The Year in Mahler 2016


What a year. There are more concerts to come, but my experience hearing Simon Rattle lead the Philadelphia Orchestra in Mahler 6 Monday night at Carnegie put a cap on a run of unforgettable performances. Read my review of last night at the New York Classical Review here, and catch up on these reviews from earlier in the year of New York Philharmonic performances: Mahler 6 with Semyon Bychkov, Mahler 9 with Bernard Haitink, Das Lied von der Erde (and Sibelius 7) with Alan Gilbert.

Sharing reviews is always tinged with the frustration of not being able to share the experience, nor of recalling anything but the memory of an overall impact. But there’s a welcome exception: the Philharmonic has released a digital recording from the Bychkov/Mahler 6 run, and it is as great as my memories, one of the finest performances of the symphony you’ll hear. You can stream it/buy it from iTunes, or do the same at Amazon, where the audio is better. Note that the cover image has Gilbert’s name, but it’s Bychkov conducting.


Mahler, Then And Now

Tonight I’m covering the second installment of the Argento Ensemble’s “Mahler in New York” series, which pairs contemporary composes with chamber arrangements of Mahler. Tonight the feature is the Schoenberg/Riehn reduction of Das Lied von der Erde, and I’m expecting big things after Argento’s tremendous playing of Symphony No. 9.

During a break in this morning’s action (review, Bitches Brew), I dialed up Das Lied and discovered this gem:


It had escaped my attention last year, probably because it was a download-only release. I hit play without knowing exactly what it was, and got to enjoy what is now an infrequent experience, hearing a familiar piece played in a new (and superb) manner. This is a new arrangement by Glen Cortese, done in 2006, and the ensemble on the record is Musica Saeculorum, a period instrument group.

There needs to be more period Mahler, if only so we can hear how the music sounds. When Mahler was composing and conducting, many of the instruments were what we now considering period types, the orchestral blend was different, the strings eschewed vibrato. That was the sound he heard, and that’s particularly germane because of the extreme value Mahler put into his orchestrations. Currently there is only one other period recording of Maher, Mahler: Symphony No. 4, which I strongly recommend.

It will take more than one listen to see how much Mahler is in this new Das Lied, but it is so refreshing, so vibrant to hear, the singing is terrific. I’m loving it.

Mahler: The Movie

My friends at, who stream and record excellent classical music concerts, and now offering their first film:

Holy shit, how could you not watch that? Russell’s version of Mahler’s life is, unsurprisingly, a bit deranged, but that’s why we love him, and love Mahler. Do check it out, and all the other great music medici has to offer—the other new addition is concerts from Carnegie Hall.

Consumer Reports

Looking out for your wallet, once again, so you don’t have to …

You may have seen [this handsome box set of the Mahler symphonies]( on Amazon. Think long and hard about it, Mahlerians: Ozawa is underrated in this music and the sound of the Boston Symphony playing Mahler alone makes it worth repeated listening. But don’t be daunted by the price, the same set is already available for less than half the Amazon price at [](

(If you do shop at Amazon, remember to use the links you find here on this blog. You help support this site by tossing a tiny amount of the purchase price into my pocket, rather than Jeff Bezos’, at no extra cost to you.)

Also coming out and absolutely essential is the final recording made by Claudio Abbado, leading the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9. Live in concert, this is one of those rare and extraordinary documents of an event. It’s not just that this is arguably the finest recording of this music, but that the combination of tension, expression, the incredibly focussed playing and the live audience makes this an experience that goes far beyond just listening to music. One of the great things you will have in your culture collection.

Consumer Reports

Looking out for your dollars, so you don’t have to …

Must Haves and New Releases


* DG is releasing a new Claudio Abbado Mahler cycle. This one collects his live recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, and completely supersedes his previous cycle in terms of music making and recording quality. Everything is strong, and Symphonies 1, 3, 5 and 9 are among the finest on record. You can pre-order through Amazon or, for half the price, the Presto Classical site. You’ll also get is sooner through Presto, though once the domestic release date nears, the Amazon price is likely to drop below $50.

* Not available in the US domestic market, there’s another great DG box coming out, 23 CDs of recordings from the great conductor Rafael Kubelik. This one collects the complete symphonies of Mahler, Beethoven, Dvorak, and Schumann. These are fine recordings and this box is a great value.

* Beethoven Symphonies 1 – 9, George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra. The best first choice for a Beethoven set, and arguably the finest cycle ever recorded, this has gone in and out of print for the last thirty years, but is available again for less than $20. If you don’t have this, order it today.

PLAYLIST Week 1, 2014

Great recordings of masterpieces from the romantic era. All highly recommended, especially the upcoming Harmonia Mundi releases:

Playlist, Research Edition

Something on my mind that has come from listening to these, and listening to these has put something in my mind. That and my endless, sub rosa obsession with Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and Symphony No. 7:

The Dude Ambles By

John Adams, *City Noir,* Gustavo Dudamel & the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Gustav Mahler, *Symphony No. 9,* Gustavo Dudamel & the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Gustavo Dudamel & the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall:

  • March 27, 2013; John Adams, The Gostpel According to the Other Mary
  • March 28, 2013; Claude Vivier, Zipangu, Claude Debussy, La Mer, Igor Stravinsky, The Firebird

It’s not that I believed the hype about Gustavo Dudamel, it’s that I figured that anyone who had gone so far, so fast, had some real promise, some unpolished talent that the LA Philharmonic saw and wanted to have for themselves as it grew, like what the Washington Nationals see in Bryce Harper. Harper was spectacular at times during his rookie season, and less than ordinary at other times, but the former meant that there might be more often in the future. I assumed that was the case with Dudamel, and now that I’ve heard him on a handful of recordings and seen him lead the LA Phil at Lincoln Center in an intriguing program of Stravinsky, Debussy, CLaude Vivier and John Adams, I realize that, as the saying goes, I’ve made an ass of myself.

VLA 10049 byMathewImaging 12965Dudamel’s new Mahler 9 recording is superficial and schematic. He handles the musical traffic skillfully and the LA Phil is playing at a high technical level, but those qualities amount to watching a machine run, the music-making doesn’t seem to have any particular ideas or to be done for a particular reason, other than habit. The opening bars are perfunctory, there is no musical statement made with the stumbling rhythm, no tension, and so the two-note descending string line, which is a musical manifestation of the exhalation of acceptance that begins life’s final journey, is totally flat — it’s one of the key moments of the symphony! After that, there’s no feeling that one phrase leads to another, that the point of Mahler’s writing out the notes was to get the musicians to go from the beginning to the end. Everything is episodic, with one phrase and section clipped to the next. Mahler organized the work, but Dudamel seems to find it arbitrary. I have no idea what he thinks about the music, intellectually or emotionally, because he doesn’t lead it as if he was thinking of anything.

This was a strength with *The Firebird* because it’s an episodic piece, the short sections juxtaposed for dramatic and narrative purpose, and so his ability to handle textures, dynamics and rhythms is important. The audience broke into spontaneous and deserved applause after a breathtaking “Infernal Dance.” *The Firebird* almost plays itself, though. *La Mer* doesn’t, and this was the first performance of this beautiful, profound, involving masterpiece I had ever heard that was so … indifferent. Conductors like Charles Dutoit, Michael Tilson Thomas and David Robertson give you their understanding of the music’s colors, drama and important structural innovations, but Dudamel offered no ideas. It was pleasant enough in a boring way and completely forgettable and meaningless.

For the afficianando, the draw of this program was Claude Vivier’s *Zipangu*. Vivier’s music seems to be undergoing a slow and very welcome rediscovery, in no small part due to the promotion of his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes. He was a pioneer of the spectral movement and easily the most accessible and powerful proponent of the style, fixing magical sonorities to gracefully strong structures. Vivier wasn’t just exploring the possibilites of microtones and diaphanous harmonies, but expressing ideas through them. Dudamel marked each moment of the piece with an excessively vertical attention, getting the notes write and missing the point that they existed in the context of others. The latter pieces confirmed to me the impression this opening work left, which is that he is didactically focussed on making sure each moment is technically right and has no idea why each moment matters.

It’s a sad change from the Salonen years. Under him, the LA Philharmonic was frequently a rough ensemble, but they played with ideas and a tremendous commitment. There was a performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 7 that almost set my hair on fire, and while that may not be every person’s idea of how the music should go, it was an idea, it was something! The excessive palaver of the Dudamel style turns art into baubles for the bourgeoisie to collect as signifiers of their cultural prestige. It’s awful.

His lack of personal art leaves me at a loss to judge the qualities of John Adams’ *The Gospel According to the Other Mary*. It’s an Easter companion to his brilliant Christmas oratorio, *El Nino*, and not nearly as accomplished. The libretto, put together with Peter Sellars, is ungainly and drives the structure, which has a first half malformed by an endless scene involving Lazarus’ death and resurrection. Once that passes, everything starts to move. But nothing much moves for the character of Mary Magdalene, who steadily laments and regrets throughout, and at times the music goes for effect rather than meaning, eviscerating Adams’ strength as a composer. Taken together with his awful copy and paste pastiche of Beethoven, *Absolute Jest*, I think he is cursed with being too busy as a composer, and is taking shortcuts. But perhaps there is more to the music than Dudamel can give it, which I feel is also true for *City Noir*, which does everything that Adams does well: it’s smart, irreverent, sincere and even a little hip, but the one performance available is unfulfilling.

Dudamel has a jejune touch, and it effects the music he leads. Considering the clamor that greets him when he steps out onto stage, the yelling and cheering, and that he’s got a long contract, that seems to be what audiences and trustees want. It’s classical music as upper-class lifestyle accessory, and that’s nothing new of course. Nonetheless, I hate it.

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