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Gustav Mahler: 150th Birthday Feature: July 7, 2010

Mahler I: Complete Recordings on DG; Symphonies 1-4, Song Cycles
Leonard Bernstein

CDs: 6
Tracks: 36

Decca International
Rel. 24 Aug 2010

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Mahler, Symphonies 1-3
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Mahler, Symphonies 4-6
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Mahler, Symphonies 7-10
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Mahler, Song Cycles
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Gustav Mahler
July 7, 2010 marks the 150th birthday of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), a giant of the late-Romantic period, and among the most beloved composers of all time. Mahler’s music has been the object of an impressive number of recordings, especially in recent decades. Most every major orchestra and conductor has tackled his epic 10 symphonies – which the composer famously characterized as “worlds” – and Mahler enthusiasts have formed passionate opinions of which are the “ideal” recordings of each. Similarly, many of most celebrated vocalists have tried their hands at Mahler’s monumental orchestral song cycles and songs with piano accompaniment. Not surprisingly, Mahler’s life was as colorful and dramatic as his music – with a career that uniquely straddled both composition and conducting, with a prominence that few others have attained.

In celebration of this anniversary year, we highlight the dramatic life and career of this musical giant, with overviews of his achievements as a composer and conductor – along with playlists, videos, quotes, and a compendium of recommended recordings from our editorial staff. Enjoy!

“A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.”
– Gustav Mahler

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Gustav Mahler was born on July 7, 1860 in the village of Kalischt in eastern Bohemia, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, into a humble Jewish family – his father was an innkeeper and his mother the daughter of a provincial soap manufacturer. Mahler once commented famously that he was three times homeless: “a Bohemian amongst Austrians, an Austrian amongst Germans, and a Jew throughout the world.” While still an infant, his family moved to the larger town of Iglau, in Moravia, where the local music scene – folk and dance music, marching bands, etc. – would leave their mark on the young composer. He displayed musical talent early, and began performing from age 10. With the support of his parents, Gustav entered the Vienna Conservatory, where he studied piano and composition, and may have had his first attempts at conducting, with the student orchestra. There he befriended Hugo Wolf, attended lectures from Anton Bruckner, and – as so many of his generation – fell under the musical spell of Richard Wagner. Upon graduating in 1878, he entered Vienna University, where he spent a year studying philosophy and literature – which likewise proved influential on his musical persona.

In the years after graduation, Mahler assumed a series of conducting posts – primarily for opera companies in small towns (Bad Hall, Laibach, Olmütz, and Kassel); composition thus became a secondary consideration, though on at least one occasion, in 1884, he programmed his own incidental music (for Joseph Viktor von Scheffel’s play, Der Trompeter von Säkkingen). A key inspiration for later compositional activity was his discovery around this time of the German folk-poem collection, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (‘The Youth’s Magic Horn’) – which would leave its mark on several Mahler songs and symphonies. During the 1880s, while building his career as an opera conductor, Mahler also composed a few other works ­ – including several songs for voice and piano, and the song cycle, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (‘Songs of a Wayfarer’; 1883-85, originally with piano accompaniment, orchestrated 1891-95). Some of this early music was later incorporated into his First Symphony – which was premiered, to critical rebuke, in Budapest in 1889; as well as the Second Symphony (1888-96).

“Mahler turned me on to classical music. After a concert of the First Symphony at the Proms when I was about 15 years old, I was entirely changed. I think I nearly wore out my LP of Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. The music has a combined power, honesty, fragility and spirituality rarely found in other scores and his emotional soundscape captures the heady and swirling days of the shifting centuries. Mahler is one of the greatest portals into the raw, transformative effect of large scale classical music.”
– Graham Parker, Executive Director, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra; incoming Vice President, WQXR radio (New York)

By the early 1890s, Mahler had achieved sufficient success as a conductor – with posts in the opera houses of Prague, Leipzig, Budapest, and Hamburg – to be able to limit his summer activities to composition. In 1893, he purchased a small home in the upper Austrian resort of Steinbach, on the banks of Lake Attersee his “komponierhäuschen” (composition hut) – where he quickly produced several songs based on the Wunderhorn collection, as well as his Second and Third Symphonies (1894-96), which themselves are derived in part from various Wunderhorn settings. The premiere of the Second Symphony, in Berlin in late-1895, may also be considered his first critical and popular success. Composing took an extended hiatus in 1897-98, during which time Mahler was appointed to his two most high profile conducting posts – with the Vienna Court Opera (Hofoper, now the Staatsoper) and the Vienna Philharmonic.

Starting in 1899, however, Mahler was able to resume composing, and entered his most creative period. He quickly wrote his final song settings of the Wunderhorn collection, as well as his Fourth Symphony (1899-1900). After the turn of the century, Mahler wrote his Rückert Lieder (1901-04), the orchestral song cycle Kindertotenlieder (‘Songs on the Death of Children’, 1901-04), and his Fifth (1901-02), Sixth (1903-04), Seventh (1904-05), and Eighth (1906-07) Symphonies – all written at a new summer “composing hut” in Maiernigg in Carinthia. Each of these works was able to be premiered by Mahler himself, and received generally mixed responses from the audience and critics. It was also in these years, that Mahler met and married Alma Schindler (in 1902), in what was a passionate though often challenging relationship – where, for example, Alma was forced to abandon her own compositional aspirations, by virtue of her husband’s dictum that there be only once composer in the household. These productive years came to a tragic end when, in the summer of 1907, Mahler’s own daughter, Maria, died of scarlet fever – a sad irony given the song cycle, Kindertotenlieder, the composer had written a few years earlier.

“Mahler’s music has had a profound impact on my life personally and as an artist. Mahler told us that all of life should be a symphony, and his art subsequently reflects all of the trivia and tragedy in life simultaneously.  His creative works and musical genius prepare as well as cajole, and force his listener to understand the time he is living in, regardless of the century.  When people ask which of his works are my favorite, I respond by saying ‘whichever work I am listening to now!’  Mahler’s music emerged from the Romantic age and carried us into music’s modern era.  His was an extraordinary sensibility that has enriched all music lovers immeasurably.”
– Thomas Hampson, baritone

By virtue of the challenges he faced from his Viennese opponents – largely due to his Jewish roots – Mahler resigned his conducting posts in that city in 1907, and took a position as music director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York as well as with the newly constituted New York Philharmonic, though he continued to spend his summers in Austria, now at a home in the forests of Tyrol. During the summers of 1907-10, Mahler wrote the orchestral song cycle Das Lied von der Erde (‘The Song of the Earth’, 1908-09), his Ninth Symphony (1908-09), and the Adagio from his incomplete Tenth Symphony – his last composition. During a trip to Berlin in September 1910, Mahler conducted the premiere of his Eighth Symphony (‘Symphony of a Thousand’), yielding the most successful reception of his music during his lifetime – though it would also be the last premiere Mahler would experience. Having faced a series of health problems from at least 1907, when he was a diagnosed with a defective heart, things deteriorated from mid-1910 and Mahler died on May 18, 1911. Among those in attendance at his funeral was Arnold Schoenberg, perhaps Mahler’s most ardent musical disciple.

During his lifetime, Mahler was best known as a conductor, and must be regarded as a principal figure in the evolution of this art form; among his students were some of the towering figures of the 20th century, including Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer. Mahler conducted numerous historic performances of operas by Wagner, Bizet, Weber, Mascagni, Smetana, and Tchaikovsky, as well as by Mozart and Beethoven – and in many cases his performances initiated or greatly assisted in the subsequent popularity of these works. At the same time, he was often fiercely attacked for his autocratic style and unyielding rehearsal demands – leading to frequent feuds with singers, musicians, and administrators. Given his life-long involvement with opera performance and production, it is somewhat surprising that except for an early attempt that was soon abandoned (Rübezahl, 1879), Mahler was never himself driven to compose an opera.

“Here’s to another century and a half!”
– Marin Alsop, conductor

Of course, it is Mahler’s identity as a composer, rather than as a conductor, that is most celebrated today. To be sure, his music has been the object of varying critiques over the decades – with his symphonies criticized early on for their exaggerated lengths and orchestral eccentricities; during his lifetime, only the Second and Eighth Symphonies achieved much success. Following his death, things were not much better – for example, his works were banned as “degenerate” in Germany and Austria during the Nazi era. Things started to change after 1960, however, when several conductors – most notably Leonard Bernstein (who reported claimed to have single-handedly rescued Mahler from oblivion), Leopold Stokowski, Dimitri Mitropoulos, and John Barbirolli began to champion his music. Since then, a sort of “Mahler-mania” has swept the musical world, with his works performed and recorded to such an extent that some complain of a certain “glut” or over-exposure. In any event, Mahler’s own prediction that “my day will come” has certainly come true, and we at Classical Archives are delighted to help commemorate his brilliant musical legacy. Happy Birthday, Gustav Mahler!

Nolan Gasser, Artistic Director

Recommended Recordings

Below are a set of recommended recordings for the principal works of Gustav Mahler, made by our editorial staff. Please enjoy comparing these recordings, and let us know which ones you prefer!


Mahler I: Complete Recordings on DG; Symphonies 1-4, Song Cycles
Leonard Bernstein

CDs: 6
Tracks: 36

Decca International
Rel. 24 Aug 2010

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Mahler Collections

This collection is for those who want (almost) everything Mahler ever composed, conducted by the 20th century's most passionate Mahler advocate and musical ambassador, Leonard Bernstein. Expect performances of searing intensity and drama. This is for those who like their Mahler, in the words of Bernstein himself, "to the power of n": dramatic, emotional – and not to be missed!


Mahler II: Complete Recordings on DG; Symphonies 5-7
Leonard Bernstein

CDs: 5
Tracks: 24

Decca International
Rel. 24 Aug 2010

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$29.99


Mahler III: Complete Recordings on DG; Symphonies 8-10; Other Orchestral Works
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein

CDs: 5
Tracks: 36

Decca International
Rel. 24 Aug 2010

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Mahler: Symphony No.1
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein

CDs: 1
Tracks: 4

Decca International
Rel. 17 Aug 2010

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Symphony 1 in D (‘Titan’)

Bernstein captures the rollercoaster ride of Mahler's first masterpiece, perhaps like no one before or since, from the idyllic Bohemian dawn of the first movement to the heroic struggle for life in the finale.


Mahler: Symphonie No.1; Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Kubelik

CDs: 1
Tracks: 8

Decca International
Rel. 17 Aug 2010

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The Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik's approach to the First Symphony is more measured than Bernstein's, but equally joyous and tragic, providing clear rhythmic focus and poetic beauty. Kubelik's unique, brooding, yet almost jaunty account of the third movement remains a classic of recorded music.


Mahler: Symphony No.2
San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas

CDs: 2
Tracks: 6

San Francisco Symphony
Rel. 9 Nov 2004

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Symphony 2 in C- (‘Resurrection’)

Michael Tilson Thomas stunningly conveys Mahler's spiritual journey from death to resurrection with the help of the wonderful Lorraine Hunt Lieberson along the way, singing the almost unbearably moving "Urlicht" of the fourth movement. This is a highlight of the San Francisco Mahler cycle, with a powerful finale that demands listening at the loudest possible volume for maximum impact.


Mahler: Symphony No. 2 ('Resurrection')
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Gilbert Kaplan

CDs: 2
Tracks: 42

Decca International
Rel. 24 Aug 2010

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Conductor Gilbert Kaplan, though ostensibly an amateur, has studied this symphony perhaps more deeply than any other person on earth, and recorded it several times, unearthing new discoveries in its score and performance each time. This recording with the Vienna Philharmonic is his most searching and insightful thus far, and needs to be heard particularly by the Mahler scholar and enthusiast for its fresh insights into this oft-performed work.


Mahler: Symphony No.3 in D-
New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein

CDs: 2
Tracks: 26

Decca International
Rel. 17 Aug 2010

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Symphony 3 in D-

For many, this is the definitive pairing for Mahler's Third Symphony: Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. While some prefer his earlier recording for CBS in the 1960s, many find this 1980s version on Deutsche Grammophon the most scintillating Mahler recording ever made. Bernstein makes this symphony dramatically coherent and comprehensible in a way that few conductors have achieved before or since.


Mahler: Symphonie No. 3
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Pierre Boulez

CDs: 2
Tracks: 6

Decca International
Rel. 24 Aug 2010

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Sonically, this is the most stunning recording available of the Mahler's 3rd symphony - indeed, perhaps of any Mahler symphony! Pierre Boulez's approach to Mahler is one of clarity and sanity in a tumultuous sound world that envelops the listener. The Vienna Philharmonic play like angels, and Anne Sofie von Otter brings her trademark dramatic flair and pointed characterization to the vocal movements.


Mahler Symphony No.3
New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert

CDs: 1
Tracks: 6

New York Philharmonic
Rel. 29 Mar 2010

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The New York Philharmonic's new music director, Alan Gilbert, has recorded this performance of Mahler's Third Symphony for online distribution only, so this is a rare chance to hear what is happening in Avery Fisher Hall in New York with Maestro Gilbert's Mahler – a composer he has always been identified with strongly. Gilbert is a natural Mahlerian, conducting this great Mahler orchestral; and this album provides an exciting preview of great things to come.


Mahler: Symphony No. 4
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas

CDs: 1
Tracks: 4

San Francisco Symphony
Rel. 2 Mar 2004

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Symphony 4 in G

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony bring a near-perfect mix of sparkle and passion to this (comparatively) easy-going Mahler symphony.


Mahler: Symphony No. 4 (Chamber Version)
Manchester Camerata, Douglas Boyd

CDs: 1
Tracks: 4

AVIE Records
Rel. 5 Jun 2006

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For a completely different take on the usual Mahlerian extravaganza, Douglas Boyd and the Manchester Camerata play Erwin Stein's chamber music reduction of Mahler's Fourth Symphony. This unique recording brings the listener sonically right into the midst of the small ensemble, and the reduced arrangement only serves to underscore the chamber-like quality of Mahler's part-writing.


Mahler: Symphonie No.5
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein

CDs: 1
Tracks: 5

Decca International
Rel. 24 Aug 2010

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Symphony 5 in C#-

This live recording is an essential performance of what is perhaps Mahler's most popular symphony. The Funeral March, though played rather slowly, is shattering in its impact. And the famous Adagietto is taken as written (not too slowly) and is somehow all the more moving as a result.


Mahler: Symphonie No.5
Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan

CDs: 1
Tracks: 5

Decca International
Rel. 17 Aug 2010

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Herbert von Karajan could essentially conduct anything he essayed, and although he is not necessarily well known as a Mahlerian, fans of the great conductor will enjoy this excellent performance as an alternative to the more emotive Bernstein school.


Mahler: Symphonie No. 6; Kindertotenlieder
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein

CDs: 2
Tracks: 9

Decca International
Rel. 17 Aug 2010

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Symphony 6 in A- (‘Tragic’)

From the menacing, biting opening bars of Mahler's "Tragic" symphony, to the sumptuous slow movement and the harrowing finale with its "hammer blows" of fate, nothing else quite equals Bernstein's Vienna performance for sheer drama, power and terror. Thomas Hampson's accompanying account of the Kindertotenlieder is almost unbearably moving.


Mahler: Symphonie No.6
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Pierre Boulez

CDs: 1
Tracks: 4

Decca International
Rel. 17 Aug 2010

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Pierre Boulez's cool, forward-looking modernist approach to this symphony contrasts directly with Bernstein's emotional thrill ride, but for many this is one of the finest of all Mahler performances. This was the great conductor-composer's first recording in his Mahler cycle for Deutsche Grammophon, and remains one of the best selling orchestral recordings of all time, and a favorite of critics.


Mahler: Symphony No. 6
Berlin Philharmonic, Claudio Abbado

CDs: 1
Tracks: 5

Decca International
Rel. 24 Aug 2010

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This Gramophone-award winning performance from the great Italian conductor Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic strikes, for many, the ideal balance between dramatic urgency on the one hand, and refined grace on the other.


Mahler: Symphony No.7
New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein

CDs: 1
Tracks: 19

Sony Classical
Rel. 14 Jul 1998

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Symphony No.7 in E- (‘Song of the Night’)

Bernstein's 1960s era New York reference recording of what is considered one of Mahler's more challenging symphonies makes musical (and moreover dramatic) sense where many other recordings struggle.


Mahler: Symphony No. 7
London Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas

CDs: 2
Tracks: 5

RCA Red Seal
Rel. 14 Sep 1999

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Michael Tilson Thomas's Seventh Symphony provides a modern alternative to Bernstein's classic New York recording, with the London Symphony Orchestra captured in the ideal acoustic of London's Walthamstow Town Hall.


Mahler: Symphony No.8
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Georg Solti

CDs: 1
Tracks: 16

Decca International
Rel. 24 Aug 2010

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Symphony No.8 in Eb (‘Symphony of a Thousand’)

Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand" receives the famous "Decca sound" treatment on this reference recording from the 1970s. The cast of singers could not be better, and the fervor of the opening chords signals from the start that this is a very big recording of a very big piece of music.


Mahler: Symphony No. 8 in Eb; Adagio from Symphony No. 10
San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas

CDs: 2
Tracks: 17

San Francisco Symphony
Rel. 25 Aug 2009

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Although not without controversy, this recording remains an extraordinary modern tour-de-force for Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony.


Mahler: Symphony No. 9
Berlin Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein

CDs: 1
Tracks: 4

Deutsche Grammophon
Rel. 26 Jan 2010

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Symphony No.9 in D

Bernstein famously likened the irregular rhythms of the opening of Mahler's Ninth Symphony to the irregular beat of the composer's ailing heart. Many have said that the rhythms in Bernstein's performances of Mahler's final completed symphony are exaggerated somewhat (perhaps to illustrate this comparison) but this remains a gorgeous, moving recording.


Mahler: Symphony No.9, Kindertotenlieder, Rückert-Lieder
Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan

CDs: 2
Tracks: 14

Decca International
Rel. 17 Aug 2010

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There are actually two great recordings of Karajan's Mahler Ninth with the Berlin Philharmonic; this one (the earlier performance from 1979-80) has the added benefit of Christa Ludwig singing Mahler's five settings of Rückert Lieder.


Mahler: Symphony No.9
San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas

CDs: 2
Tracks: 4

San Francisco Symphony
Rel. 12 Apr 2005

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Gramophone magazine called Michael Tilson Thomas's recording of the Ninth "one of lyrical radiance”; one of the finest modern recordings of this work.


Mahler: Symphony No. 10
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly

CDs: 1
Tracks: 5

Decca International
Rel. 24 Aug 2010

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Symphony No.10

Mahler's Tenth was never completed by the composer himself, and although some conductors have chosen to record only what Mahler finished (the Adagio), British musicologist Deryck Cooke's completed version is gaining credibility as a work in its own right. Many consider Riccardo Chailly's the best played and best recorded of Mahler/Cooke's Tenth.


Mahler: Symphony No.10 - A Performing Version by Deryck Cooke
SWR Baden-Baden and Freiburg Symphony Orchestra, Michael Gielen

CDs: 1
Tracks: 5

SWR Classic
Rel. 1 Jan 2000

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Michael Gielen passionately believes in Cooke's edition of Mahler's Tenth, and here lays out one of the most compelling cases for it on record with this critically-acclaimed interpretation.


Mahler: Lieder
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Pierre Boulez

CDs: 1
Tracks: 14

Decca International
Rel. 24 Aug 2010

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Kindertotenlieder, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen ('Songs of a Wayfarer'), Rückert Lieder

This recording celebrating Boulez's 80th birthday in 2005 brings together three of the finest of today's Mahler singers performing three of his most famous song cycles. The clarity of Boulez's way with Mahler, as well as truly fabulous playing from the Vienna Philharmonic, creates a sound world for these songs unique among modern orchestral recordings of these works.


Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Berlin Philharmonic, Claudio Abbado

CDs: 1
Tracks: 13

Decca International
Rel. 17 Aug 2010

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Das Knaben Wunderhorn

Mahler's most well-known song cycle is here brought to life by three of his most distinguished modern interpreters: Anne Sofie von Otter, Thomas Quasthoff, and Claudio Abbado, gloriously accompanied by the Berlin Philharmonic.


Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Kathleen Ferrier

CDs: 1
Tracks: 9

Decca International
Rel. 24 Aug 2010

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Das Lied von der Erde

Bruno Walter was Mahler's apprentice and was a passionate advocate of his music, with first-hand knowledge of his intentions. This 1952 mono recording of Mahler's real "last symphony" is not to be missed, if for no other reason than for the "Farewell" of the great Kathleen Ferrier.


Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Pierre Boulez

CDs: 1
Tracks: 6

Decca International
Rel. 24 Aug 2010

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This is perhaps the most gorgeously recorded and played Das Lied, with Boulez and the Vienna Philharmonic shining in their support for singers Violetta Urmana and Michael Schade. This is an award-winning recording, and a fitting modern alternative to the classic Bruno Walter mono recording from the 1950s.



 
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