This Year's Mahler

It’s a grand twenty-four months for the composer whose time has come – this year is the sesquicentennial of his birth and next is the centennial of his death – but it’s been marked in relatively modest ways on the recording front. There was the release of two competing ‘Complete’ boxed sets, each with different contents (reviewed in more detail here). Naxos issued their good quality budget box of the Symphonies, a solid but not top level collection, and the price is not competitive against great sets like the Bertini recordings and the aforementioned boxes that came out this year. An unusual set, coming out in the States on December 14, is the “People’s Edition,” a collection from the Deutsche Grammophon vaults voted on by listeners. It’s an uneven choice, with too many mediocre recordings to recommend, especially against DG’s Complete Edition. The Abbado led Symphony 3 is a particular weakness, although the Giulini Symphony No. 9 is an unexpected and pleasant result.

The EMI Complete Works is well-chosen and now the first choice for anyone looking for a Mahler box, either as a first purchase or an addition to their collection. There were three new recordings of Mahler symphonies this year, as well, that are not only notable but essential, even extraordinary, and are not just my choices for best Mahler of the year, but will be on my final year end list for all music:

  • Symphonic Poem in Two Parts, “Titan,” Symphony No. 1Jan Willem de Vriend, Netherlands Symphony Orchestra. Certainly the most important recording of this symphony ever made, and perhaps the greatest. De Vriend has completely rethought the work and the result is something like sitting in a concert hall to hear the premiere of something totally new and unknown. Going back to Mahler’s first score, he includes the “Blumine” movement that was later discarded, not as a curiosity but as an integral part of the work, making it a five part symphonic poem closer to the radical shift Mahler made in the Symphony No. 5 that the other group of “Wunderhorn” works. The playing is the equal of the finest orchestras and De Vriend’s approach to every note and phrase is Mahlerian as it gets. I hope he has more in store.
  • Symphony No. 2Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic, Kate Royal, Magdalena Kozena, Rundfunkchor Berlin. Rattle has previously recorded one of the great performances of this work. This new release, download only, comes directly from three concerts recorded at the end of October of this year. I don’t know if the Berlin Philharmonic planned on release this ahead of time, but I can believe that when they heard the concerts and the tapes they went mad with the need to package this and make it available to the public. There is one specific flaw in the performance: At the Molto Pesante portion of the first movement, Rattles sudden ritardando is jarring, it focuses attention on itself rather than the music making. Other than that, this is so great as to be unreal. The playing is spectacular in the extreme, and Rattles control of the music, his shape of this enormous score, is perfect in a way I had never previously imagined. The musical and dramatic narrative unfolds at a pace that is musically and emotionally sublime, completely involving and spellbinding. In every moment, one is lost in the music in a way that is rare in recordings and performances. One of the greatest Mahler performances one will ever hear.
  • Symphony No. 4 – Philippe Herreweghe, L’Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, Rosemary Joshua. Available currently as a download, released on disc in the States next month, this is an ‘Early Music’ approach to Mahler with the distinguished conductor’s own orchestra. The instruments are quite close to what we commonly hear nowadays, the main difference is that the strings have the lighter quality familiar from period orchestras. More important is how the instruments are played. Herreweghe has cultivated a stunningly colorful sound, his orchestra plays with a sense of style that is unique and appears to be very old world, based in the regional and national characteristics that were prevalent before the development of recording technology and radio. His conception of this symphony flows with unforced naturalness, Mahler is there in every moment and the drama speaks clearly without exaggeration. This is one of the most musical Mahler recordings I know, and matches the great MTT recording in terms of accomplishment, while offering an ear-opening counterpoint. An exceptional end to an exceptional year for Mahler.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.