Correction to This Article
The article on recordings being released to mark the 100th anniversary of Gustav Mahler's death referred to the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra as the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Also, an accompanying list misstated the price of a recording of Symphony No. 8. It is $15.98, not $11.98.

As Mahler's death centenary nears, an outpouring of recordings pays tribute

MIXED BAG: Some recent recordings provide new perspectives on composer Gustav Mahler, while others hone the Mahler tradition.
MIXED BAG: Some recent recordings provide new perspectives on composer Gustav Mahler, while others hone the Mahler tradition. (Courtesy Of New York Philharmonic Archives)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Mark J. Estren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 9, 2010

The centenary next year of Mahler's death has produced an outpouring of recordings of his symphonies that threatens to become a flood. The result is an enthusiast's delight (so much to hear, analyze, argue about!) but an average listener's bewilderment: Why pick this or that version over that or this?

One answer is that some recent recordings provide new perspectives on Mahler, while others hone the Mahler tradition. One unusual approach comes from Roger Norrington, a noted proponent of original playing styles. For his live recording of Mahler's Ninth, Norrington had the orchestra's strings play in the style of Mahler's time, in which vibrato was minimal or absent except as a special effect. The effect of this clean, transparent sound on Mahler's last completed symphony is quite wonderful: Far from being dense and doom-laden, it emerges as a work of surprising optimism despite a sense of abschied (farewell) throughout.

In the first movement -- which repeatedly refers to Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Enjoy Life" waltz -- death may be inevitable but is scarcely demonic. The middle movements become elements of the wild whirligig of life; even the Rondo Burleske is hectic but not frantic or depraved. For the finale, Norrington offers one of the speediest adagio conclusions ever recorded for this symphony. Yet it does not feel fast except in a very few places, and Norrington brings out all its emotion. The very ending is sublime -- impeccably played and almost unbearably beautiful.

The Ninth is not Mahler's "final final" symphony: The Tenth exists in partial form, and there have been many attempts to complete it, the best known being from Deryck Cooke, who created four versions. But the rarely heard version by British musicologist Joseph Wheeler is in some ways more interesting. Conducted by Robert Olson and played by the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, it is included in a very fine new 15-CD set of all of Mahler's symphonies. The Tenth's archlike structure is very similar to that of the Seventh, but its instrumentation in the Wheeler version is leaner -- closer to that of other late Mahler. Wheeler, a brass player, puts extra emphasis on the brass, but not so much as to unbalance a very carefully structured version of the Tenth, whose sound is closer to that of the Ninth and other late works than is the case in Cooke's editions.

The leanness of sound in parts of Mahler's otherwise overwhelming Eighth Symphony is a key to its successful performance, and David Zinman's attentiveness to this aspect of the music is a major plus. This work is often called "Symphony of a Thousand," because of the number of performers it requires. But in addition to the enormity of some choral and orchestral sections, there is tremendous delicacy here, and it is in the quietly sublime passages that Zinman's version shines. The tonal painting that opens the second part is expressive and attentive, and the progress of solo voices from deep bass to soprano heights comes through with ethereal clarity: Zinman's soloists seem actually to have read the conclusion of Goethe's "Faust," whose words Mahler here sets. Zinman also does a fine job of showing how the themes introduced in the symphony's first part -- the ninth-century hymn "Veni, creator spiritus" -- permeate the second. Excellent SACD (super audio CD) sound helps bring out the intricate textures of this huge work.

By contrast, Christoph Eschenbach's performance of Mahler's First Symphony is rather ordinary: It does not seem as thoroughly thought-through as those of Norrington, Olson and Zinman. Eschenbach repeatedly slips into small but irritating mannerisms, such as a ritard and brief pause before this or that emphatic chord -- a disruption of flow that Mahler, a brilliant conductor, was perfectly capable of writing into the score had he wanted it. The playing is excellent throughout -- the brass is especially good -- but the quieter sections are not as expressive as they can be. There is plenty of skill in Eschenbach's performance, but it is rather lacking in heart. The five Rueckert songs on the CD are uneven as well. Christine Schaefer sounds a touch strained at times, and although she gets the words and rhythms right, she misses a certain level of emotional connection with the texts. There is really nothing wrong with this Mahler CD, but there is not quite enough right for it to be recommended wholeheartedly at a time when so many other performers are doing Mahler so outstandingly well.

Mahler: Symphony No. 9. Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Roger Norrington. Haenssler Classic. $18.99.

Mahler: The Complete Symphonies. National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit, Michael Hal?sz and Robert Olson. Naxos. $89.99 (15 CDs).

Mahler: Symphony No. 8. Melanie Diener, Juliane Banse, Lisa Larsson, Yvonne Naef, Birgit Remmert, Anthony Dean Griffey, Stephen Powell, Askar Abdrazakov, Alfred Muff; Schweizer Kammerchor, WDR Rundfunkchor Koeln, Zuercher Saengerknaben, Kinderchor Kaltbrunn and Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich conducted by David Zinman. RCA Red Seal. $11.98 (2 SACDs).

Mahler: Symphony No. 1; Rueckert-Lieder. Christine Schaefer, soprano; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. Capriccio. $16.99.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company