Do centenaries and other round-numbered anniversaries of composers have any real significance? They are of course seized upon as marketing tools by concert promoters and recording companies, but have they any useful purpose beyond that? To be sure, we hardly need an anniversary to remind us of Beethoven or Bach or Mozart, but, despite our not unjustified skepticism, we do enjoy honoring the memory of the creative wonders who gave us such amazing, self-renewing intellectual and sensory stimulation and pleasure. (I don’t recall the phenomenal Johann Strauss’s being so honored, but then he does have the New Year concerts.) Last year we had the bicentenaries of the death of Joseph Haydn and the birth of Felix Mendelssohn, this year the bicentenaries of the births of both Robert Schumann and Fryderyk Chopin (and the centenary of our own Samuel Barber and William Schuman), and next year the bicentenary of the formidable Franz Liszt. The season just ended and the one beginning now are marked with festivals of various proportions and other activities (specifically including recordings) marking the sesquicentenary of the birth of Gustav Mahler (July 7, 1860) and the centenary of his death (May 18, 1911).
In this context, the 150 years since Mahler’s birth break down neatly into three 50-year periods: (a) his life and the recognition he enjoyed, primarily as a conductor; (b) his death, at which time he confidently predicted, “My time will yet come,” and the years of artistic and political upheaval, including two horrendous World Wars, during which various disciples and enthusiasts worked to bring his music into the mainstream; (c) the 50 years since the Mahler centennial, which have confirmed and reconfirmed the ever more secure place of his music in the so-called standard repertory. One of the conspicuous validations, in honor of the double anniversary, is the “free streaming experience of all of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies,” performed by the Orchestre de Paris under Christoph Eschenbach, offered as a collaborative undertaking by the websites of that orchestra and of Medici TV.
In his own lifetime Mahler was vastly respected as a conductor, but far less accepted as a composer. He did have his enthusiasts, and several were powerful figures. When he conducted the premiere of his vast, six-movement Third Symphony, on June 9, 1902, in Krefeld, Richard Strauss, whose tall, slim figure made him recognizable to everyone present, strode down an aisle to the stage at the end of the performance to congratulate him. Also in the audience was the 31-year-old Willem Mengelberg, who had seven years earlier taken up the post of conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, and who determined at that concert in Krefeld to champion Mahler’s music.
Mengelberg invited Mahler frequently to conduct his works in Amsterdam (on one occasion, Mahler conducted his Fourth Symphony before intermission, and in the second half sat in the audience to hear the work again, conducted by Mengelberg), organized the world’s first Mahler Festival, and gave Mahler’s symphonies prominence in his programs with the New York Philharmonic in the 1920s (a dozen years after Mahler himself had been conductor of that orchestra). Such podium luminaries as Arthur Nikisch and Felix Weingartner took up Mahler’s works while he was still alive, and Mahler’s own conducting protégés Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer remained conspicuously active on his behalf throughout their long careers (Walter died in 1962, Klemperer in 1973).
Among other conductors who took up the Mahler cause in the years between the composer’s death and the outbreak of World War II, Oskar Fried made an acoustical recording of the Second Symphony in Berlin. Jascha Horenstein identified himself with Mahler’s works. In 1916 Leopold Stokowski conducted the American premiere of the Eighth Symphony (the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand”) with his Philadelphia Orchestra, and then took the work to New York, where two decades later the Hungarian-born Ernő Rapee presided over a Mahler Festival broadcast nationally from the Radio City Music Hall. Between those two events, Rapee’s compatriot Eugene Ormandy made the first American recording of a Mahler Symphony, No.2, with the Minneapolis SO (today’s Minnesota Orchestra); a few years later Dimitri Mitropoulos made the premiere recording of No.1 with the same orchestra. Bruno Walter recorded Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony in concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic. (Walter had introduced both works to the world shortly after Mahler’s death; his recorded performance of the Ninth was his last appearance with the Philharmoniker before the Anschluss that compelled him to leave Vienna.)
Mahler’s music was of course prohibited in the “Thousand-Year Reich” and its occupied territories, but after World War II it received a great deal of attention in the form of recordings made in Europe under such conductors as Horenstein, Klemperer, Hermann Scherchen, Eduard Flipse and Eduard van Beinum. At the same time, Bruno Walter’s New York Philharmonic recording of the Fourth Symphony, combined with his frequent performances of that work in his guest appearances elsewhere, won many new supporters for the cause. Walter eventually recorded Nos. 1, 2 and 5 in New York, did a studio remake of Das Lied von der Erde in Vienna (with the marvelous alto Kathleen Ferrier and the no less superb tenor Julius Patzak), and then undertook stereo remakes of Das Lied in New York and the Symphonies Nos. 1 and 9 with a hand-picked orchestra in Hollywood. (Walter also recorded many of Mahler’s songs with various singers, as both conductor and pianist.)
By the time of the centenary of Mahler’s birth, in 1960, his time had indeed come. Much of the credit for this has been assigned to Leonard Bernstein, who had taken over the New York Philharmonic in 1958 and for the composer’s centennial organized a Mahler festival, in which Walter and Mitropoulos also took part. Whoever deserved the credit, the centenary year -- which after all included performances in many cities throughout the world -- saw Mahler achieving posthumous acceptance everywhere. Now, after another 50 years -- during which Pierre Boulez, Bernstein's successor at the Philharmonic, presented a Mahler festival of his own with that orchestra, and has since recorded Mahler in Cleveland, Chicago, Berlin and Vienna -- we find that Mahler’s symphonies are heard about as frequently as Tchaikovsky’s and “integral” recordings of the full cycle are by no means unusual.
In a sense, Mahler and stereophonic recordings were made for each other. Rafael Kubelík (1914-1996), one of the great Mahler conductors, felt that a stereo recording delivered more of the remarkable details in the scoring than one is likely to hear in a concert hall, and thus became a valid part of the musical process. Among the several “integral” sets of the Mahler symphonies on CD, I would regard Kubelík’s, with the Bavarian Radio SO on Deutsche Grammophon (429 042-2, ten-CD set), as indispensable. The first work from this cycle to be issued on LP was the Ninth, and, for more than a few listeners, its like does not exist in recorded form. The great climax in the middle of the final Adagio, as Kubelík realized it, may recall Oswald Spengler’s dictum that “music is the only art whose means be outside the light-world that has so long become coextensive with our total world . . . music alone can take us right out of this world, break up the steely tyranny of light, and let us fondly imagine that we are on the verge of reaching the soul’s final secret . . . “ Not all of the Kubelík performances may qualify as first choice, but there is no part of this economical set (which includes the Adagio of the uncompleted Tenth) that is less than fully convincing.
In other "integral" cycles, the individual symphonies are available separately, and American conductors are prominent -- appropriately so, since Mahler spent his final years in New York. The newest full cycle (and, I believe, the first such in SACD) is the one on RCA taped in concerts of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra under David Zinman. Like Kubelík’s, it does not include Das Lied von der Erde, which Mahler labeled a symphony, but Zinman does include the entire Tenth Symphony, in the edition by Clinton Carpenter, and also the “Blumine” movement which Mahler eventually removed from the First Symphony (on the Zinman CD, fortunately, it is not inserted in its original position, but follows the Symphony as an addendum). Zinman avoids gratuitous overlay of emotion and simply allows what the composer himself wrote into these scores to make its own case -- and, by no means incidentally, allows his orchestra to exhibit the confident, polished level of performance it has achieved under his leadership, a factor that can be deeply enjoyable in its own right. Nos. 6 and 7 are especially appealing in Zinman’s series, which has been taped and issued in strict numerical order. Nos. 1-8 are available now, Nos. 9 and 10 are scheduled for release about now, and the entire cycle may be issued in a box early next year.
Another American conductor, Gerard Schwarz, also makes a good showing in a recently completed Mahler cycle. His recordings of Symphonies Nos. 1, 4, 6, 7 and 9, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, all bolstered by secure playing and a natural momentum, have been issued recently on the Artek label, as has No.8, performed by the Seattle SO. Scheduled for release in the next few months are Nos. 2, 3, and 5, from Liverpool -- and the two-disc set of No.3, the longest of Mahler’s symphonies, will be filled out with a Seattle performance of the Adagio from No.10.
No less noteworthy is a unique American Mahler phenomenon: the conducting career of Gilbert Kaplan, who was driven by his wish to conduct the Second Symphony to get some pointers from some eminent conductors, and who by now has conducted some 200 orchestras in performances of this work, which, with the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, constitutes his entire repertory. In 2003 Mr. Kaplan’s earlier recording of the work, with the London SO, was superseded by an SACD remake with the Vienna Philharmonic, on Deutsche Grammophon; this was the first recording to make use of the new critical edition of the score prepared and published under the auspices of the Kaplan Foundation, an entity created primarily to support and disseminate research into Mahler’s life and works.
Among reissues designed specifically for the anniversary season, EMI offers nothing less than Mahler’s Complete Works -- symphonies, songs, even the early Piano Quartet -- in a single box of 16 CDs. Among the performers are the singers Janet Baker, Kathleen Ferrier, Fritz Wunderlich, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Christa Ludwig and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and the conductors Jascha Horenstein, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Wilhelm Furtwängler, George Szell, Klaus Tennstedt, Carlo Maria Giulini, Sir John Barbirolli and Sir Simon Rattle.
Apart from such compilations and the “integral” sets of the symphonies, most of the valuable Mahler recordings, issued individually, either continue to be available or may be found with little effort. The regrettably short-lived Sony Masterworks Heritage reissue series brought back, all too briefly, both Bruno Walter’s monophonic recording of the First Symphony with the New York Philharmonic (MHK63328, with Brahms’s Haydn Variations) and Mitropoulos’s electrifying premiere recording of the same symphony (MHK62342, with Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead); both are very much worth hunting for.
For Das Lied von der Erde, the aforementioned Walter Vienna Philharmonic remake with Patzak and Ferrier is a must, and sounds more than acceptable on Decca Legends 466 576-2. Another recommended item in the same Decca series is the splendid stereophonic recording of the Symphony No.8 with Sir Georg Solti conducting the Chicago SO and a fine group of soloists and choruses, taped in Vienna during a tour in 1971. While much of Solti’s Mahler struck some listeners as overdriven and lacking in Innigkeit, the relatively extrovert nature of the Eighth suited him down to the ground and this recording (460 972-2) is another simply indispensable part of any serious collection.
This discussion has not touched on the various recordings of Das klagende Lied and the Knaben Wunderhorn songs with orchestra, or other collections of Mahler songs. The point is that Mahler’s place in the repertory is secure, the discography of his works is rich and substantial, and all this does call for a measure of celebration, in a centennial year, a sesquicentennial, or simply any time we may reflect on what this remarkable music has meant and continues to mean to so many of us. There are some richly satisfying recordings of the symphonies, under such persuasive conductors as Bernard Haitink, Maurice Abravanel, Riccardo Chailly, Karel Ančerl, Václav Neumann, Kurt Masur, Kiril Kondrashin, Kurt Sanderling, Mariss Jansons, Claudio Abbado, Zubin Mehta, James Levine, Eliahu Inbal, Libor Pešek, Leonard Slatkin, and Herbert von Karajan, as well as the aforementioned Kubelík, Zinman, Kaplan, Schwarz, Bernstein, Solti, Giulini, Eschenbach, Stokowski, Ormandy, Barbirolli, Boulez, Horenstein, Rattle, Mitropoulos and the authoritative Mahler disciples Walter and Klemperer -- and chasing down the few cutouts mentioned here can be a worthwhile and productive effort.
. . . Richard Freed