Can There Be Too Much Mahler?

‘Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. There are no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving.” This is how Gustav Mahler described his towering Eighth Symphony, nicknamed “The Symphony of a Thousand” for the titanic vocal and orchestral forces deployed during the 1910 Munich premiere.

Gustav Mahler

On Sept. 12, the symphony’s 100th anniversary, Duisburg mounted a “reconstruction” of that legendary first performance. Six symphony orchestras and 25 choruses from the Ruhr Valley (the 2010 European Capital of Culture) participated in the sold-out concert. Lorin Maazel presided over the 1,330 musicians and singers who performed Mahler’s two-movement hybrid of symphony, oratorio and opera inside an engine house in the former ironworks that is today’s Landschaftspark Nord. Germany’s president, Christian Wulff, was among the 2,600 audience members.

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Mahler on Record

The Mahler sesquicentennial is being greeted by a spate of special releases that are some of the most impressive (and affordable) instant Mahler collections ever offered.

Deutsche Grammophon/Decca’s 18-disc set is the most diverse of the lot, with a different conductor for each major work. It contains some of the best recordings, including Leonard Bernstein’s transcendent late recording of the Fifth, and Georg Solti’s roof-raising Eighth, as well as Giuseppe Sinopoli’s shimmering account of the Seventh.

Somewhat less diverse, EMI’s 16-disc bundle is also a stellar choice, with a pronounced English accent. Simon Rattle and John Barbirolli lead the pack with multiple recordings. Highlights include Otto Klemperer’s blistering 1963 recording of the Second (with the Philharmonia Orchestra); Jascha Horenstein’s sensitive Fourth (with the London Philharmonic); and the lieder performed by a smorgasbord of legendary singers.

For those wanting a single-conductor cycle, Deutsche Grammophon has repackaged Bernstein’s late and elegiac Mahler cycle from the 1980s (symphonies only). To hear Bernstein as an enfant terrible, check out his earlier cycle with the New York Philharmonic, now reissued by Sony Classics.

Deutsche Grammophon and Decca are also behind an oddball online stunt. Mahlerians can stream 180 recordings and vote for their favorites. The winners will be released later this year in the boxed set “Mahler—The People’s Edition” (www.mahler150.com).

— A.J. Goldmann

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Mr. Maazel harnessed the copious forces for a polished, fiery and soulful rendition. It was arguably the grandest gesture yet in the world-wide Mahler festivities that kicked off this summer, with the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth, and will last until 2011, the 100th anniversary of his death.

Earlier this summer, Mahler’s birthday was marked in his hometown of Kaliste, Bohemia (the modern-day Czech Republic), with a lavishly produced outdoor concert featuring Thomas Hampson and Anne-Sophie von Otter. Over the next two seasons, Mahler’s symphonies and song cycles will be heard in their entirety in Berlin; Manchester, England; Amsterdam; Munich, Germany; Madrid; and—for the first time—in China.

Stateside, the Mariinsky Orchestra and Valery Gergiev will offer five performances of its Mahler cycle, starting Sunday at Carnegie Hall. But Mahler’s music will also ring out through 2012 in St. Louis, Nashville, Dallas and Minneapolis.

Each Mahler symphony runs at least an hour and requires an unusually large orchestra. Many musicians are given difficult solos, sometimes even scattered around the concert hall. These demands pose a special challenge during this anniversary year. “Great music never suffers at all from being performed beautifully, but just performing a composer more than he had been performed before can actually be a negative,” Mr. Maazel explained backstage after the Duisburg concert. “There is nothing that turns people off more than a mediocre performance,” he noted, “so managers and presenters have to be extremely careful that the music they wish to honor is being performed by people who are worthy of the task.”

Henry-Louis de La Grange, author of a monumental four-volume Mahler biography, strongly disagreed with these sentiments. “I think it couldn’t possibly hurt to hear a lot of Mahler. After so much neglect, he deserves it. And I think it will help many people to understand Mahler even better,” said Mr. de La Grange, 86, speaking by telephone from his home in Paris.

Today we know Mahler as the German-Jewish composer who, straddling the Romantic and Modern eras, produced a powerful and idiosyncratic body of work. But it is easy to forget just how new his popularity is. Not so long ago, a complete Mahler cycle was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Now, the excitement generated by Mahler’s symphonies is attested to not only by the recent spate of concerts and the ever-growing catalog of recordings, but also by numerous recent appreciations from musicians and critics.

Much of his appeal seems to derive from the personal connection that people form to his music, but Mr. Maazel contends that rapturous devotion is out of place. “I’m not a Mahler fanatic. I just happen to love great music, and much of what he wrote is of the highest quality. Those who listen uncritically because they are fanatically involved are again doing a disservice to the music. . . . Not every note that he wrote—and this is true of any composer—is of the same quality.”

For no other composer does biography play such a large role in the reception of his music: from the anti-Semitism he never escaped and his wife’s infidelity, to the death of his daughter and, ultimately, his own demise at age 50. But one needn’t meditate on his biography to connect with music that is at once intensely emotional and sublimely cerebral.

In his lifetime, Mahler’s reputation was as a conductor, at the Vienna Court Opera and, later on, the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. His own compositions—which he wrote in the summers between busy conducting seasons—though well received by audiences, were accused by critics of bombast, kitsch and longwindedness. Despite the efforts of a few conductors who championed his work, his music slipped into obscurity. When the Nazis came to power, they labeled the music degenerate and banned it.

The rehabilitation of Mahler began in 1960, the centenary of his birth. In the U.S. it was spearheaded by Leonard Bernstein, who saw himself as something of a reincarnation of the composer-conductor. Bernstein, the first conductor to record a complete Mahler cycle, often packaged Mahler as a prophet whose music foretold the bloodshed of 20th-century Europe. Thanks largely to Bernstein, Mahler became a mainstay in symphony halls.

The heterodox nature of Mahler’s scores, which contain many musical idioms and quotations, have made them both tantalizing and maddening to audiences. It is typical for a single movement to incorporate military marches, sounds of nature and peasant dances. As Mr. Hampson put it after the Kaliste concert, “Everything he saw, everything he recognized—a look, a sound, a gesture—became music.”

Mahler’s determination to capture life it all its facets makes him one of music’s great humanists. While his work has too often been misconstrued as fatalistic, even his most death-obsessed compositions contain more than a glimmer of redemption. In the face of tragedy and the absurd, his music affirms life.

“He’s not afraid to go deep into our souls, and I think that is something that, in our modern society, speaks to all of us,” said Steven Sloane, who conducts both the Bochum Symphony Orchestra and the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra and also is the artistic director of the Ruhr 2010 European Capital of Culture program.

Mahler strove to find a new musical language for each major work; a similar dedication is required of musicians who aspire to shape his mounds of musical material into coherence. This accounts for the radical variability in performances of Mahler’s work, as well as for how his music reinvigorates and reinvents itself in performance, and so remains fresh and immediate.

“Mahler is obviously here to stay,” Mr. Maazel said, “but the reason that he finally, after being ignored so long by musicians and the public, took his place is because we live in a visionary world and he was one of the first composers to have vision, cosmic vision—something that went past the confines of music. I think that’s why his music appeals to a great number of people who ordinarily would not be going to concert halls or listening to recordings. That aspect should also be stressed by interpreters, and they should never get bogged down in the microcosmic phrasing of a bar here or a bar there. That’s not what Mahler’s about.”

Mr. de La Grange was even more emphatic. “I’m not religious at all, but when I listen to a Mahler symphony I become religious, because in Mahler I find things that I find in very few other composers. I think that Mahler has a sense of the infinite, of eternity. I know of very little other music that gives you so much. I don’t think he’ll ever be played too much, because I don’t think we’ll ever understand him completely. I think we’ll be discovering things for many years to come.”

Mr. Goldmann writes about arts and culture from Berlin and New York.

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