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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphonies 1 - 9 + Symphony No 10 (Adagio)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Various conductors
rec. live, 2011-2020, Philharmonie, Berlin.
10 CDs + 4 Concert Video Blu-ray Discs in High Definition including documentary video: ‘The conductors talk about Mahler’s symphonies’ [38:00]
Download code for high resolution audio file of the entire album + 7 Day Ticket for Digital Concert Hall included
Sung texts and translations included BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER BPHR200361 [10 CDs: 717 mins & 4 Blu-rays: 795 mins]
In 2020 I reviewed a sumptuous boxed set of the nine Bruckner symphonies, issued on the Berliner Philharmoniker label. Right at the end of my review I said: “I wonder if the Berlin Philharmonic would next consider a comparable package of recordings of the Mahler symphonies. Now that would be something!” I’m sure it’s entirely coincidental – for one thing, editions such as these must take a lot of time and effort to assemble – but here we now have the orchestra’s own Mahler cycle.
We learn from the copious documentation accompanying this set of recorded performances that the Berlin Philharmonic was commendably quick off the mark in performing most of Mahler’s symphonies after their premieres – and, indeed, the orchestra gave the very first complete performance of the ‘Resurrection’ symphony, under the composer’s direction, in 1895. By 1913 all of the symphonies had been played by the BPO with two exceptions: the Seventh was not played by this orchestra until 1920 and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Tenth was not played until 1960. However, the development of a Berlin Mahler tradition was disrupted for some decades after the 1920s. Wilhelm Furtwängler, appointed chief conductor in 1922, had “a more ambivalent attitude” to Mahler, as Benedickt von Bernstorff puts it in a valuable essay on the BPO’s Mahler tradition. Then, with the advent of the Nazis, Mahler’s music was largely suppressed. As Mr von Bernstorff describes it, Mahler was slow to reappear in the BPO’s post-war programmes because it was not a priority for Herbert von Karajan; he only began to take up the symphonies – and then selectively – in the 1970s. Though guest conductors flew the flag for the composer after the war, things really changed with the appointment of Claudio Abbado as Karajan’s successor. He, and subsequently Sir Simon Rattle, brought Mahler centre stage, as did guest conductors, several of whom feature in this set. As we can see and hear from these recordings, the BPO is now beyond question, a Mahler orchestra of the first rank.
One important feature of this set is that several conductors can be
experienced in works which, to the best of my knowledge, they have not
otherwise recorded. I’m pretty sure that’s true of Andris Nelsons, Yannick
Nézet-Séguin, Gustavo Dudamel and Kirill Petrenko.
For the First Symphony Daniel Harding is on the rostrum for a performance given as recently as 2019. The first movement is beautifully played. The performance is cultivated; Harding controls it very carefully. The atmospheric sounds-of-nature passages come off very well and Harding clearly knows where his destination is: the last two or three minutes are fast and colourful. The Scherzo is sturdily done, the music strongly articulated. In the Trio section the performance strikes a nice balance between elegance and schmaltz. Best of all is the finale which Harding takes attacca after the third movement and which explodes into life; here, Mahler’s boldness is very well conveyed. The extended slow and lyrical D flat melody is exquisitely played. Harding makes the most of all the contrasts in this movement and the results are very impressive. The end, with all seven horn players proudly standing up, is joyous. This is a good performance to get the cycle under way.
Back in 2012 I heard Andris Nelsons conduct an unforgettable account of the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony in Birmingham (review) and subsequently I was able to hear a recording of a performance he’d led in Lucerne just a few days earlier with that same forces, which, if anything, was even more thrilling. Since then, I’ve been hoping he might make a commercial recording, so this 2018 Berlin reading was a mouth-watering prospect. In the huge funeral march Nelsons establishes tension from the word go. After a few minutes the slow, nostalgic second theme is heard on the violins and violas. This is marked sehr mässig und zuruckhaltend (very moderately and held back) and a couple of bars later Mahler adds, for good measure, Noch immer und allmächlich zuruckhaltend (still gradually and always holding back). The challenge for the conductor is how to observe these injunctions without taking the music too slowly. I’m not sure that Nelsons is entirely successful here – and later when the material recurs. To be sure, we hear a very beautiful evocation of treasured memories but is Nelsons’ expansive pace just a bit too much of a good thing? Once past that episode, however, Nelsons injects plenty of thrust and drama into the music and in the appropriate places he conveys the wildness in Mahler’s music. The response of the BPO is superb in every respect and, my one reservation aside, this is a thrilling account of the first movement.
On the Blu-ray film we see that Nelsons doesn’t quite observe Mahler’s request for a pause of at least five minutes – which, personally, I’ve always thought is excessive – but there is a gap of about three minutes during which we can all catch our breath and the soloists take their places. (On CD the pause can be replicated because you have to change discs at this point.) The second movement carries the instruction Sehr gemächlich. Nie eilen (Very leisurely. Never rushing). Nelsons’ chosen speed certainly complies and the music is very affectionately interpreted – and wonderfully played. I do wonder if some of the phrasing isn’t a little mannered, though. The Energisch bewegt (energetically moving) episode is just as Maher instructed. Nelsons takes the third movement at a very flowing speed – the fish are swimming in a swift current! I love the pacing and also the way the music’s sardonic wit is conveyed. This is a wholly successful traversal of the movement. In ‘Urlicht’ we hear Gerhild Romberger, who is simply outstanding. Not only does she sing with delightfully warm tone, but in addition she makes great use of dynamics to enhance her expression.
This is among the best renditions of this song that I've heard. Nelsons and the BPO provide her with distinguished support. In the vast musical fresco that is Mahler’s finale Andris Nelsons is in his element. He leads a thrilling performance in which all the many details of Mahler’s scoring register and an exciting Big Picture is also conveyed. The offstage effects are expertly handled – the groβe Appell is a marvellous moment. The first entry of the MDR-Rundfunchor Leipzig is miraculously hushed yet distinct. This, I’m sure, is a professional choir and, my goodness, it shows. They sing from memory and offer wonderfully controlled soft singing and, later, a fervent fortissimo. Soloists Lucy Crowe and Gerhild Romberger make impressive contributions. The last few minutes - from the point when the choir emphatically proclaims ‘Auferstehn, ja auferstehn wirst du’ - are overwhelming in their grandeur, and at the very end the quartets of what had been offstage horns and trumpets come onto the platform to reinforce the orchestra’s triumphant sonority. Though I have expressed one or two reservations, the performance overall is magnificent and it’s good to have a reminder of the conducting with which Andris Nelsons so often electrified Birmingham during his days with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
Gustavo Dudamel is in charge of the Third Symphony. I’ve had mixed experience of this conductor in Mahler: I wasn’t too impressed with his 2012 recording of the Ninth Symphony (review); on the other hand, his superb account of the Eighth, recorded around the same time (review), and a notable 2019 account of the ‘Resurrection’ symphony (review) were very much better, indicating a conductor well suited to Mahler. This reading of the Third impresses from the very start. The Berlin horn section launches the first movement imperiously and we’re off. This huge march movement, which here plays for 33:34, can sprawl unless the conductor maintains a clear focus. That’s exactly what Dudamel does. Conducting from memory, he displays firm control while allowing the music the necessary space. The Berlin Philharmonic’s playing is spectacular. There’s all the tonal weight you could ask for, yet the delicate passages are nicely etched in. The important trombone solos are played commandingly by Christhard Gössling, and in his final solo he shows special finesse. Overall, there’s all the necessary colour and swagger in a marvellous account of this opening movement.
Part II of the symphony encompasses the remaining five movements. Dudamel makes a short and very necessary pause after the first movement, during which the choirs file onto the stage; it’s a pity there’s a smattering of applause to break the concentration. (That pause isn’t replicated on CD, though if you use that format you have to change discs after Movement V.) The Menuetto is taken quite steadily; Dudamel’s approach is relaxed and delicate, though the faster sections are very agile. Along the way there are many well-taken solos to admire, not least from concertmaster Daishin Kashimoto. In the Scherzando there’s a fine spring to the rhythms. The famous posthorn episodes are magically done, the solo player off-stage and out of sight; he’s ideally distanced. The marking of the fourth movement includes the injunction Durchaus ppp (absolutely ppp) and this superb orchestra obeys Mahler to the letter; indeed, the opening is almost inaudible. The performance is suffused with crepuscular mystery. Gerhild Romberger, who sings from a place in the midst of the orchestra, is as expressive as she was in the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony. The following ‘Bimm bamm’ movement is fresh and sprightly; the choirs are well-disciplined. The long finale opens raptly. Throughout this movement the BPO offers sovereign playing. Dudamel conducts very well indeed. There are places in this symphony where impulsiveness is appropriate and necessary; not here. Dudamel paces the music with great patience, taking a long view, though he rightly allows the brief climaxes to have their head. The build-up to the end (from where the main theme is reprised as a chorale by trumpets and a trombone) is superbly handled and the concluding peroration is simply majestic. In many places – at the Proms, for example – the last chord would be the cue for an explosion of cheers and applause. However, Dudamel holds a long silence, allowing the huge chord to resonate and decay, thereby giving the audience (and viewers) time to reflect for a few moments on the long musical journey they’ve just experienced. What a wise decision at the end of a magnificent performance! This is one of the peaks of this set.
The Fourth Symphony is entrusted to Yannick Nézet-Séguin; this particular performance dates from 2014. Nézet-Séguin is the conductor of one of the finest versions of the First Symphony that I know (review) so my hopes for this performance were high. His reading of the first movement is engaging. The performance is bright-eyed and alert, whilst the lyrical episodes have the right degree of warmth. The performance is full of distinguished solos from many of the BPO principals. The second movement is deliciously performed. I love the piquancy of so much of the playing. The concertmaster, Daniel Stabrawa is rightly credited for his excellent solo contributions but just as impressive is the playing of the principal horn, Stefan Dohr. Nézet-Séguin’s conducting of this movement is right on the money. The slow movement is simply gorgeous, the phrasing wonderful. Here, we are treated to playing of the utmost refinement. The final climax, the horns with their bells aloft, is like a sustained sunburst. Christiane Karg is the soloist in the finale, singing from a position to the conductor’s left, behind the violins. She’s excellent, telling the naïve story in a charming fashion and with ideal expression. The sweetly hushed orchestral lead-in to the last stanza (‘Kein Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden’) is a thing of wonder and Ms Karg responds with exquisite, poised singing. At the end of the movement Nézet-Séguin holds the silence for a long time, reluctant to break the spell of a very fine performance of the symphony.
Gustavo Dudamel is back on the podium for the Fifth Symphony. The performance was given in 2018, more than four years after the reading of the Third that comes earlier in the set. In Part I, the opening funeral march receives a big, dramatic performance. There’s ample weight in the march itself while the faster music is projected turbulently. I think Dudamel’s reading is very fine indeed. The opening of the second movement is taken very swiftly and, my goodness, the results are exciting. In this and comparable passages, the BPO’s playing is white hot. Dudamel and the orchestra make the most of the contrasts in the slower passages, such as the recitative-like episode for the cello section. Every aspect of this movement is done really well. Part I of the symphony is an unqualified success.
Part II comprises the symphony’s central scherzo. Here, the crucial solo horn part is taken by Stefan Dohr. He plays superbly, encompassing every facet of a varied part that requires stamina as well as great musicianship. Dudamel paces the music most skilfully, achieving excellent rhythmic spring. You can tell by his body language that he’s relishing the music. The central, more reflective section is lovingly done; once or twice I wondered if the music was being caressed just a bit too much, but Dudamel won me over. Then the exuberant music returns and the BPO turns on the virtuosity, especially in the exultant closing pages which are truly joyful. Opening Part III, the famous Adagietto can be tricky to pace; for example, Leonard Bernstein left us a memorable DG recording of the work but, greatly though I admire it, I wonder if he doesn’t draw out this movement rather too lovingly. Dudamel takes 9:36, which is roughly comparable to conductors such as Barbirolli or Rattle. I think the Venezuelan nails it, directing the music with just the right degree of feeling but never over-indulging. And, of course, he gets wonderfully rich and sensitive playing from the Berlin Philharmonic. The rondo finale is simply joyous. The orchestra’s playing is extrovert and virtuosic; Dudamel visibly revels in both music and performance. When we get to the great brass chorale just before the end it’s a glorious moment before conductor and orchestra engage in an exhilarating dash for the finishing line. On the video the audience erupts in a vociferous ovation, and no wonder; this has been a magnificent traversal of Mahler’s Fifth, rivalling Dudamel’s account of the Third. On the evidence of the two performances in this set, and his earlier recordings of the Second and Eighth, Dudamel has developed into a significant Mahler conductor.
The BPO’s current Chief Conductor, Kirill Petrenko directs the Sixth Symphony. Not long ago I was impressed by Petrenko’s conducting of a selection of works, including Franz Schmidt’s Fourth Symphony (review); however, I’d yet to hear him in Mahler, so the inclusion of this January 2020 performance presented a welcome opportunity. Petrenko opts to play the Scherzo third, after the Andante. I understand the arguments on both sides regarding the ordering of the inner movements; until recently I leaned towards the ordering of Scherzo-Andante for a number of reasons. Coincidentally, it was another release on the Berliner Philharmoniker label that made me think again about the Andante-Scherzo ordering. That came about through hearing Sir Simon Rattle’s 2018 performance of the work in his last concert as the orchestra’s Chief. Rattle convinced me partly through his argument and partly through the actual performance, not least because he took the finale virtually attacca; that may not be an ‘authorised’ interpretative decision but, my goodness, it was effective.
Petrenko opens his rendition of the symphony with a well-judged, purposeful pace for the Allegro energico. Later, the ‘Alma’ theme is imbued with suitable enthusiasm. Like most conductors nowadays, Petrenko takes the exposition repeat. The ‘cowbells’ interlude is delicately nostalgic. When the allegro resumes after this episode it seems that Petrenko’s speed is quicker than before. I suspect I’m wrong but that’s certainly the impression made by the urgent music-making; without doubt the conclusion of the movement sounds exultant here. As I reflected on what I’d heard during the movement, there was no doubt that the playing was absolutely outstanding. However, for some reason the interpretation didn’t grip me; I had the feeling that Petrenko hadn’t dug as deeply into the music as I would have liked.
The Andante is beautifully done. For much of its course Mahler’s tranquil music seems to describe a rustic idyll. Petrenko directs the performance affectionately and the BPO follows his lead with great sensitivity. I particularly admired the many solos from the principal horn and woodwind players. Though most of the time the performance is gentle, there is ardour when required, not least at the main climax. Some other conductors have moulded the phrases more winningly, I think, but I enjoyed and admired Petrenko’s way with the music. I am a little less sure about the Scherzo. The core speed is brisk – though not excessively so – and the playing is extremely well pointed with sharp accents underlining the sardonic nature of the music. Petrenko’s facial expressions indicate that his enjoyment of the wry humour in the music. However, there is a dark side to this music too and it seems to me that this doesn’t come across as much as I’d like.
At the start of the vast finale, the performance doesn’t strike me as being as dark and ominous as it should be. After I’d listened to the movement, I went back to the aforementioned Simon Rattle performance. In his hands the introduction has much more of a sense of foreboding. Petrenko drives the main allegro moderato with great energy but as the movement unfolds, I feel that, brilliant though the playing is, I miss the last degree of stress and angst. The build-up to each of the two (very effective) hammer blows is disappointing: Petrenko doesn’t screw the tension up to bursting point on either occasion. After the second hammer blow, I had a similar – and probably equally incorrect – sense, as I did in the first movement, that the music was being driven even faster. Interestingly, I don’t think Rattle was any slower in his performance but there I didn’t get the sense of the music being over-driven. Indeed, taking the finale as a whole, everything seems a notch more intense with Rattle, who consistently appears to dig deeper. Petrenko’s performance of the finale is
very direct and technically superb but neither this movement nor the account of the symphony as a whole leaves me feeling drained in the way that conductors such as Mitropoulos or Tennstedt have done. Though I was somewhat disappointed, I later discovered that my Seen and Heard colleague Mark Berry was present at his performance two days earlier, on 23 January. I see that he found much to admire in the performance and it’s only fair to point out that he found more in Petrenko’s way with the finale than I did (review).
Simon Rattle recorded the Seventh Symphony as long ago as 1991, during his days in Birmingham. I believe I’m right in saying that he had been dissatisfied with a previous attempt at a studio recording so EMI agreed to record the work live in Snape Maltings at the Aldeburgh Festival. I don’t know why Rattle was unhappy with his studio effort – the live recording turned out pretty well – but I can’t think he will have had any qualms about this Berlin performance from 2016. The big first movement includes some of Mahler’s most original march music and the Berliners deliver this with appropriate swagger. The uncredited tenor horn player makes his important contributions really count. Rattle knits together very successfully all the elements of what can seem an unwieldy movement. The playing is simply fabulous and the orchestra illuminates compellingly all the strands of Mahler’s hugely inventive scoring. The first of the two Nachtmusik movements is an often-shadowy night march. It’s a most intriguing creation and here it’s depicted with real flair. The central Scherzo is another musical evocation of shadows, half-lights and strange nocturnal goings-on. This is at times the music of hobgoblins and it requires both imagination and precision to pull it off; here, it’s pulled off with panache, the characterisation expertly judged. Nachtmusik II is an Andante amoroso and, as the marking suggests, a successful performance needs warmth. Rattle and the BPO supply that, but they also inject the right degree of piquancy. I like the way that Rattle keeps the music on the move so that it’s affectionately done but never indulged. The sounds of the mandolin and guitar add to the charm.
In the finale Mahler goes gloriously over the top in what Tony Duggan aptly described as a “riotous pageant”. Some people turn up their noses at this movement but I think it has to be taken for what it is: an unbridled demonstration of compositional skill and orchestral colour. It represents Mahler at his sunniest and I think there’s an element of ‘just because I can’. In his comments on the work in the bonus video that is part of this set, Simon Rattle describes the finale of the Seventh as “an enormous playground of everything a composer could do”. I believe that the only way to play this finale is to go for broke, albeit in a properly disciplined fashion; that’s just what Rattle and the BPO do. Their performance is wonderfully celebratory but proper attention is also paid to dynamic contrasts and to the subtle moments in an otherwise full-on movement. I enjoyed it immensely. The Seventh has often been regarded as something of a Cinderella among Mahler’s symphonies, though I believe that it’s now recognised for what it is: a highly original work and the culmination of his achievements in the Fifth and Sixth as well as a vital staging post on the way to the Ninth. A performance of the quality of this present one confirms the stature of the Seventh.
Rattle is also in charge of the Eighth Symphony. He made a live recording of this huge work back in 2004, returning to Birmingham to do so (review). For this 2011 Berlin version he’s reunited with two of his Birmingham soloists, David Wilson-Johnson and John Relyea. In fact, from the very first entry of the main septet of soloists it’s clear that Rattle has a very strong team available to him. Wilson-Johnson and Relyea provide a strong, firm foundation – and both of them give fine accounts of their Part II solos. The four ladies, Erika Sunnegårdh, Susan Bullock, Lilli Paasikivi and Nathalie Stutzmann all rise to the many challenges that Mahler sets them – the stratospheric soprano lines at the climaxes are commandingly delivered - and all the ladies sing most expressively. We only hear Anna Prohaska briefly, towards the end of Part II. However, it’s worth the wait when, as Mater Gloriosa, she floats her message to Gretchen from a position in the highest balcony, above the platform and to the conductor’s left. Rattle has a trump card with the presence of the late Johan Botha. It’s luxury casting to have one of the leading Wagner tenors of his generation. He just stands there and ringing tones flow from his mouth, seemingly without effort; his contribution is splendid.
The adult chorus is perhaps smaller than one often hears in this work, for which two or three large amateur choirs will often combine. The massed forces of the Rundfunkchor Berlin and MDR-Rundfunchor Leipzig number probably between 200 and 240 singers but they’re professionals so the number of singers doesn’t matter; all the weight of tone is there when needed and the big moments in Part I and at the end of Part II are thrillingly delivered. In the quieter passages, especially in Part II, the precision and refinement of the singing makes for a very satisfying listening experience. A special word of praise is due for the young singers of the Knaben des Staats- und Domchors Berlin. They are positioned in balconies on either side of the platform and, my goodness, they give a good account of themselves. They sing from memory, which is no mean feat in such a complex score. Their singing is always fresh, confident and accomplished. Rattle conducts them clearly and encouragingly, which must have bred confidence. Hats off to Kai-Uwe Jirka, who prepared these youngsters so thoroughly for what must have been an amazing experience for them.
In the bonus filmed documentary Simon Rattle points out the great delicacy of much of the work – the orchestration is often “on the point of a needle”. It is, he says a challenge to conductors and players to do justice to chamber music on such a huge scale. Of course, the Berlin Philharmonic make it all sound so easy in performance. Passages such as the long introduction to Part II are delivered with wonderful delicacy – and with passion at times – while the accompaniment to the passage where we hear the carolling of the various groups of Angels is beautifully done. The orchestra’s full-blooded playing makes all the full ensemble passages truly thrilling. The orchestral contribution is magnificent from first note to last.
Simon Rattle directs all these forces superbly. In my experience, big-scale works involving huge forces always come off very well in his hands; this is no exception. He brings great energy to much of Part I – for instance, the passage beginning at ‘Accende’ is a musical torrent, while the ‘Gloria’ sweeps all before it. True, in the slower, reflective passages of Part I (‘Infirma nostri corporis’) he does perhaps linger a little too lovingly, but the sheer conviction of the performance means he ‘gets away’ with it. Part II is conducted in one great sweep; he holds it all together most convincingly. From the moment when Mater Gloriosa sings, what had already been a terrific performance goes up a level and the final tableau, from ‘Blicket auf’ onwards, is thrillingly done. The very end, with the mighty Berlin Philharmonic in full cry, reinforced by the offstage trumpets and trombones, is tumultuous. This is an exciting and very fine account of Mahler’s Eighth.
Bernard Haitink conducts the Ninth Symphony. He recorded a number of Mahler symphonies with the BPO back in the 1990s but they didn’t reach the Ninth, so this 2017 performance will be doubly welcomed by the conductor’s admirers. There’s quite a contrast between this performance and the 1969 studio recording that Haitink made for Philips with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. That earlier performance played for 80:30, whereas the total playing time of this new version is some 9 minutes longer. Interestingly, in a more recent live recording, made in 2011, Haitink was much closer overall to his 1969 self, taking 79:53 for the work (review). In this 2017 performance Haitink takes a patient view of the long opening movement. This is surely one of the truly great movements in all symphonic literature; it’s arguably Mahler’s finest single achievement. Haitink conducts with complete understanding and he and this magnificent orchestra achieve great clarity in Mahler’s complex polyphony. The conductor seems to have an instinctive view of the movement’s structure and where exactly the music is heading; of course, that view is the product of long experience. The quiet passages are played with great sensitivity while the orchestra has all the power that the intense peaks need. The interpretation is expansive – the 2011 Bavarian RSO and earlier Concertgebouw performances are tauter at times - but I was gripped by this Berlin account; it’s a wonderfully mature reading.
I can imagine that aspects of the two inner movements may be slightly controversial. The Ländler is quite sturdy; the pace is a little slower than in the other two recordings. It works for me, but some listeners might welcome a bit more overt energy. In the middle of the movement Haitink moulds some passages and transitions with exceptional care; you can see the players watching him like hawks, but you can also tell from their facial expressions that they’re relishing the nuances. The Rondo-Burleske is taken steadily and when I compared the 1969 and 2011 recordings, I found there a bite and vigour which this Berlin performance rather misses; I prefer Haitink’s earlier performances. I should say, though, that in the 2017 version the slower trumpet-led episode in mid-movement is entirely successful. There may be reservations about the inner movements but criticism is silenced by the masterly performance of the concluding Adagio. Again, as in the first movement, Haitink takes the long view – at times he’s a little more spacious than was the case in 2011 - and he is supported by outstanding, eloquent playing by the BPO. The long paragraphs are unfolded in a way that is well-nigh ideal and when the movement’s great climax is reached there’s real strength of emotion. The strings, horns and trombones make the extended passage that follows the climax a memorable experience, offering playing of great intensity; hereabouts, the rich orchestral sonority is a joy to hear. The concluding Adagissimo is played with rapt concentration, the sound reduced to mere whispers. This account of the finale is, quite simply, a profound experience. Though I have some reservations over the third movement these are minor in the context of the overall performance, which is one of great distinction.
The Tenth Symphony brings us a welcome reminder of Claudio Abbado in a performance given
on 18 May 2011, one hundred years to the day after the death of Mahler. Ths
was part of a programme which also included Das Lied von der Erde with Anne Sophie von Otter and Jonas Kaufmann; the full concert can be seen
and heard in the Berliner Philharmoniker's Digital Concert Hall. Facially, Abbado looks gaunt but his conducting is full of strength. He leads a performance of the symphony’s opening Adagio that is very intense indeed. Listening to it, I was made very aware in many places of just how exploratory were Mahler’s counterpoint and inner details. After the grinding climax Abbado and his players achieve serene eloquence in the closing pages. This performance is billed as using the Deryck Cooke performing version of the score. It’s a crying shame that Abbado didn’t go on to give us the rest of Cooke’s version; on the evidence of what we hear in this performance a full account of that would have been memorable.
The fourth of the Blu-ray video discs includes a short film in which most of the conductors talk briefly about the symphonies which they conduct in this set. The exceptions are Haitink and Abbado; additionally, Dudamel talks only about the Fifth Symphony. It’s an interesting film to watch, but possibly only once.
Production values throughout this set are uniformly high, as one has come to expect from this label. My main evaluation of the performances was done watching the Blu-ray videos. On these discs the sound is consistently excellent – I used the 2.0 PCM Stereo option – while the picture quality is superb and the video direction assured and unobtrusive. I noted that the earliest film, that of the Abbado performance, was slightly different in aspects of its video direction and that the picture quality, whilst very good, is not at quite the exalted level of the other films. Perhaps this performance pre-dated the installation of the current state of the art video and audio equipment associated with the orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall? I sampled the CDs sufficiently to be able to say with confidence that anyone experiencing these performances through that medium will in no way be disappointed. Purchasers can also access high-resolution audio files of the recordings.
The documentation is, as always from this label, comprehensive and luxurious. The 128-page book that accompanies the set includes copious illustrations and photographs and an abundance of written material in German and English. There’s an absorbing essay by Stephen Johnson, a separate essay on the Eighth by Barbara Vinken and a very valuable discussion of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Mahler tradition by Benedikt von Bernstorff.
This is not a cheap set to buy but you get what you pay for; it’s a premium product in every sense and worth every penny in my opinion. All the performances are very fine indeed; there really isn’t a weak link here. It’s also very valuable, as Stephen Johnson says, to be able to listen to the symphonies in order and to chart Mahler’s progression, to say nothing of the cross-references. He might have added that it’s good to experience the symphonies interpreted by a variety of conductors. It’s a shame that we don’t get to hear the Tenth in the Deryck Cooke performing version of the five-movement score – maybe the Berlin Philharmonic doesn’t have a performance readily available in its archive – and there’s a strong argument for the inclusion of Das Lied von der Erde. But regrets at those “omissions” pale besides admiration for what we have here. It’s also been very moving to see and hear these performances after a year in which live performances by the huge forces required by Mahler have been impossible and, currently, still are. Let us hope that Covid-19 has brought only a temporary and soon-to-be-lifted suspension of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Mahler tradition.
In every respect, this is a distinguished Mahler symphony cycle.
Contents Symphony No 1in D major [55:22]
Berliner Philharmoniker / Daniel Harding
rec. 29 March 2019 Symphony No 2 in C minor, ‘Resurrection’ [87:09]
Lucy Crowe (soprano); Gerhild Romberger (contralto)
Berliner Philharmoniker / Andris Nelsons
rec. 15 December 2018 Symphony No 3in D minor [99:16]
Gerhild Romberger (contralto)
Damen des Rundfunkchors Berlin
Knaben des Staats- und Domchors Berlin
Berliner Philharmoniker /Gustavo Dudamel
rec. 13 June 2014 Symphony No 4 in G major [58:41]
Christiane Karg (soprano)
Berliner Philharmoniker / Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. 22 March 2014 Symphony No 5 in C sharp minor [70:27]
Berliner Philharmoniker /Gustavo Dudamel
rec. 27 October 2018 Symphony No 6in A minor [77:22]
Berliner Philharmoniker / Kirill Petrenko
rec. 25 January 2020 Symphony No 7 in E minor [76:06]
Berliner Philharmoniker / Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 26 August 2016 Symphony No 8 in E-flat major [78:12]
Erika Sunnegårdh, Susan Bullock, Anna Prohaska (sopranos); Lilli Paasikivi, Nathalie Stutzmann (contraltos). Johan Botha (tenor); David Wilson-Johnson (baritone); John Relyea (bass)
Rundfunkchor Berlin; MDR-Rundfunchor Leipzig; Knaben des Staats- und Domchors Berlin
Berliner Philharmoniker / Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 18 September 2011 Symphony No 9 in D minor [89:38]
Berliner Philharmoniker / Bernard Haitink
rec. 3 December 2017 Symphony No 10in F sharp major (Adagio) [25:07]
Berliner Philharmoniker / Claudio Abbado
rec. 18 May 2011 10 CDs: 4 Concert Video Blu-ray discs:
In High-Definition Video, Picture Format: Full HD 1080 / 60i – 16:9
Sound options: 2.0 PCM Stereo & 5.1 Surround DTS-HD Master Audio
Region Code: ABC (worldwide)
Subtitles: German, English, Japanese