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June 8, 2009

My list of favorite Mahler symphony recordings, prompted by those of Alex Ross and Opera Chic

I noticed with interest the other day a list of favorite Mahler recordings that Alex Ross posted on his indispensable blog, which quickly sparked a list by the anonymous author of the delicious Opera Chic blog. I find both of their summaries persuasive, but, naturally, I figured three can play at this game.

Not really a game, of course. This is terribly serious business, choosing the best recordings of Mahler symphonies. Those of us stricken with Mahlerian fever get very passionate about the performances that move us.

My first encounter with Mahler was the use of his music on the soundtrack of the Visconti film Death in Venice. I will never forget the sensation of being in a darkened theater and ...

hearing the Adagietto from the Symphony No. 5 start to unfold as the movie began. The way the slowly unfolding theme was matched to the gradual appearance of gentle waves on the screen -- well, I get verklempt just thinking about it all over again.

The movie itself had a massive enough impact on me (that's a whole 'nother story entirely), while its soundtrack not only introduced me to Mahler, but really triggered what became my life-long association with classical music. I liked that sort of stuff before then, but didn't necessarily love it, and certainly never guessed that it would become so important to me. Mahler was my primary entry point into the whole genre. Ah, but I digress.

After my Mahler baptism, I started collecting all the symphonies as I could afford them, and then, of course, adding multiple interpretations of each over the years. Oddly enough, I never got particularly enthusiastic about the conductor whose performances were featured on that Death in Venice soundtrack, Rafael Kubelik. Other interpreters ended up affecting me much more.

Here, then, my Mahler list. In some instances, I couldn't settle on just one.

Symphony No. 1: James Judd, Florida Philharmonic (Harmonia Mundi). Not the most famous recording, but a stand-out just the same. It would be worthy of honors just for Judd's individualistic, extraordinarily beautiful phrasing in the second movement alone.

Symphony No. 2: Leonard Bernstein, NY Philharmonic (DG); Leopold Stokowski, BBC Symphony (BBC Legends); John Barbirolli, Berlin Philharmonic (Testament). All three conductors were great personalities, and that's what they bring to these performances. (If you haven't already guessed, I love lots of distinctive touches of interpretation in Mahler -- and just about everything else.)

Symphony No. 3: Bernstein, New York Philharmonic (Sony Classical). The symphony's heights are scaled with truly poetic power. 

Symphony No. 4: The only possible choice in my book is the enchanting 1939 recording by Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw (Philips). He learned the symphony directly from Mahler and poured into it delectable amounts of rhythmic flexibility and abundant portamento (exactly the sort of elements you can hear discussed in interviews with NY Philharmonic veterans who played the work with Mahler himself conducting).

Symphony No. 5: Barbirolli, Philharmonia (EMI); Bernstein, Vienna Philharmonic (DG). Towering personalities matched to towering music.

Symphony No. 6: Barbirolli, New Philharmonia (EMI); Barbirolli, Berlin Philharmonic (Testament). On the EMI recording, the conductor's controversially slow tempo for the march in the first movement is awesome in its emotional weight. He's just a little faster with the Berliners. In both cases, he gets to the soul of this score in an unusually powerful way.

Symphony No. 7: Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony (the orchestra's own label). Dynamic and involving. His earlier recording with the London Symphony (BMG) has much to recommend it as well.

Symphony No. 8: Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony (Decca); Dimitri Mitropoulos, Vienna Philharmonic (Orfeo). In each case, a sizzling performance. For me, Mitropoulos is a superb  Mahlerist, given much too little appreciation these days. Any of his Mahler recordings is worth hearing.  

Symphony No. 9: Bernstein, Berlin Philharmonic (DG); Barbirolli, Berlin Philharmonic (EMI). Both conductors tap memorably into the profundity of the Ninth.  

Das Lied von der Erde: Fritz Wunderlich, Christa Ludwig, Otto Klemperer, New Philharmonia (EMI). Sublime singing from both soloists keeps this release at the top of a field crowded with memorable performances.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:37 AM | | Comments (8)


Nice to see Sir John so well represented -- I could not possibly agree with you more on his 6th and 9th interpretations. (I like the Berliners in the 6th a hair better, but I _feel_ that weight of which you speak in the New Philharmonia recording like none other!) He was a devoted Mahlerian. (And a great Brucknerian to boot, even if his concept of the 9th's adagio practically achieves escape velocity. ;^)

(And, in a very personal statement, Olin Downes was a complete schmuck toward him. Boo-hiss!)

For the 3rd, my favourites are Horenstein/LSO and, more recently, Svetlanov/RussianSO (his finale is wholly-unsurpassable, IMHumO).

I also love Horenstein's 8th on BBC -- it's a mess in many places (almost like they were working from lead sheets), and the sound is definitely lacking, but the enthusiasm is admirable. It ends magnificently, too, and the crowd roars its approval like a bunch of rabid Steelers fans at the Super Bowl.

The 4th has a lot of really good interpretations, especially since the conductors "play" with the soprano part so much. I actually like Benjamin Zander's recording on Telarc quite a bit, but nothing surpasses the live performance I saw from Eschenbach/Philly 2+ years ago; the soprano was fine if a bit underpowered, but the orchestra was the very definition of splendour and magnificence. When they erupted at the end of the 3rd movement, I thought I was going to fly through the ceiling -- oh, did they _ever_ open heaven's door!!! (I don't have that Mengelberg -- I'll have to get it!)

Speaking of heaven, virtually nothing could ever top that 2nd from Bernstein on DG. It was my first, and it's still my favourite. His gloriously-slow tempo at the end is positively transcendental. (I also like Blomstedt and SanFran on Decca, an excellent even-keeled performance with brisk, vibrant pacing and unbeatable sound.)

As always, thanks for your insights and enthusiasm. I'll have to check out some of your faves that I haven't heard. TIM

Well, these things always bring out the "I can't believe you didn't include xxx" comments so here are mine -
Mahler 1 - Tennstedt's first recording, Horenstein's recording on Unicorn (and Abravanel is, to my mind, always given short shrift)
Mahler 2 - The absolutely towering live recording from EMI's "The Klemperer Legacy"
Mahler 5 - Again, everyone forgets about Abravanel - sure it's not the Vienna Phil, but the conductor has a superior grasp of the structure.
Mahler 6th - Truly can't believe you didn't mention Mitropoulos/Cologne
Mahler 9th - Giulini with Chicago - with any luck the music I'll be hearing when I "shuffle off this mortal coil".
And there was that guy Walter something or was he Italian? - Bruno, Bruno something. Oh, yeah - Bruno Walter - smile - he knew a little bit about Mahler too.

The current cycles by Gergiev & Haitink are well worth following, from what I have heard. And Abbado should not be overlooked, either. (feel free to overlook Rattle!). Mike

Thanks for this different perspective. I really do like a lot of the ones you mention. In some cases, I have several favorites, actually. I listed the ones I'd grab first from a burning record library.TIM

No 1: Concertgebouw, Jansons (RCO Live)
No 2: Hendricks, Ludwig, NYPhil, Bernstein (DG)
No 3: CBSO etc. Rattle (EMI)
No 4: Bonney, Concertgebouw, Chailly (Decca)
No 5: VPO, Bernstein (DG)
No 6: Tonhalle, Zinman (Sony)
No 7: NYPhil, Bernstein (DG)
No 8: Philharmonia, Sinopoli (DG)
Das Lied von der Erde: Blochwitz, Remmert, Ensemble Musique Oblique, Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi) - in the Schoenberg/Riehn arrangement
No 9: VPO, Walter (EMI)
No 10 (Deryck Cooke etc.): BPO, Rattle (EMI) AND the DSO, Chailly (Decca)
Des Knaben Wunderhorn (not included in Ross's list): Connolly, Henschel, Orchestre de Champs-Elysées, Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi)
Rückert Lieder, Kindertotenlieder, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen: Hampson, VPO, Bernstein (DG)

Very interesting list. Thanks for adding it to the discussion. TIM

Since someone revived this thread, I might mention that Testament has just issued a live performance of the Mahler 6th conducted by Barbirolli with the New Philharmonia, made around the same time as the recording, but even finer than the studio effort IMHO. And Maazel's cycle with the NY Phil is now on eMusic - the "Frere Jacques" movement of the Symphony #1 is unlike any I have ever heard.

Thanks for the update. TIM

Lists, aren't they great, especially as we Mahlerites love to disagree! I really think that the Berlin version of the Ninth by Bernstein is one of the most overpraised classicical recordings of all time, and that when listened to without knowing the big names attached (and without being overwhelmed by the mystique of this one-time encounter of legendary conducter and legendary orchestra) nobody could fail to hear what it actually is, i.e., an unacceptable mess (it's no coincidence that Bernstein didn't allow it to appear on disc during his lifetime).

Also, while I appreciate some of the old recordings for documentary reasons, I generally find their sonics simply not up to the task of adequately reproducing the many nuances and large dynamic ranges of Mahler's scores. I sometimes get the impression that modern recordings are faulted on the basis of details that can't even be properly heard in old recordings. That's why my list would go something like this:

1. Bernstein (DG), Chailly (Decca)
2. Kaplan (Conifer), Bernstein (DG)
3. Chailly (Decca)
4. Fischer (Channel), Maazel (Sony)
5. Chailly (Decca)
6. Eschenbach (Ondine), Boulez (DG), Karajan (DG)
7. Gielen (Hännsler)
8. Sinopoli (DG)
9. Karajan (DG, his live version); Zander (Telarc)
Das Lied: Boulez (DG)

Thanks for the very interesting list. I could live with quite a few of your favorites, by the way. TIM

I like your list.
I have over 20 recordings of Mahler's 9th and the one for me that stands out above all the rest is Giulini's recording with Chicago. There is something very special about this version, and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes the 9th.

Thanks for reminding me of that wonderful recording. TIM

1. Muti (EMI)
2. Scherchen (Millennium)
3. Bernstein (Sony)
4. Harding (Virgin)
5. Bernstein (DG)
6. Barbirolli (EMI)
7. Abbado/BPO (DG)
8. Bernstein/LSO (Sony)
9. Bernstein (Sony)
10. Harding (DG)
DLVDE - Tennstedt (EMI)

My favourites (so far):

1. Bernstein and the Concertgebouw (DG)
2. Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra (Channel) (although I lack some of Klemperer's irony from time to time, Fischer's version is also a landmark in recording engineering)
3. Horenstein and the LSO (Souvenir) (even the small flaws seem to add to the intensity)
4. Szell and Cleveland (Sony)
5. Neumann and the Gewandhaus Orchester (Berlin Classics, now on Brilliant)
6. Boulez and the Vienna Phil (a complete surprise to me and probably the most mesmerizing Mahlerian experience I've ever had; it's a shame the other versions in Boulez DG cycle don't live up to this standard)
7. Rattle and the CBSO (EMI) (why should we want to overlook Rattle?)
8. Solti and the Chicago Symphony (Decca) / Sinopoli and the Philharmonia (DG) (I really can't decide myself between these two)
10. Rattle and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (EMI)

Hey, thanks for the great list. To tell the truth, I'm guilty of underestimating Boulez. I agree that Rattle is an excellent Mahlerian. Cool how many great options we have, and how hard it really is to settle on just one choice per symphony. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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