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

Mahler: Symphonies Nos. 1-9; Adagio
SWR Baden-Baden and Freiburg Symphony Orchestra, Michael Gielen

CDs: 13
Tracks: 56

SWR Classic
Rel. 1 Jan 2000

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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: Symphonies Nos. 1-9; Adagio
SWR Baden-Baden and Freiburg Symphony Orchestra, Michael Gielen

CDs: 13
Tracks: 56

SWR Classic
Rel. 1 Jan 2000

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Mahler Collections

This is a perfect set for those who want all of the symphonies in one click, in outstanding quality of sound, performance and musicality. Michael Gielen's approach places Mahler firmly between the 19th and the 20th centuries, looking backward to the great Austro-German symphonic tradition and also influenced by the rapidly changing artistic, social, and sound world of the 20th century. Critics have acclaimed this set as a revolution in Mahler, listenable yet filled with color, excitement, clarity and interpretive daring.


Mahler: Symphony No.1 in D; Ives: Central Park in the Dark; The Unanswered Question
SWR Baden-Baden and Freiburg Symphony Orchestra, Michael Gielen

CDs: 1
Tracks: 6

SWR Classic
Rel. 1 Jan 2000

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Symphony 1 in D (‘Titan’)

Gielen may be one of the most underrated interpreters of Mahler, and this thrilling performance of Mahler's opening essay in symphonic form makes one of his most accessible pieces sound newly adventurous for both the Mahler expert and the neophyte.


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.


Klaus Tennstedt was a great Mahlerian, particularly in the concert hall, and this barnstorming recording of the "Resurrection" from February 1989 is from the London Philharmonic's own label, made in London's Royal Festival Hall at an acclaimed live performance.


Mahler Symphony No.3
New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert

CDs: 1
Tracks: 6

New York Philharmonic
Rel. 29 Mar 2010

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Symphony 3 in D-

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.


Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.3; Schubert: Rosamunde; Anton Webern: Six Pieces for Orchestra
Michael Gielen

CDs: 2
Tracks: 17

SWR Classic
Rel. 1 Jan 2007

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Michael Gielen makes the most of the avant-garde aspects of this symphony, as well as the sounds of the natural world, sometimes comforting, sometimes frightening.


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.


Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.5
SWR Baden-Baden and Freiburg Symphony Orchestra, Michael Gielen

CDs: 1
Tracks: 5

SWR Classic
Rel. 1 Jan 2000

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Symphony 5 in C#-

The Fifth is perhaps Mahler's most popular symphony, and Gielen approaches it cleanly and clearly, with flowing tempi and a sense of real joy in the most optimistic passages.


Mahler: Symphony No.6
San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas

CDs: 2
Tracks: 4

San Francisco Symphony
Rel. 5 Feb 2002

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Symphony 6 in A- (‘Tragic’)

Michael Tilson Thomas's excellent San Francisco recording of Mahler's Sixth Symphony was recorded not long after the attacks of September 11th, 2001, and was the first to be released on the orchestra's new in-house label, SFS Media. This is the definitive modern recording of Mahler's most tragic symphony, made at a particularly poignant and resonant moment in history.


Mahler: Symphony No.7
San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas

CDs: 1
Tracks: 5

San Francisco Symphony
Rel. 11 Oct 2005

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

Michael Tilson Thomas is one of the very few conductors today who can make narrative sense of one of Mahler's most challenging symphonies. This recording is excellent and the playing of the San Francisco Symphony is sparkling.


Mahler: Symphonies Nos. 1-9; Adagio
SWR Baden-Baden and Freiburg Symphony Orchestra, Michael Gielen

CDs: 13
Tracks: 56

SWR Classic
Rel. 1 Jan 2000

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

Gielen's is an outstanding and modern Mahler Eighth, that emphasizes optimism and joyful spirituality.


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
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert

CDs: 1
Tracks: 4

BIS
Rel. 8 Sep 2009

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Symphony No.9 in D

There are many outstanding recordings of Mahler's last full-length symphony, and Alan Gilbert's recording in Stockholm is one of the best of the modern ones, with well-recorded sound from the master engineers at BIS.


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 - 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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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. 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.


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

This 1992 radio recording from Cologne captures the young Thomas Quasthoff in one of his earliest Mahler recitals - a real treat that can either be an excellent first entry point into the world of Mahler song cycles, or a rare gem for the experienced collector.


Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas

CDs: 1
Tracks: 6

San Francisco Symphony
Rel. 9 Sep 2008

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Das Lied von der Erde

This is another great installment of the San Francisco Mahler series, featuring his last "symphony" and the stunning "Farewell" as sung by that great Mahlerian, baritone Thomas Hampson.



 
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