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“Mahler: 10 Symphonies”
Gustav Mahler: Symphony n° 1 in D major “Titan” – Symphony n° 2 in C minor “Resurrection” – Symphony n° 3 in D minor – Symphony n° 4 in G major – Symphony n° 5 in C-Sharp minor – Symphony n° 6 in A minor “Tragic” – Symphony n° 7 in E minor – Symphony n° 8 in E-Flat major – Symphony n° 9 in D minor – Symphony n° 10 (fragment)

Martina Arroyo (soprano), Franz Crass (bass), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Donald Grobe (tenor), Julia Hamari (mezzo), Edith Mathis (soprano), Elsie Morison (soprano), Norma Procter (contralto), Erna Spoorenberg (soprano), Marjorie Thomas (contralto), The Bavarian Women's Choir, The Bavarian Radio Choir, Wolfgang Schubert, Josef Schmidhuber (chorus master), Tölzer Boys’ Choir, Gerhard Schmidt (chorus master), North German Radio Choir, Helmut Franz (chorus master), West German Radio Choir, Herbert Schernus (chorus master), Regensburg Cathedral Boys’ Choir, Christoph Lickleder (chorus master), Women from the Munich Motet Choir, Hans Rudolf Zöbeley (chorus master), Eberhard Kraus (organist), The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Kubelík (conductor)
Recording: Herkulessaal and Deutschesmuseum, Munich, Germany (1967-1971) – 660'54
Deutsche Grammophon 00289 483 5656 [10 CDs + 1 Blu ray audio disc] (Distributed by Universal Music) – Booklet notes and texts in English, German and French

In 2018 Deutsche Grammophon issued a set of 64 CDs plus 2 DVDs of music conducted by the Czech conductor Rafael Kubelík (1914-1996.) This 10 CD box set is taken from it. Note that it is titled Mahler 10 Symphonies, not Mahler Complete Symphonies as it omits Das Lied von der Erde, described when published as a symphony but never given a number. Kubelík performed it during his stint with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (BRSO) (1961-79), but he never recorded it for Deutsche Grammophon. These performances were recorded from 1967 to 1971, nine of them in the Herkulessaal of Munich’s Residenz, then the home of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Symphony n° 8 was recorded at the city’s Deutschesmuseum.

The package is a nifty delight, with each disc in in a sleeve with a different motif from the works of Mahler’s contemporary Gustav Klimt. The same artist’s works adorned the covers of the LPs when they were originally issued.

After some consideration, I have given it three, not four, crotchets. The performances are terrific with a distinctive energy level and the recording is state-of-the-art of its day. More recent recordings, however, such as those of the San Francisco Symphony on its own label, manage to give a more immersive listening experience. Many listeners will not find this important and might even find the more recent attempts artificial. (Of course recordings are artificial - this is a big topic.)

Symphony n° 1 “Titan”
It is only in this symphony that Kubelík does something that confounds me, and it only concerns two notes. The work opens with a mysterious floating drone on the strings, then a simple motif of two descending notes played by woodwinds. After the lengthy sonic adventure, the same motif concludes the work, this time played by the full orchestra; the score calls for fff (i.e., fortissimo), but in this case, it is played a delicate piano if not pianissimo. Thus, it ends not with a bang but a whimper. I have heard the work played several times under various conductors and have consulted several recordings, and they all play these notes very declaratively. This is the only moment in the whole set where I question a choice made. There must be a good reason why Kubelík made this choice but I cannot find it.

Symphony n° 2 “Resurrection”
Kubelík really brings out the excitement in the work as it builds toward its great finale. Contralto Norma Procter and soprano Edith Mathis are both ideal, as is the Bavarian Radio Choir (Wolfgang Schubert, chorus master.) The sound on my copy of the CD breaks up at a crucial moment in the final movement, but the audio-only Blu-ray disc is fine.

Symphony n° 3
I have lost patience with performances of this work when the final movement ("Langsam", or "Slowly") can seem to drift aimlessly. Here and in similar lengthy slow passages Kubelík manages to give full expression while maintaining a sense of structure and momentum. Contralto Marjorie Thomas is splendid, as are the Bavarian Radio Women’s Choir (Wolfgang Schubert, chorus master) and the Tölzer Boys’ Choir (Gerhard Schmidt, chorus master).

Symphony n° 4
Mahler’s gentlest symphony gets full loving treatment. The soloist in the final movement is Australian soprano Elsie Morison who had a flourishing career in Britain, but she retired from opera when she married Kubelík in 1963. (His first wife, a violinist, had been killed in an auto accident.) If there was nepotism involved with choosing Morison for this piece, her expression of the child’s vision of heaven works just fine.

Symphony n° 5
This work is so very familiar, thanks to the popularity of its fourth Adagietto movement. Here again everything falls into place in a natural way.

Symphony n° 6
This performance brings out the rapturous joy better than any performance I have ever heard live or on record. I am mystified as to why this symphony has ever been called “Tragic”.

Symphony n° 7
This work is Mahler’s outlier, full of unexpected – um – pleasures? surprises? At the end of every performance I have attended (most recently by the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle), I sit there thinking “What was THAT all about?!?” Kubelík’s BRSO performance displays its full weirdness.

Symphony n° 8 “The Symphony of a Thousand”
This recording most likely suffers most in comparison with more recent recording technology. Still, it’s a wonderful performance with a great line-up of singers. The soloists: Martina Arroyo (Magna peccatrix), Erna Spoorenberg (Mater gloriosa), Edith Mathis (Una poenitentium), Julia Hamari (Mulier samaratana), Norma Procter (Maria aegyptiaca), Donald Grobe (Doctor Marianus), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Pater ecstaticus), Franz Crass (Pater profundus).

There were five choirs involved: The Bavarian Radio Choir (Josef Schmidhuber, chorus master), the North German Radio Choir (Helmut Franz, chorus master), West German Radio Choir (Herbert Schernus, chorus master), the Regensburg Cathedral Boys’ Choir (Christoph Lickleder, chorus master), and the women from the Munich Motet Choir (Hans Rudolf Zöbeley, chorus master). And let’s not overlook the organist, Eberhard Kraus.

Symphony n° 9
Some conductors really make a meal of this with its supposed “farewell to life” inner message. Here again, Kubelík brings out the full expressiveness of the work while maintaining proper momentum. [On a personal note: I heard him conduct this work with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1978.]

Symphony n° 10 (fragment)
This "Andante – Adagio" movement comes across as a postscript to the rest. If it’s not a farewell to life, it’s a farewell to Mahler. The recording was made during the era when Deryck Cooke was devising his completion, a process that required several attempts over more than a decade. As far as I can tell, Kubelík never recorded it. The BRSO has done so recently, under Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

The arrival of the LP is credited with helping to widen the audience for Mahler’s lengthy works which had been deemed abstruse and remote while performed by a few torch-bearing conductors for devotees. But now this: the contents of all 10 CDs is also contained on the audio Blu-ray disc: (11 hours and 54 seconds) of music. A non-stop Mahler feast on a modest 12-cm disc. I realize that we also have access to hundreds of versions of Mahler works via downloads, and many listeners are eschewing physical (versus virtual) “product.” For those of us who maintain an attachment to physical product, this collection deserves to be embraced.

Michael Johnson




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