My favorite things Austria — Gustav Mahler

Let’s cut to the chase:

1. Symphonies #1, 5,  and 7 are dominated assets, the latter two being too sprawling.  #8 is meant to be seen live, and #10 isn’t Mahler’s finished version.  #4 is attractive, but somewhat lightweight.

2. #2 requires a very good recording, my favorite is Stokowski with the London Symphony Orchestra, even though he changes the score.  If you can’t find that, try Abbado or Levine, both of those two being good default choices for Mahler.  Those two conductors are also good choices for #3, another symphony in the Mahler pantheon.

3. #6 is the most nerve-wracking and insane and requiring of full volume.  I’m still looking for the perfect recording of that one, sometimes I like Barbirolli.

4. #9 is the best music, I recommend von Karajan.

5. Pierre Boulez offers an alternative perspective on any of these symphonies, plus he has one of the very best Das Lied von der Erde recordings, that song cycle being part of the canon of essential Mahler works.

6. The quality of your listening conditions is especially important for Mahler.  And during any listen a) try to spot the Austrian folk tunes, and b) think of Mahler as one of the greatest opera conductors, including for Mozart, of his time.

7. A short piano piece by Mozart, as a palate cleaner, sounds especially good after a Mahler symphony.

That’s what you need to know.


" #4 is attractive, but somewhat lightweight."
(eye roll)
You can't make this shit up...

I've long had a soft spot for Levine's recording of Cooke's completion of #10

The best is symphony #3

Yep. I got to see a performance a few months ago and it was wonderful.

I agree. I attended a performance at Tanglewood years ago - great experience. As a bonus, the music is used in the film of Death in Venice with Dirk Bogard.

The music from Death in Venice is the Adagietto to the 5th Symphony (the 5th is every bit as great as the 3rd, BTW).

Sorry, the 3rd was in it as well, although I don't recall where.

Mahler justifies the audiophile sound system.

PS. It is rare to find great recordings that permit the soft moments to shine as well as the ear-shattering climaxes.


Mahler, now we're really getting to the composers that are head-and-shoulders above Haydn.

I am still waiting for Tyler to mention the sachertorte...

The Sachertorte is heavyweight but overrated.

"4. #9 is the best music, I recommend von Karajan." coincidentally, #12 on is GM Karjakin.

Or Alma. My favorite Austrian.

Why do I get the feeling that all these book and music commentaries are written after one listen, twenty minute skim reads, or a glance at a Wikipedia article?

Because they are!

Will you be covering major Japanese composers after your next visit to Tokyo?

On my bucket list: to play principle trumpet on the Mahler's 1st symphony, last movement especially. It rocks!

I totally agree about seeing #8 live. I have seen it on two occasions and it's truly an experience. Best recording of Das Lied von der Erde is Bruno Walter's 1952 recording with Julius Patzak and Kathleen Ferrier. Patzak has the necessary heft in his voice to do justice to the three tenor songs and Ferrier's "Abscheid" is a portent that her life would soon end. The final "ewigs" are limpid and bring tears to one's eyes.

Ok, first off, that you can list off 7 points about great Mahler recordings and not mention Bernstein once is frankly embarrassing (doing the same for Haydn was also wrong, although almost excusable, since Bernstein's genius as a Haydn interpreter is less well known).

Mahler 6: Mitropoulos (New York or Cologne, although the New York one is superior). Not the greatest sound quality, but the performance is the one to beat (his Salzburg Don Giovanni is also among the best).

Levine is solid in Mahler, but Abbado is spotty at best (though his Mahler 3 was rather good). Again, Bernstein. And why Kubelik's live Bavarian accounts on Audite aren't better known (and in broader circulation) I'll never understand.

Hard to argue with Karajan in 9, studio or live.

Finally, in case it wasn't clear: Bernstein.

I was told by a musician that Bernstein is the best Mahler conductor.

Bernstein understood tempo nearly perfectly (although he was a little too sperged out to fully communicate that knowledge to everyone in the orchestra), he understood musical architecture a la Mahler almost as well as Mahler himself (maybe better, Mahler had a little bit of imposter syndrome in his composer heart, which almost kept him from starting on that remarkable series of symphonies), and - (back to Bernstein) never having heard him live, I still believe this: he understood sound qua sound almost as well as a human can, which is a sine qua non for the best Mahler conducting. Big problem, though: Bernstein did not understand human emotion the way most humans understand it. Now that is not a failing for a creative artist - Tolstoy, for example, knew less about women than the average Fox News Channel viewer of today, but Leo still could create fairly interesting female characters because he had a passion for simulating creativity, which sometimes - not often, but sometimes - lapped over the sides of the pool to make the cement around the pool wet, and in that way we believe that some, at least, of his female characters walked on the wet cement along the swimming pool, in the way real women do - but for an interpretive artist ---- not knowing human emotions the way most humans know them --- well, elitist or not, either you get what I am trying to say or you don't. That being said, if I were a conducting teacher, I would be very proud to have L. Bernstein as a former student: but I would look elsewhere for a conductor of Mahler. (I am a huge fan of Mitropoulos, by the way: and in an ideal world I would have heard Copland, a good conductor, with any of what we used to call the Big Five ( a superannuated term, but with nostalgic tones for some of us), performing any Mahler symphony. I could be wrong, of course - I have heard Copland conduct (amazing!) live, but not Bernstein, and maybe too much is lost in the recording process for those, like me, who are not really the most gifted amongst the aficionados.

To be fair, anyone capable of properly conducting a Mahler symphony is also capable of composing really good music on his or her own, so they probably would decline an offer to conduct even their favorite Mahler symphony. I guess the best we can do is listen to one of the less pedestrian conductors and try to imagine the music being conducted in a better way. I am sorry to be so critical but, as Chopin said, music is, for the vast majority of mankind, simply a language that they do not speak well. (And, to be fair to conductors, even most composers, even famous ones, did not really like music as much as they should have. Which is sad, but true.)

Regarding Mahler as an Austrian, he is reported to have once said that he was "a Czech among Austrians, an Austrian among Germans, and a Jew throughout the world." Those folk tunes are more Bohemian and Moravian than Austiian. While he spent serious time in Vienna, he ended up in New York, hounded out of his conductor position at the Staatsoper by anti-Semitism, even though he was technically a Christian.

My own fave is #3, which was the most admired of his symphonies in his lifetime, if somewhat less so by modern critics and audiences.

Of the three composers Tyler has chosen only Haydn is "Austrian" in the modern sense. Mozart was from Salzburg, which was then a Church governed city state in the Holy Roman Empire, not a Habsburg dominion. Culturally Mozart felt himself "German", in an age when language mattered more than ethnicity. He was no more (or less) Austrian than Beethoven.

Mahler ruined classical music. When he was director of the opera in Vienna, he banned the parties in opera boxes, requiring that patrons consume their wine and food in special areas set aside for that, during his new invention of intermission. This changed classical music from being the pop music of the era to being a refined art experience, resulting in its relentless decline.

Interesting, I did not know that. Being a fan of Mahler's music its a pity if this is true.

Candidate for the most Tyler snub ever: "#3, another symphony in the Mahler pantheon."

Best Mahler 6 is the live 2004 Abbado/Berlin recording...

Tyler, did you happen to catch the NSO performing the second symphony back in June?

The song cycles are wonderful, especially Songs of a Wayfarer.

Do not forget Das Lied von der Erde. (My favorite recording is with Jascha Horenstein.)

aka, Mahler's 9th Symphony; that is, his attempt to escape Beethoven's curse by calling it a "symphony," although since he still died after the one actually numbered as the 9th, he appears to have failed.

Not sure what is meant by calling 1, 5, and 7 "dominated assets." They are all indisputably great Mahler, and therefore indisputably great, period.

I've really enjoyed your comments on all these music threads. On your recommendation in the Haydn thread, I picked up the Jochum set of the London Symphonies and have been enjoying it immensely.

Thanks. I do find that I tend to agree (often independently) with David Hurwitz of, especially on matters Austrian. Hurwitz ranks Jochum and Bernstein (and Szell) as pretty much the pinnacle of big-band Haydn interpretation, and I see no reason to disagree.

If you love Haydn, or music generally, my go-to recommendation invariably boils down to one word: Szell. Never made a bad record, and made mostly great ones (stunning Beethoven). As we're on Mahler, Szell recorded only the 4th and the 6th, as far as I'm aware, but they are both marvellous accounts (his Mahler 4th in particular, which to many is THE Mahler 4th).

This is music that, approaching 70, I seldom listen to - but still carry around with me.

For 9, I must hold for Giulini/Chicago. I don't find 4 lightweight at all - but a laid back performance, like that of Haitink/Concertgebouw, serves it well. And, yes, Abbado has the measure of 2 - although many conductors handle this piece well.

I think we would appreciate 1 more if Shostakovitch hadn't riffed it so unmercifully. But I remember languid-yet-tight live performances by Eschenbach/Cleveland that were revelatory.

The thing is, most Mahler symphonies have movements in them we would not want to be without: the internal movements of 3 and 5 and 7 are wonderful; the opening torso of 10 is electrifying (what George Szell, who did not like Mahler, could do with "that chord" at the climax!).

But what about comparisons? Is there any Mahler symphony as consistent and compelling, say, as a Brahms trio or quartet? I would say that 9 reaches these heights.

Thanks for the post. TB

Mahler 3 by Pierre Boulez and the Wiener philharmonic orchestra in my view is one of the very best recordings out there. Give it a try and let me know if you agree, I can only recommend it.

Thank for the post, please more of this

Probably Leonard Bernstein's best recording of a Mahler symphony is of the 2nd, which especially suits him, although the classic by Otto Klemperer with the Philharmonia Orchestra gives him a serious run for the money.

The best of Tyler's fave, the 9th, is by Jascha Horenstein with the Vienna Philharmonic, appropriately enough.

A really fine Das Lied von der Erde is the fairly recent James Levine with the Berlin Philharmonic with Jessye Norman as soprano.

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