Change of the Guard
In the century following his death, Mahler’s symphonies made an increasingly triumphant journey from the fringes of the repertoire to the centre. Initially progress was slow: Mahler had his early champions, but the unwieldy lengths and practical demands of the symphonies – from choirs and vocal soloists to mandolins and giant hammers – made them unsuited to less-ambitious concert programmes. It was in the 1960s that Mahler’s music started to achieve greater popular success. Through the advocacy of conductors such as Bernard Haitink and Rafael Kubelik in Europe and Leonard Bernstein and Maurice Abravanel in the United States, the symphonies were presented to audiences more receptive to the scale of Mahler’s conception.
In the decades that followed, a new generation of conductors emerged – including Claudio Abbado, Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa and Giuseppe Sinopoli – for whom Mahler was as central to the canon as Brahms or Schumann, and whose careers as recording artists involved at least one full cycle of the symphonies. Nor has Mahler lost his hold on the concert hall in the early decades of the twenty-first century. His symphonies are still programmed frequently, and receive wildly diverse readings not just from old masters, but from the subsequent generation of younger conductors who have grown up with Mahler as an unquestioned fixture of the musical pantheon.
The passing of the baton from one generation to the next is very much the theme of the new Mahler box set from Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings. Following the approach introduced on their recent Bruckner box, each symphony is entrusted to a different conductor (almost: Gustavo Dudamel and Sir Simon Rattle both conduct two) with the Berlin Philharmonic as the sole constant. It is the choice of conductors, however, that gives the box its thematic coherence: the first six symphonies are handled by an assortment of younger talents – Gustavo Dudamel, Daniel Harding, Andris Nelsons, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra’s new chief conductor Kirill Petrenko – while the final four are given performances by established Mahler veterans: Sir Simon Rattle, Claudio Abbado and Bernard Haitink.
As with previous releases, the recordings are drawn from live performances over the past ten years: the earliest is from 2011, the most recent from 2020, just before the lockdown brought a temporary halt to musical life in Berlin. And as one might expect from such a varied roster of conductors, the performances are highly self-contained and the set as a whole is marked by its plurality of interpretive voices. There is enough stylistic diversity on display here that most listeners will almost certainly find something to like; yet there are also two performances – Andris Nelsons’ mighty take on Second Symphony and Bernard Haitink’s harrowing vision of the Ninth – that demand to be heard by any serious Mahler enthusiast.
With the exception of the Second, the first half of the box is notable for the ease and suavity of the performances. Daniel Harding’s take on the First is elegant where it needs to be, even if it also sometimes errs in the direction of elegance in moments that demand a more impulsive manner: the sprightliness of the second movement feels too carefully cultivated, and in the third movement all hints of grotesquery have been buffed to a pleasing smoothness. Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s performance of the Fourth offers a similar level of refinement, but is more engaging, especially in the central movements. If the lightness of the opening seems slightly mannered, as though played by a very large chamber orchestra, Mr Nézet-Séguin soon drops his detached pose, teasing out the subtle strangenesses in the second movement, and achieving something close to an epic sweep in the third.
Gustavo Dudamel, who conducts the Third and Fifth symphonies, gives the impression of being wholly unfazed by two of Mahler’s more volatile symphonies. He has clearly devoted great attention to finding the measure and pace of each work, but he has done so to create the illusion of an effortless performance. Indeed it is rare to hear a Fifth that sounds quite so assured, as though the architectural complexities were no greater than those of a symphony by Haydn or Mozart. Yet if Mr Dudamel has gone to great lengths to conceal the immense effort of his interpretation, he has done so at the expense of some of the danger that can make the symphony so thrilling. There is nothing out of place: the stormy opening movements resolve into the largely genial mood of the second half; the Adagietto is beautiful but never overstated, the Finale is unerringly joyous.
Mr Dudamel’s Third proceeds with similar assurance, keeping the episodes of the opening movement within a well-considered plan, and infusing the slow build of the finale with nobility and poise. Both the Third and Fifth are models of good judgement and, as with Rafael Kubelik’s refined recordings from the early seventies, they make light work of thorny scores; for new listeners, they could easily serve as ideal introductions to potentially intimidating works, even if those listeners are certain to discover greater emotional depths as they begin to investigate further.
It is Andris Nelsons who delivers the stand-out performance of the first half. His reading of the Second offers a direct line to the mysteries at the heart of that great work, omitting none of the emotional extremes while holding everything together with the deft touch of a master. One is rarely (if ever) aware of mannerism or exaggerations in dynamic or tempo. The opening movement is gripping but unforced – the pacing always leaves room for excursions into the quiet darkness – and the long finale makes a compelling journey from anguish to ecstasy. Since the advent of the long playing record there have been dozens of good recordings (and a handful of great ones) of this symphony, and most listeners will have their own selection of personal favourites; despite the strong competition, Mr Nelsons has given us a new performance to stand with the best of them.
Kirill Petrenko was supposed to conduct the Sixth as his first concert after being named the new chief conductor, but illness forced the concert to be postponed. When Mr Petrenko finally performed the symphony in January of 2020, he had been in his post for two seasons, and the rapport between orchestra and conductor is apparent in the recording. The first movement and the Scherzo are energetic without being overly brisk while the slow movement – performed here in the number two slot – is unexpectedly lyrical. Only in the Finale is there a sense that Mr Petrenko is driving the music forward without delving fully into the heightened states and violent mood swings that can make a great performance so devastating; yet he creates enough excitement on his own terms that one rarely notices.
Sir Simon Rattle embraced Mahler early in his career – there are many who hold his Birmingham recordings in high regard – and ended his tenure as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic with the Sixth (the concert was released on Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings around two years ago); it is appropriate that he should appear twice on this box. His Eighth, however, is oddly disjointed, a collection of brilliant moments held together by long stretches of uncertain mood. In the second movement especially one longs for a greater sense of narrative drive. The Seventh, still perhaps the most undervalued of Mahler’s symphonies, is considerably more focussed. The two ‘Night Music’ movements are delightful even if they are ultimately too boisterous to come across as genuinely nocturnal; and in the two outer movements and the central Scherzo, Sir Simon’s urgent pacing is matched with a sense of grand proportion to dispel any notion of the symphony as one of Mahler’s ‘lesser’ offerings.
The box concludes with two exceptional performances from two masters. Bernard Haitink was 88 when he conducted Mahler’s Ninth in one of his final guest appearances with the Berlin Philharmonic, and in the preceding years he had delivered autumnal performance of late works by Bruckner (the Ninth), Schubert (the Unfinished) and Mahler (Das Lied von der Erde). However there was nothing elegiac in his defiant reading of the Ninth, which has been preserved here. Although the performance stretches to a full hour and a half, there are few moments of aimlessness; indeed there is such concentrated anxiety and unrelenting force in the first three movements, that one is grateful for any moments of reprieve. There is a lack of calm in Mr Haitink’s conception that is perceptible even in the opening, but that increases as the orchestra bites into the heavy-footed Ländler, and reaches its peak in a dizzying third movement that derives its power less from velocity than single-mindedness. Only in its relatively tranquil final moments does it reach a state of hard-won grace.
The final performance, of the opening movement from the incomplete Tenth symphony, comes from one of Claudio Abbado’s last guest appearances with the orchestra, and it leaves us in no doubt that we are in the presence of one of the great Mahler interpreters. Mr Abbado is neither glib nor emotive – there is no sense of restraint or indulgence – yet in the span of a mere twenty-five minutes he conjures the full spectrum of Mahler’s world, from the presiding gloom to the glimmers of foolish hope that flash beneath the surface. His mastery is apparent not only in his ability to render the movement’s shifts in mood with the greatest subtlety, but to make those shifts sound like the essential consequence of everything that has come before.
As with previous Berliner Philharmoniker releases, the packaging is excellent: the ten CDs are accompanied by four Blu-Ray discs containing HD video performances from the Digital Concert Hall, and the discs are packaged together with a generous booklet in a long hardcover box. The cover art, by Robert Longo, features a charcoal drawing of the earth as seen from space, a reminder of Mahler’s own claim that a symphony should contain the whole world. Between the eight conductors, the box provides us with a prismatic view of the symphonic world that Mahler sought to create, illustrating its delights and terrors while reminding us that no single guide can show us everything this particular world has to offer.