Gielen’s Masterful Mahler Reissued

Gielen Mahler

MICHAEL GIELEN EDITION Vol. 6 / MAHLER: Des Knaben Wunderhorn / Christiane Iven, soprano; Hanno Müller-Brachmann, baritone / Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen / Peter Mattei, baritone / Symphonic movement, “Blumine.” Symphony No. 9 (live performance). Symphonies Nos. 1-10 / Juliane Banse, soprano (2nd Symph); Europe Choir Academy; Cornelia Kallisch, mezzo-soprano (Symphs 2 & 3); Freiburg Cathedral Boys’ Choir (3rd Symph); Christine Whittlesey, soprano; Wolfgang Hovk, violinist (4th Symph); Alessandra Marc, Jane Margaret Wray, Christiane Boesiger, sopranos; Dagmar Pečková, Eugenie Grünewald, mezzo-sopranos; Glenn Winslade, tenor; Anthony Michaels-Moore, baritone; Peter Lika, bass; Aurelius Sängerknaben Chor; Europe Choir Academy (8th Symph) / Kindertotenlieder / Cornelia Kallisch, mezzo-soprano / Rückert-Lieder / Elisabeth Kulman, mezzo-soprano / Das Lied von der Erde / Siegfried Jerusalem, tenor; Cornelia Kallisch, mezzo / SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg; Michael Gielen, conductor / SWR Music 19042CD

With the release of this massive Mahler set, SWR Music sets Michael Gielen alongside such past conducting giants as Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan as among those with the most discs in print. Many Americans who do not live in Cincinnati, where Gielen conducted for several years in the 1980s, and in England, seem not to “get” him very well. I think, to a certain extent, the cosmic meteor that was Klaus Tennstedt tended to overshadow Gielen, but Tennstedt was either hit-or-miss in many of his performances whereas Gielen was “Steady Eddie.” I’ve even read customer reviews of his Mahler Symphony cycle, previously issued by SWR (but with only the “Adagio” from the 10th Symphony, not the whole work) complaining that Gielen was a “cool” interpreter of Mahler, whereas in hearing this complete set I find him among the most exciting and detailed of Mahler conductors. I suppose when your benchmark in Mahler is the hyper-emotional, over-italicized Leonard Bernstein, Gielen does seem a little tame, but then so do Horenstein, Haitink, Chailly, Wit and even Klemperer and Walter, all of whom I admire. As a matter of fact, the only Bernstein Mahler I like are some of his later performances with the Vienna Philharmonic, particularly the Sixth Symphony and Kindertotenlieder.

Since I had to review this set via downloads and streaming audio and didn’t have access to a booklet, I didn’t have any notes for this set. I was, however, fortunate enough to find the following blurb on the internet, which explains some of what we are listening to:

This volume of the Michael Gielen EDITION contains rereleases of Mahler’s Symphonies Nos. 1–10, which have already appeared in individual recordings as well as in a CD boxed set (2004). They were recorded between 1988 and 2003. Gielen avoided the First Symphony until June 2002; at least, no earlier recordings are known. It was the clamour of the finale that bothered him. Nonetheless, he conducted it at the gala concert for his 75th birthday in Freiburg. The recording production followed.

Michael Gielen conducted the Ninth Symphony numerous times, with the earliest recording by the Saarländischer Rundfunk (public broadcaster of the German state of Saarland) in January 1969. The work featured in a concert in Freiburg on June 30, 2003, which Gielen described to a friend as one of the best concerts in his life. Shortly beforehand, he had learned that Lotte Klemperer would not be able to attend this concert because she was on her deathbed. Klemperer’s daughter was one of Gielen’s closest friends and regularly travelled from Zurich to Freiburg for concerts, especially performances of Mahler. This performance of Mahler’s Ninth naturally became Gielen’s farewell gesture for Lotte Klemperer. She died the following day. Asked whether feelings of such a private nature should be published in this booklet, Gielen expressly requested that they should. A few Mahler concerts were televised by the SWR, as was this one. It is included in this box as a bonus DVD [ed. note: available online for free streaming at YouTube]. During the concluding ovation you can see that Gielen is visibly moved, and that he embraces his longtime friend and concertmaster Diego Pagin – a gesture not normally seen from the otherwise reserved Gielen.

For a long time, Gielen considered the Adagio to be the only part of the Tenth Symphony capable of being performed. But the Deryck Cooke version of the symphony subsequently attracted his attention, and he performed it in Cincinnati in January 1986. He decided there was much more of Mahler to be heard here than he had previously believed. The complete recordings of his Mahler symphonies in 2004 included only the Adagio, but this edition now also includes the complete recording of the Deryck Cooke version which was published in 2005. Additionally, the separate releases of the Kindertotenlieder, the Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth) and the Wunderhorn songs with Blumine have found a place in this commemorative edition. Released for the first time here are the Rückert-Lieder and the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen from Gielen’s last performances with the SWR Symphony Orchestra.

Des Knaben WunderhornWe start with the performance of Das Knaben Wunderhorn, somewhat more refined and less peasant-like or boisterous than the famous Wyn Morris recording with Geraint Evans and Janet Baker. Soprano Christiane Iven has a very attractive voice and shades the music well, but she’s no Dame Janet in interpretation. Hanno Müller-Brachmann, on the other hand, has a extraordinarily deep baritone, almost a bass-baritone, and characterizes nearly as well as Evans did, though the voice occasionally spreads under pressure. There are moments when Gielen cuts loose emotionally, which helps the music immensely, and typical of every performance in this set the textural clarity of the orchestra is almost 3-D, revealing a large number of little details that pass unnoticed on others’ recordings. I question, however, Gielen’s sequencing the Wunderhorn songs out of order: 1, 4, 6, 8, 7, 10, 3, 5, 14, 9, 15, 2, 13, 12, thus omitting the 11th song and ending with the “Urlicht” that Mahler re-used in the “Resurrection” Symphony. He also interrupts the sequence in the middle with the rejected “Blumine” movement from the First Symphony, which he takes at a rather quicker and more exciting pace than most conductors. Good performances, but strange programming. (Note: It suddenly struck me that the middle section of “Revelge” was re-used by Alban Berg for Marie’s “Soldaten” song in Wozzeck.)

Mahler 1stThe First Symphony is beautifully phrased and paced, reminding me in places of Bruno Walter’s 1939 performance with the NBC Symphony (the brisk pace of the “wayfarer’s” tune) and in others of Pierre Boulez’ extraordinary recording with the Chicago Symphony (the hushed quietude of the beginning, as if the sun were burning off the morning dew). And even in those soft opening passages, one hears underlying instruments that simply never registered in one’s mind before, particularly the lower winds. Towards the end of the first movement, Gielen’s tempos are a bit unconventional: he holds back a bit just before the French horns burst things open, then pulls back a little just after, increasing the tempo once again in the finale. The second movement is taken at almost as fast a pace and jaunty a style as the old Adrian Boult recording. The “Frêre Jacques” theme in the third movement is also taken slightly quicker than usual, but the entire movement is phrased quite elegantly. Gielen again has his own ideas on which phrases to hold back with rubato and which to play in strict tempo, but it works. If Gielen indeed had early misgivings about the loudness of the last movement, he seems to have overcome them by the time of this recording, because it is tremendously powerful and exciting, as good as I’ve ever heard it, and the lyrical middle section is caressed with great affection. He also holds back ever-so-slightly before jumping into the explosive D major chord in the middle of the movement, and the ensuing slow music is taken very slowly albeit with no lack of underlying emotion. The explosive coda is also surprisingly broad, and again one hears extraordinary clarity of detail. The incredible journey thus begins in splendid fashion.

Mahler 2ndGielen takes the Second Symphony just slow enough that it can’t fit onto a single CD (83:18) but not so slowly that it drags. He does, however, take the opening movement at a measured pace, not as briskly as Otto Klemperer or Zubin Mehta (two of my favorites) but not as slowly as Tennstedt (especially in his live performances), and the second movement is a true Ländler, not the usual drag-it-out-til-it-falls-apart tempo. And again, you hear things in the orchestra that you never noticed in anyone else’s recordings (note the clarinets at 19:45 in the first movement), which is pretty amazing when you consider that digital recording has been around since 1978, nearly 40 years ago. (And consider: digital recording has outlasted every other technical advance in the history of recorded sound. Acoustic recording lasted from 1888—the first private cylinders—until 1926, only 38 years, and the others were barely blips on the radar screen. Boxy electrical recording ran from 1925 through 1944, when both American and German engineers came up with expanded sound capability; high fidelity commercially from 1947 until 1958, although stereo recordings were made experimentally from 1932; and analog stereo commercially from 1954 until 1978, only 24 years.) All in all, I found Gielen’s reading of the first movement the most dramatic in terms of pacing and shaping of all the versions I’ve heard. The third movement is also rather faster than most conductors take it, quicker in fact than Gielen’s own performance of the Wunderhorn song on which it is based (St. Anthony of Padua and the Fishes). Cornelia Kallisch, a good mezzo, excels here in her beautifully-phrased and emotionally heartfelt reading of the “Urlicht” solo, and soprano Juliane Banse, one of my favorite singers, simply soars in her later solo lines in the last movement.

Mahler 3rdThe Third Symphony has often struck me as having some great movements that don’t quite gel together as a symphony. Before hearing this recording, only Jascha Horenstein and Klaus Tennstedt pulled a performance of it off in such a way that it convinced me that all the music belonged together, although this work was also the program for Gielen’s debut concert with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra way back in the 1980s. (The mostly elderly audience at the Friday matinee performance wasn’t much impressed. Somewhere during the sixth movement, an old man sitting behind me called out loudly, “It’s ten after one!” The concert had begun at 11:35 a.m.) The Cincinnati orchestra, not yet as finely tuned to Gielen’s tempos and phrasing as they would become—though they always hated him because he made them work hard—didn’t pull it off quite as well as in this splendid recording with the SWR Symphony, but it was quite good. The first movement here doesn’t quite have the flow that Tennstedt, Solti or Tilson Thomas brought to it; the slow section following the brisk horn opening has more of a steamy, plodding character, as if summer was struggling to arrive under the oppressive and tragic stomp of fate, but once again the orchestra and the incredible engineering bring out some quite stupendous sonic miracles never before heard by human ears. (Did you know there were pizzicato strings behind the horns at the 20-minute mark? I didn’t, because I’d never quite heard them clearly before.) This is truly Mahler in 3-D. Make sure you have your special blue-red goggles on.

Cornelia Kallisch is again our soloist, and although she doesn’t quite come up to the level of Janet Baker with Tilson Thomas, the overall performance of the movements in which she appears is far more interesting as conducted by Gielen. He creates a tremendous atmosphere in the fourth movement particularly with his impressive command of dynamics and transparency of texture, and the last has a great amount of warmth, which is needed to convey “What love tells me.”

Next I reviewed the Kindertotenlieder. which Kallisch also sings. She seems to have been Gielen’s favorite Mahler singer during the years in which he recorded these works. Considering the era, the only other mezzos who could have given more detailed performances, had he been able to hire them, were Vesselina Kasarova or Waltraud Meier, who Tennstedt was fortunate to get for his live Mahler Third. (Mitsuko Shirai would also have been a good choice though she seldom appeared with Mahler-sized orchestras.) But Gielen’s interpretation is again quite different from what you’ve been used to. He takes these sad songs at a fairly brisk clip, certainly faster than Bernstein, Horenstein, Lehel and many other conductors, and again there are details you’ve never noticed before, like the sudden appearance of the low bassoon in “Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n” and “In diesem Wetter.” This is definitely one of my favorite performances of this usually-dreary cycle.

Mahler 4thThe Fourth Symphony is taken at a fairly fast clip as well; in fact, Gielen is the only conductor I’ve ever heard who plays the last movement at nearly the same manic pace as Mahler himself on the old Welte-Mignon piano roll, but his way of accenting the music is entirely original. He also has his own way of bringing out the strangeness and menace of the symphony, but particularly in the first movement doesn’t really equal the unbelievably intense James Levine recording with the Chicago Symphony (his greatest Mahler performance). Then again, no one else really does except Willem Mengelberg in his grossly distended 1941 performance with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Christine Whittlesey has exactly the right boy-soprano-like voice, better than many more famous sopranos on Mahler Fourth recordings.

Mahler 5thThe first movement of the Fifth Symphony is taken mostly very slowly with further touches of rubato to hold back the flow in the lower string passages, returning to primo tempo for the trumpet-brass passages. It reminded me very strongly of Klaus Tennstedt’s great live performance with the New York Philharmonic, my all-time favorite Mahler Fifth. This style brings out the sadness of the music; it’s a “Trauermarsch” that just barely marches at all. The louder passage in the middle is played with an almost unbelievable ferocity, the tempo pushed to the limit. The second movement has bite and drive a-plenty, the music almost exploding in one’s ears. “Grosser Vehemenz,” indeed! Yet this, too, comes in for its share of relaxed tempos and a feeling as if the music is floating, or flowing, without any bar lines. No matter how you listen to it, this is a Mahler Fifth unlike any other. The Scherzo is played in fairly strict tempo with little variation and the famous Adagietto is played sensuously.

Mahler 6thThe Sixth Symphony opens with a very heavy tread but not a fast one; the feeling is more like a sluggish but still threatening force moving towards you. It still has a high degree of menace, but doesn’t sound as if it’s right on top of you as soon as it begins. Think of it as the theme song for the Fascist hate group Antifa. Again Gielen’s phrasing and pacing are unconventional yet interesting and valid, with many rubato touches. It just doesn’t sound like anyone else’s first movement of the Sixth! The opening of the Scherzo is also rather slower and heavier than other conductors take it, and here Gielen’s tempo choice works, I think, particularly well to avoids any hints of superficiality or levity, as some performances inadvertently give it. Indeed, if anything this movement sounds just as eerie and even more grotesque than the first, which is seldom the case. I’ve heard about a dozen Mahler Sixths, including two each by Bernstein and Haitink and one each by Solti, Wit, Levine, Tennstedt, Chailly and Zander, all good in their way but none like this. The third movement, on the other hand, is phrased very much like Haitink’s first recording, a performance I liked very much indeed, except that Gielen increases the tempo a bit when you hear the cowbells. In the last movement Gielen unreels the music like a long spool of thread, letting out little bits or whole handfuls as the spirit moves him. Here his tempos are generally more conventional, but that may be misleading to the listener as he takes some passages slower than normal and others much faster. The SWR Symphony brass here has the snap and bite of an alligator, and for once you can really hear the three hammer blows of fate because the engineers put the hammer and anvil closer to the front than normal. In the last seven minutes of the symphony Gielen builds up the tension to an almost unbelievable height of intensity, riding a tank with a battering ram off into the sunset.

Mahler 7thBy contrast with his performances of the Fifth and Sixth, the Seventh Symphony features surprisingly brisk tempi with an almost continual forward momentum, which helps pull together this rambling score splendidly. Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado were given high marks by well-known critics for their recordings of this work, but to my ears Gielen outdoes them both. There’s a persistent streak of jolliness in his interpretation that I find both apropos and engaging; even the weird orchestration and the tympani outbursts sound more humorous than threatening. Only the Scherzo, long considered one of Mahler’s most menacing, is only somewhat creepy in his reading, though for me it’s creepy enough. I don’t always need to have Mahler give me night sweats. His interpretations of the two Nachtmusik movements are excellent, though to be honest I’ve always felt the second of them was repetitive and superfluous, and the Finale manages to present jollity with an undercurrent of drama—a neat trick.

Mahler 8thThe Eighth Symphony is notorious for the fact that the eight solo singers must all have splendid voices and a virtuoso technique, and most recordings fall flat one way or another. Here, Gielen gets some incredibly fine singing out of Alessandra Marc, an uneven soprano whose vibrato is usually all over the place, and the other two sopranos are fine as well. The problems arise from mezzo-soprano Dagmar Pečková, whose obtrusive flutter-vibrato inflicts her singing in the mid-range, though her high notes are splendid, and tenor Glenn Winslade, who simply sounds uncomfortably tight in his almost consistently high tessitura. Indeed, finding good tenors for the Eighth Symphony is extremely difficult because the score calls for so much singing above the break. To the best of my knowledge Nicolai Gedda never sang it, but his voice would have been ideal. So too would have been Pavarotti. The two best tenors I’ve heard sing it were Eugene Conley with Stokowski and Donald Grobe with Rafael Kubelik. But at least Winslade has a fairly nice-sounding voice, whereas many conductors use “dramatic tenors” who have neither the high range nor a pleasant timbre.

As for the performance itself, it strongly emphasizes the structure of the work, bringing out all the counterpoint and secondary figures that often pass by unheard, rather than the drama. This doesn’t mean that it’s not a splendid performance, because it is, but if you’re looking for heaven-storming angst you’ve come to the wrong picnic. Speaking for myself, this approach is most welcome. I’m not sure if I’ve ever enjoyed the music per se half as much as I did listening to this recording, except possibly on the more exciting live Kubelik performance, and despite the problems that Pečková and Winslade run into the singing is more consistently good here than on the Bernstein, Haitink or Tennstedt recordings. By paying close attention to the work’s structure, Gielen makes it sound more coherent and less of a mess than many of his more famous and excitable rivals. You’ll hear all sorts of little running string, wind and brass figures in the background as you listen, making you scratch your head and wonder why no one else plays it this clearly. Indeed, this is especially important in the oft-sprawling Part 2, where the music can easily sound as if it were rambling and not very coherent. Lorin Maazel’s awful recording is a worst-case example, but even Stokowski let the music sag in the second part and Haitink was not as crystal-clear as this. Surprisingly, Winslade is in much better voice here, singing with both passion and a fine tone—but this music is not as consistently high in his range. Gielen caresses the final section of the symphony with the gentleness of a father tucking his daughter into bed at night. All in all, a wholly remarkable performance. (This, by the way, is Gielen’s second recording of the work. The first was made for Sony Classical back in the 1980s with sopranos Faye Robinson and Margaret Marshall, Ortrun Wenkel as principal alto, tenor Mallory Walker and the Frankfurt Opera House and Museum Orchestra.)

Das Lied von der ErdeI reviewed Das Lied von der Erde next because chronologically it came between the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies. Most critics have praised Gielen and tenor Siegfried Jerusalem, but given short shrift to mezzo Cornelia Kallisch. Although Kallisch doesn’t move me as much as Kerstin Thorborg, Christa Ludwig, Janet Baker, Brigitte Fassbaender or Alice Coote, she is certainly better than many another mezzo in recordings of this work. Her biggest shortcoming is that when she opens up the volume, the voice spreads. Jerusalem surprisingly struggles in the opening of Das Trinklied, and although he recuperates somewhat it’s obvious that he wasn’t in as good voice here as he was on his famous Wagner recordings of the same time (1992). Gielen conducts a sprightly, energetic performance, employing rubato at interesting moments in the score (such as the soft orchestral passage near the end of Von der Jugend). From a conducting standpoint, this is a Das Lied on par with Bruno Walter, Carl Schuricht, Carlos Kleiber and Marc Albrecht, and once again the engineers bring out considerable detail. Jerusalem does a splendid job on Der Trunkene im Frühling, interpreting well and shading the voice beautifully despite a couple of strained high notes. Der Abschied moves at the right pace and again reveals details in the score not normally heard, and it is evident that Gielen is “leading” Kallisch through the piece emotionally. Here her singing is generally well controlled because so much of it is soft, her phrasing is eloquent and although she is a bit detached emotionally she does, as mentioned earlier, a fairly good job. Marc Albrecht’s recording of this work is my top choice among digital recordings, but Gielen’s is more than credible.

Mahler 9thAs for the Ninth Symphony, this is the most difficult of all to pull off well. Walter, Bernstein, Kubelik, Tennstedt and young Haitink all failed. The only three great performances of it I’ve ever heard were Barbirolli, Solti and later Haitink. In Gielen’s commercial recording the soft opening doesn’t quite capture the feeling of complete repose, but as he gets further into the music he is much more emotionally involved, equalling Barbirolli and Solti in intensity. In the second movement Gielen again takes a proper Ländler tempo, except that this time the music is quirkier and a bit grotesque, which he also brings out well, slowing down the tempo for the middle section and employing considerable rubato. He also has considerable fun with the Rondo–Burleske, reveling in the quirky rhythms and harmonies that Mahler laid out like little booby-traps in the score, although the middle part of the movement seemed a bit draggy for my taste. The final Adagio, by contrast, is simply perfect from first note to last in both mood and pace. I felt as if I were riding on a high, slow-moving cloud, coming to land like a phantom parachuter in a dream.

The live Ninth issued on the bonus DVD, as mentioned earlier, was performed while Gielen’s friend Lotte Klemperer lay dying in 2003. It thus has deeply emotional, even painful associations for the conductor. Here Gielen hits the right tone from the start, and the emotion only becomes stronger as the music progresses. Being a live concert and not an engineer-controlled studio recording, there are sonic anomalies not found in the rest of the set, i.e., the roominess of the concert hall which creates a natural reverb around the instruments, which in turn obscures some of the orchestral detail found in the studio version. This is a trade-off, then: a greater performance vs. better clarity of sound. The live performance of the second movement starts off too slowly, yet the slow middle section has a better flow and the whole piece sounds more organic. On the other hand, I preferred the Rondo–Burleske from the studio recording; it moves faster and has more energy. I also preferred the final movement from the studio recording; this one is very nice and heartfelt, but doesn’t have that floating-on-a-cloud feeling. All in all, then, I would take the first movement from this performance and the last three from the studio recording as my ideal Gielen Mahler Ninth.

Mahler 10thGielen’s approach to the Tenth Symphony reminded me very much of the Kurt Sanderling recording of decades ago. It has a bit more passion than Sanderling, however, if not quite as much as the elusive Mark Wigglesworth performance, which was actually given away one month as a bonus CD with BBC Music Magazine. (I actually bought the CD separately from the magazine at Half Price Books back in the early 1990s and still have it in my collection.) The liner notes tell us that Gielen only performed the Adagio from this symphony for many years, until one day he was suddenly convinced that the Deryck Cooke edition of the symphony had much more authentic Mahler than he had previously thought. I’m not sure why it took him so long to come to this conclusion, however, any more than I can understand why Tennstedt never performed the whole symphony either. The evidence is quite clear: Mahler actually did finish the symphony in piano reduction, but only orchestrated the first movement. This puts it much further along than the Schubert Eighth, of which only about 21 bars of the Scherzo were sketched out and only the first eight orchestrated, or Charles Ives’ “Universe” Symphony, later completed and orchestrated by a different hand. The only reason it wasn’t orchestrated and performed earlier than the mid-1960s was because his widow, the famed nymphomaniac Alma Schindler-Mahler-Werfel-Gropius (and boy oh boy, did she Gropius!), refused to let anyone orchestrate the damn thing until she did the world a favor and died in 1963. What I hear in this 2005 Adagio is a conductor who vacillates between a cool, dispassionate reading of the score in the soft passages and emotional intensity in the loud ones. This gives one the feeling that Gielen is creeping up on the music in stages. Perhaps he was trying to make the soft music float with an ethereal quality, as he did in the last movement of the Ninth, but if he was he didn’t quite succeed.

Ah, but this isn’t Gielen’s only version of the Adagio. In 1989 he recorded it as a stand-alone movement on a CD with the Kindertotenlieder and Anton Webern’s Passacaglia and Summer Wind, and this is also in the set. This version is not only tauter and faster (22:15 compared to 24:10), but the emotion is on high intensity from start to finish. This is a great performance of the Adagio, and I’m a bit surprised that Gielen didn’t hear the difference himself and just say to SWR Music, “Go ahead and tack my old Adagio onto the rest of the symphony.”

The rest of the 2005 complete performance is generally better than the opening, although I felt that the first Scherzo could have been a little more manic in tone. My impression of Gielen’s Mahler is that, as he moved deeper into the 21st century, his approach generally tended to be warmer and less edgy. The Purgatorio movement emerges as more humorous and genial than ominous, but the second Scherzo is just perfect in feeling. The finale is played in a relaxed mode, brings out the sadness that Mahler must have felt as he wrote it, knowing that he probably wouldn’t live to hear it performed.

The Songs of a Wayfarer feature the fine voice of Peter Mattei, who sings beautifully but does not characterize the text as well as Hermann Prey with Haitink. He sings loudly, he sings softly, but none of it comes from within. Gielen’s conducting again focuses on clarity of detail but in this case sounds somewhat glib. By contrast, mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Kulman is superb in the Rückert-lieder, singing with both musical sensitivity and a connection to the words. She is, in her own way, as fine as Janet Baker or Christa Ludwig, although Gielen again sounds a bit reserved.

Other complete Mahler sets, even the one by Tennstedt (as fine a Mahler conductor as I’ve ever heard), have uneven performances which, for me, disqualify them as overall recommendations. Except for the last two song cycles noted above, particularly the Songs of a Wayfarer, this one is superb in every respect. Yes, I have favorite performances of each symphony that differ in phrasing and tempo from Gielen’s, but each performance in this set is one I could proudly hold up to people and say, “This is how Mahler should go.” And that’s rare.

Symphony set coverThis set sells online for £62.95 or $81.10. If you consider that this includes 17 CDs plus a bonus DVD with the alternate version of the Ninth—a performance that Gielen considers one of his greatest of all time—it breaks down to $4.50 per disc, surely reasonable for such a treasure trove. (The original boxed set of just the nine symphonies plus the Adagio from the Tenth is selling at Classical Archive as download-only for $99.99.) My only regret is that, for whatever reason, Gielen never chose to perform or record Das Klegende Lied, the only major Mahler work missing here. All in all, this is my benchmark set of the symphonies with fascinating performances of Das Lied and the orchestral song cycles. Now that he is retired, we shall never hear Gielen’s like again. Almost all currently active conductors performing Mahler, with the exception of Marc Albrecht, are pygmies by comparison.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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