WHEN MAHLER died, in 1911, expressing confidence that his time would yet come, perhaps he had a vision of the advances to be made in the then primitive art of sound recording. It was with the advent of microgrove that his symphonies, too bulky for the old 78s, began to move from the novelty category to the standard repertory; his symphonies and modern recording techniques seem to have been designed for each other.
Ten or 12 years ago, Rafael Kubelik, then in the midst of recording an "integral" Mahler symphony cycle, remarked on the Seventh in particular as a work in which so much more can be heard through a good sterophonic recording than in a concert hall. Right now, Sir Georg Solti is remaking his own entire Mahler cycle in a new series of digital recordings, and various other conductors are already represented in digital recordings of individual symphonies. The newest such releases are those of the Third, conducted by Klaus Tennstedt, and of the Tenth -- in full -- under both James Levine and Simon Rattle.
Tennstedt by now has identified himself as a born Mahler interpreter. Both in his acknowledgment of what we regard as a Mahler tradition and in the ways he departs from it, his instincts seem true. He draws the most committed playing from the London Philharmonic (the orchestra for his Mahler cycle), and the musical-emotional impact is irresistibly persuasive.
The Third Symphony, the most expansive of all Mahler's works, is the first installment in Tennstedt's cycle to be issued in a digital edition (Angel DSB-3902; cassettes 4Z2S3902). It nobly upholds, and possibly surpasses, the musical standards set in his analog recordings of the First and Fifth. Ortrum Wenkel, a contralto heretofore unknown to me, is all Mahler might have dreamed of in projecting the Nietzsche text in the fourth movement, and the women and boys in the fifth are hardly less effective.
While Tennstedt is his unhurried self in pacing this work, with a tempo just relaxed enough to delve especially deep into the fairy-tale world of the scherzo, with its posthorn solo and curious echoes of a Spanish tune, he is actually brisker than most of his colleagues in the final movement. But everything he does as always, works, and works splendidly -- all the more splendidly in the lambent, meticulously detailed digital sound. I would not discard the Haitink, Horenstein or Kubelik Third, but Tennstedt's is something I would have to have, no matter how many others might be on my shelf.
James Levine's continuing Mahler cycle for RCA involves three orchestras -- the Chicago Symphony, the London Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Like Tennstedt, he recorded the Adagio from the unfinished Tenth Symphony as filler in his set of the Fifth; unlike Tennstedt, however, he decided to record the entire Tenth, in the second of the two performing versions prepared by the late Deryck Cooke. His analog recording of the Adagio with the Philadelphians has been remastered digitally and included in the otherwide all-new, all-digital recording of the remaining movements (RCA CTC2-3726; cassettes CTK23726). It is a well-balanced interpretation, superbly played and recorded and beautifully pressed (by Teldec in Hamburg), but it lacks some of the punch felt in both Ormandy's recording of Cooke's first version (with the same orchestra, of course, CBS D-3S-774) and Wyn Morris' compelling one of this same second version (Philips 6700.067).
Since Tennstedt elected to limit himself to the Adagio in the Tenth, Angel is hardly duplicating its own efforts in offering the entire work played by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle (DSB-3909; cassettes 4Z2S-3909), and this is quite a stunning release, in every way a worthy supplement to Tennstedt's cycle on the same label.
Rattle, who was just barely, or perhaps not quite, 25 when he made this recording last year, has been setting audiences on their collective ears on both sides of the Atlantic for a few years now. In his own introductory essay he notes that the performance of this work "requires an unusual degree of creativity from the conductor," and he explains some of the changes he made in Cooke's score, based on his consultation with Berthold Goldschmidt (who conducted the premiere of Cooke's first version and has continued to ponder the work) and other considerations. He omitted the xylophone at one point, restored a cymbal clash at another, some instrumentation from Mahler's Second Symphony at yet another, etc. Both his words and his actual performance reflect the most profound and committed study of the work, and the most striking sympathy for its idiom.
One might question the entrusting of so major and expensive a project (in this case underwritten by the German electronic firm Grundig) to a provincial orchestra instead of one of the expert and experienced ensembles in London. The Bourne-mouth orchestra, however (with which Rattle served a brief term as assistant conductor a few years ago), is quite a capable ensemble, as conductors who have worked and/or recorded in Britain know. Its strings cannot possibly he mistaken for those of the Philadelphia, and one of the crucial wind passages in the "Purgatorio" is noticeably less assured than in the other recordings of the work. But for the most part the commitment and integrity of Rattle's interpretation and the orchestrahs similarly committed response simply sweep such considerations aside.
I still lean toward Wyn Morris' fervid performance of the Tenth, but Rattle is surely one to be reckoned with, and offers collateral advantages in the form of the space-saving gatefold container and Michael Steinberg's exhaustive and fascinating annotation. Indeed, the only complaint I have about the whole presentation is that the notes and footnotes had to be set in such small type.