Gustav Mahler is now one hundred fifty years old, and as his music lives more vibrantly every day in our ears, minds and hearts, we will continue to celebrate his birth more than we will commemorate his death. We are in the midst of a unique period, stretching from July 7 of this year (his birthday) to next May 18, which will mark one hundred years since his death. The compression between these two dates, the odd retrogression of fifty years, adds an unnameable, and very Mahlerian, poignancy to dedicated musical events, like the continuous streaming music festival at WQXR through July 14.

It also makes for a good reason (excuse?) to discuss something, along with Mahler, that makes me tingle; the boxed set. Universal Music and the EMI Group have dug through their substantial bodies of recordings and put together respective 150th anniversary/birthday boxes, each proclaiming themselves to be the complete body of the composer’s work. Curiously, the contents of each box differs, although I don’t think it has to do with Universal calling theirs the “Complete Edition,” while for EMI it’s “The Complete Works.”

This requires a bit of context to explain. Mahler’s common body of work comprises the Symphonies 1-9, Das Lied von der Erde, the Adagio movement from his unfinished Symphony 10, and the song cycles Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Kindertotenlieder, Rückert-Lieder and Das Knaben Wunderhorn. Not ubiquitous, but frequently appended, are an early, immature song cycle, Das klagende Lied (which has all the elements of Mahler without the technical and structural polish), and various completions of the 10th, the most well-known being that by Deryck Cooke. There are also piano reductions of the songs that can be heard in recitals and on recordings.

But there’s more. His Symphony No. 1 was originally in five movements, not the current four, with an Andante section following the opening. The symphony was initially performed with what is know as the “Blumine” movement, but Mahler later cut that from the work. It’s been appearing more frequently on recordings as a separate curiosity, although there is also a new and truly great recording of the symphony that successfully reincorporates the movement back into the overall form (I urgently recommend the recording, it’s not only unlike any Mahler I’ve ever heard before, but is musically extraordinary)[UPDATED: added link]. Both these new boxes include “Blumine” as a separate, so far so complete. They also include the “Klavierquartettsatz,” a single movement of the perhaps abortive Piano Quartet in A Minor, written when Mahler was a teenager. It’s been fairly commonly heard this year, as it was featured on the soundtrack for “Shutter Island,” not only as musical accompaniment but as an element of the plot. Again, this fragment is in both boxes. Each box also has the “Lieder und Gesänge,” a set of uncollected songs composed between 1880 and 1889. Here, though, the boxes start to diverge slightly. The catalogs differ in the EMI separates three truly uncollected songs, “Im Lenz,” “Winterlied” and “Maitanz im Grünen,” under the heading “Lieder,” while Universal includes these in the “Gesänge” sangs, while also seasoning their set with orchestrations by Luciano Berio and Harold Byrns. From this point, each complete box is complete (and incomplete) in different ways.

EMI includes both the orchestral Rückert-Lieder, a classica recording with Dame Janet Baker conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, as well as Thomas Hampson’s wonderful recital version, and augments these with seven additional versions of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” an interesting but mysterious decision, as well as tagging on Alice Coote singing “Urlicht.” Perhaps it’s just a matter of demonstrating the huge vocal riches in their library, as the tracks go from Dame Janet to Christa Ludwig, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Brigitte Fassbaender. That’s impressive. Neither set has complete piano-vocal versions of the songs, and in fact the Universal box has none. That box is truly the complete one, though. There is another extant orchestral fragment, the “Totenfeier,” essentially an early version of the first movement of the Symphony 2. Mahler also completed Weber’s Die drei Pintos, and the “Entr’acte” music is included, but not the entire work nor any of Mahler’s orchestrations of Schumann and Beethoven, with Universal apparently drawing the line at music Mahler himself composed.

If this comparison of the contents seems a bit fussy, it does matter if you want all of Mahler in a single collection, symphonies and songs. The general problem with Mahler boxes, that there is no one set that is consistently at a top level through all the recordings, is almost solved in these all-star collections. Musically, they are excellent, although it’s possible for individual taste to demur on certain selections. The choices are a combination of the expected and the surprising. EMI has the best surprises; Carlo Maria Giulini’s fantastic recording of Symphony 1, which appears to be currently out of print, Jascha Horenstein’s 4th, Barbirolli’s eccentric and powerful 6th, Klaus Tennstedt’s terrific Symphony 5 rather than Barbirolli’s famous and vastly overpraised recording, and the exquisite Kathleen Ferrier singing the Kindertotenlieder with Bruno Walter in 1949. It’s an embarrassment of riches when the choice is between the Otto Klemperer or Simon Rattle Symphony 2 (Klemperer), or the Rattle or Barbirolli 9th (Barbirolli), but Sir Simon for the win with his Klagende Lied, Symphony 3, 7 and 10 in the Deryck Cooke completion. With the Fischer-Dieskau/Furtwängler “Wayfarer” songs and Klemperer’s monumental Das Lied with Ludwig and Fritz Wunderlich, this box may not be truly complete but it is musically great and fascinating.

The Universal set sticks a little closer to the mean, but also has some surprises. Symphonies 1-6 are an accepted bunch of fine recordings; Rafeal Kubelik, Zubin Mehta, Bernard Haitink, Pierre Boulez, Leonard Bernstein and Claudio Abbado (live with the Berlin Philharmonic) respectively. Bernstein’s recording is famous, amazingly willful and is either the greatest or most kitschy expression of Mahler, depending on one’s mood. Herbert von Karajan recorded a terrific 6th, but Abbado’s more recent version is as good as it gets. The positions are reversed on the 9th, where Karajan is given the honors over Abbado. The latter is more consistent through the work, the former gains traction only in the “Rondo-Burlesk” but brings the piece home with overpowering intensity and expression. Here, the 7th is the version from Giuseppe Sinopoli, which pales in comparison to that of Riccardo Chailly, although Chailly’s excellent Cooke 10th is inside, and the 8th is Georg Solti’s famous version, which is not bad but overrated. The vocal selections are very strong, with Giulini’s extraordinarily musical Das Lied, and the exceptional set of song cycles from Hampson and Bernstein. This box is no slouch, and has a bit tighter focus and consistency of style and conception.

They are both modestly priced for both the contents and number of discs within. Ideally, we’d have promises of Mahler boxes in every pot, but for the interested listener who must choose, the EMI box is arguably the single best Mahler set in terms of the quality and interest of the music making, while the Universal box is the only box that has the composer’s complete works, and is completely satisfying musically. And while you’re making up your mind, check out the trailer below. I have no idea if this will be opening at a theater near you, nor if it will be any good (the emphasis on the weepy love triangle between Mahler, Alma and Walter Gropius, with Freud kibbitzing, is the least interesting aspect of the composer for me, but your mileage may vary), but it’s a movie about Mahler, not made by Ken Russell . . .

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