The Year in Mahler

After a particularly generous sesquicentennial of Mahler’s birth last year, with essential collections and vital new thinking about the composer, this has been a relatively subdued centennial of the composer’s death. David Zinman’s solid, beautifully played and recorded but slightly anodyne cycle concluded with a strong Symphony No. 10, and Valery Gergiev finished up his dynamic live cycle in typically breathtaking, powerful and slightly uneven fashion with a Symphony No. 9 that is a little rough in the transitions that are so important to the piece, but fabulous in the extended developments and dance movements. There was also the appearance of curious new cycles from Somtow Sucharitkul and the Siam Philharmonic and Emil Tabakov and the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s this, and some influence of age, time and fatherhood that has me less rabid, as a rabid Mahlerian , to hear and collect every new recording that comes out. It’s also a somewhat regrettable challenge to the impetus to take the plunge and shell out for the Mahler Discography.

The important new Mahler recording of 2011 was Yannick Nézet-Séguin leading the Philadelphia Orchestra in a live Symphony No. 5, digitally released on their in-house media label. It’s well-played and generally effective without being particularly noteworthy or memorable. Nézet-Séguin lets the music flow but doesn’t seem to have many thoughts about the large scale architecture that is vital in the piece, and his “Adagietto” is almost ridiculously slow. What makes this recording important is that the Orchestra itself is in the process of being destroyed by its Board, much the same way that Mitt Romney destroyed companies and threw workers out of jobs in order to reap a high return on his investment. Perhaps this will be a successful blow for the musicians, proving the point that they are the most important parts of the organization and deserve their rewards. I mean, who would you rather see in the concertmaster’s seat, a violinist or a lawyer? And who adds more to society?

In the Mahler discography, the big events this year were archival. There was  a surprisingly solid and consistent live Symphony No. 8 from Klaus Tennstedt (who I frequently find both brilliant and weird in equal measures in the same piece), and a truly great Symphony No. 2, again in concert, led by the underrated William Steinberg. Testament released a live Das Lied von der Erde with Carlo Maria Giulini and the Berlin Philharmonic. This concert is from the same era that brought their exceptional studio recording on DG, the single most beautifully played Das Lied, and this live disc augments that with intense singing and expression from Brigitte Fassbaender and Francisco Araiza. There was also an invaluable document as well, the three CD set, also from Testament, that illuminates the endeavor of constructing and finishing Mahler’s final work, the Symphony No. 10.

When Mahler died, the first and third movements of the work had been essentially finished, although in what was draft form (Mahler’s process included revisions up to and through rehearsals for performance). The first movement is frequently performed, the third less so. Musicologist Deryck Cooke undertook the assembly of of the complete work — in some sense the symphony was complete, in that all the bars were laid out, but not all the inner material had been notated in detail, and the orchestration was far from finished. Cooke made the first performing edition (which he later revised, and which has been joined by four others). As he neared completion of the endeavor, the BBC agreed to broadcast the work, and an incomplete version was played live on the radio, with Cooke introducing sections of the music, and the orchestral performance was preceded by Cooke discussing the music, his work, and illustrating it at the piano (transcript available here). When finished, the symphony had its premiere performance in 1964. This set collects all three of these events, and is deeply fascinating and illuminating. Despite what one may think of the task of completion, it is invaluable to hear Cooke’s reasoning, it’s a way to know more about Mahler. The premiere performance is also quite good and exciting, not on the level of Rattle, Ormandy or Gielen but, in this context, essential for any Mahlerian.