ed Cooke)

London Symphony Orchestra / Berthold Goldschmidt (Testament mono)

Belying his low-key presentation, Cooke’s dramatic revelation, in his BBC talk on the Tenth Symphony, was that a continuous Mahlerian argument already existed on paper, needing only to be set free by a sympathetic editorial team. His own would take in the veteran émigré composer-conductor Berthold Goldschmidt and, subsequently, two budding composers, Colin and David Matthews. Alma, the composer’s widow, was apparently relying on the advice of Bruno Walter when she forbade further performances. Fortunately she was persuaded to think again, additional pages were found and the first public rendition of a full-length performing version took place in the Royal Albert Hall during the 1964 Proms season.

The necessarily incomplete studio rendering by the Philharmonia, including announcements as broadcast, moves more swiftly than the live account, preserving noises off and concluding applause. Both contain details later amended or corrected – which may or may not matter to you given the obvious fervour of the music-making. What it must have been to experience the -finale’s flute melody for the first time outside a BBC studio! Goldschmidt gives this exquisite moment all the time in the world.

It is a sad irony that Cooke, like Mahler himself, died young, leaving unfinished projects of his own, but he is well remembered here. The tapes, from whatever source, would appear to have been tactfully reprocessed to open out the mono sound and eliminate any awkward gaps in continuity. Strongly recommended.

Read the Gramophone review

Vocal Works

Das klagende Lied

Marina Shaguch sop Michelle DeYoung mez Thomas Moser ten Sergei Leiferkus bar San Francisco Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Michael Tilson Thomas (SFS Media/Avie)

What a glorious prospect Mahler’s first major work opens up for us – and how beautifully it is realised here. The original three-part version of this ambitious folkloric cantata is like a musical manifesto of pretty well all Mahler to come. Horn-calls in the prelude to ‘Waldmärchen’ (‘Forest Tale’) awaken his unique nature-world; elfin woodwind fanfares intimate martial music as far as the Seventh and Eighth symphonies; the First Symphony (third movement) is germinating at the close of Part 1, the opening of the Second is already in place with the first bars of ‘Der Spielmann’ (‘The Wandering Musician’); and with ‘Hochzeitsstück’ (‘Wedding Feast’) Mahler seems to find himself in Act 2 of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung contemplating the opera he never wrote. But more startling than anything in Das klagende Lied is Mahler’s feeling for, and command of, the orchestra – and this from a composer who’d never heard a note of his own orchestration.

Recorded in 1996 (and originally released by RCA), the subtle detailing and nuancing of this performance indicates painstaking preparation but arrives in our living rooms sounding as if the ink is still wet on the page. Each repetition of that madrigal-like choral ritornello intensifies the lamentation of the title until release is found in the anguish of the wronged queen and soprano Marina Shaguch hurls out her leaping vocal line to bring down the walls of the castle. That’s Mahler’s innate theatricality for you. Quite a piece, and quite a performance.

Read the Gramophone review

Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sop Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau bar London Symphony Orchestra / George Szell (EMI / Warner Classics)

EMI’s classic recording made in 1968 more or less puts all rivals out of court. Even those who find Schwarzkopf’s singing mannered will be hard pressed to find more persuasive versions of the female songs than she gives, while Fischer-Dieskau and Szell are in a class of their own most of the time. Bernstein’s CBS version, also from the late 1960s but with less spectacularly improved sound than EMI now provide, is also very fine, but for repeated listening Szell, conducting here with the kind of insight he showed on his famous Cleveland version of the Fourth Symphony, is the more controlled and keen-eared interpreter. Also, few command the musical stage as Fischer-Dieskau does in a song such as ‘Revelge’, where every drop of irony and revulsion from the spectre of war is fiercely, grimly caught.

Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Anne Sofie von Otter mez Thomas Quasthoff bar Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Claudio Abbado (DG)

As part of this dream Mahler team, Quasthoff sings ‘Fischpredigt’ with just the right unexaggerated drollery, as the superlative Berli n wind cavort around him. Von Otter brings an unforc ed eloquence to her songs, culminating in a rapt, glowing ‘Urlicht’.

Read the Gramophone review

Das Lied von der Erde

Christa Ludwig mez Fritz Wunderlich ten Philharmonia Orchestra, New Philharmonia Orchestra / Otto Klemperer (EMI / Warner Classics)

In a famous BBC TV interview Klemperer declared that he was the objective one, Walter the romantic, and he knew what he was talking about. Klemperer lays this music before you, even lays bare its soul by his simple method of steady tempi (too slow in the third song) and absolute textural clarity, but he doesn’t quite demand your emotional capitulation as does Walter (see below). Ludwig does that. In the tenor songs, Wunderlich can’t match Patzak, simply because of the older singer’s way with the text: ‘fest steh’n’ in the opening song, ‘Mir ist als wie im Traum’, the line plaintive and the tone poignant, are simply unsurpassable.

By any other yardstick, Wunderlich is a prized paragon, musical and vocally free. The sound on the revived EMI is very fresh: with voice and orchestra in perfect relationship and everything sharply defined, the old methods of the 1960s have nothing to fear here from today’s competition. These two old recordings will never be thrust aside; the Walter for its authority and intensity, the feeling of being present on a historic occasion, the Klemperer for its insistent strength and beautiful singing.

Read the Gramophone review

Das Lied von der Erde. Three Rückert-Lieder

Kathleen Ferrier contr Julius Patzak ten Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Bruno Walter (Decca)

The 1952 Walter will never lose its place at the heart of any review of Das Lied recordings. Walter obtains even richer, more impassioned, more pointed playing from the Vienna Philharmonic than in 1936 in, of course, improved sound. With his disciple Ferrier as alto soloist, her songs are richly, warmly voiced, and taken, particularly in the finale, to the limits of emotional involvement. Few have attempted to identify so completely with the work’s ethos of farewell and its thoughts of eternity. Ferrier envelops one to the core of one’s being. The wholly idiomatic and wonderfully expressive Patzak is the near-ideal tenor.

Read the Gramophone review

Rückert-Lieder. Kindertotenlieder. Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

Christian Gerhaher bar Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal / Kent Nagano (Sony Classical)

Gerhaher combines vocal beauty and acute sensitivity to verbal and musical nuance with a certain patrician restraint. In the Kindertotenlieder, Gerhaher is less searing than Fischer-Dieskau, 1963 vintage (with Böhm, DG), Janet Baker (with Barbirolli, EMI) or Brigitte Fassbaender (with Chailly, Decca). But his concentrated inwardness is intensely moving, whether in the shifts between desolation and aching tenderness in ‘Nun seh’ ich wohl’, or the sudden stab of anguish in ‘Wenn dein Mütterlein’ at the words ‘O du, des Vaters Zelle’, all the more shocking amid so much rarefied gentleness. For the transfigured close of the final song, Gerhaher finds an other-worldly pianissimo and a quality of spirituality. The Montreal orchestra (superlative wind solos) match the baritone in their sentient, compassionate playing, while Nagano keeps textures lucid in music where the voice is often treated as another instrument in the intricate contrapuntal weave.

Read the Gramophone review

Rückert-Lieder. Kindertotenlieder. Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

Janet Baker; New Philharmonia Orchestra / Sir John Barbirolli (EMI / Warner Classics)

Tenderness, grace, impassioned directness, sublime Mahlerian inwardness: Janet Baker, in glorious voice, has them all, abetted by Barbirolli’s loving, yet never indulgent, accompaniments. Baker’s version of these songs is immensely moving.

Songs

Stephan Genz bar Roger Vignoles pf (Hyperion)

Stephan Genz's voice and style place him above his many noted contemporaries. His mellifluous baritone recalls that of a young Thomas Hampson, but his understanding of the Lieder genre is even more penetrating, as this Mahler recital reveals. Each song is shaped as a whole yet with subtleties of phrase and word-painting that seem inevitable in every respect, especially as the chosen tempi always seem the right ones.

Performing and listening to these songs with piano is inevitably a more intimate experience than when they are heard in their orchestral garb. The pair's rapport is evident throughout. Memorable are the the poise and stillness of 'Ich atmet' einen Linden duft' from the Rückert-Lieder, the eloquent sadness of 'Nicht Wiedersehen' and the restrained sorrow of the whole of Kindertotenlieder. Not a hint of sentimentality, such a danger in Mahler, spoils the experience of the composer's deeply felt emotions.

Hyperion's recording, beautifully balanced, catches the true quality of Genz's voice and the refinement of Vignoles's playing. This disc is an experience not to be missed by any lover of Mahler and/or of Lieder.

Read the Gramophone review

Gramophone Print

  • Print Edition

From £67/year

Subscribe

The Gramophone Digital Club

  • Digital Edition
  • Digital Archive
  • Reviews Database
  • Events & Offers

From £90/year

Subscribe

Gramophone Reviews

  • Reviews Database

From £67/year

Subscribe

Gramophone Digital Edition

  • Digital Edition
  • Digital Archive

From £67/year

Subscribe

If you are a library, university or other organisation that would be interested in an institutional subscription to Gramophone please click here for further information.