Mahler 3 is my favorite piece of music in the world, and after hearing Yannick Nezet-Seguin in Philly last month do a decent though not better than decent Mahler 3 in Philadelphia - a solid eight out of ten; a gentle, relatively traditional performance that at least brought out the Schumannesque lyricism or the Brahmsian glow or whatever..., it had a slightly dull scherzo and a little lacking in the outrageous vision that makes this work the full flowering of the musical imagination - or at least of mine... But it was, nevertheless, a very good reading that took a voluptuous enjoyment in Mahler's sound world. I never thought a performance could sound so relaxed yet be this compelling - relaxation is never something one looks for in Mahler, but even if Nezet-Seguin is clearly no Mahlerian, he's a very gifted conductor who can make music work on his own terms.
But because this performance nevertheless missed so much of the 'Mahlerness' caused me to go back to this work I value so and listen to a bunch of recordings and take notes on them. It should in no way be taken as a complete survey. I didn't even finish a single Tennstedt recording, and he's among the very top of my Mahler pantheon. Many of the notes aren't even complete. It's just jottings while I listen...
At some point I'll go back to this and finish it, or at least hope to, but for the moment, here is enough Mahler 3 to satiate even me. Most of these recordings can be found on youtube, but I'm too lazy to find the links right now. If you should like to hear what I've listened to, it should be relatively easy to find a free copy on youtube or Spotify if you subscribe. Happy Listening if you are so inclined!
It goes without saying that it's a tragedy that we'll never know how Mahler himself would have directed it. We will never know what Bruno Walter or Klemperer would have made of Mahler 3. There was talk that Walter would record it shortly before he died, but the time for Walter to have done it was fifteen years previously. The Brahmsian last movement would have been heavenly, but it would have been quite a slog getting through the opening. There was talk at the end of Klemperer's life of recording Mahler 6, and one could imagine a fantastically grim performance like Chailly or Gielen, but Klemperer's neoclassical objectivity was ill-suited to the Third's formlessness.
On the other hand, it's nothing short of tragic that Willem Mengelberg only got to do Mahler 4. I would imagine that the very classical Mahler 4 is one of the Mahler symphonies least suited to his flamboyant musical personality. I can't imagine Mengelberg warming too much to the relatively restrained metaphysical gloom of Mahler's later years (a Mengelberg sixth or ninth might have been perverse). The third on the other hand, would have fit Mengelberg like a glove, and apparently it was a favorite of both his and his Amsterdam audiences. Equally, Richard Strauss was fond of it, as he should have been since he is clearly such an enormous influence upon it. It would have been interesting indeed to hear what this virtuoso of the orchestra would have made of what is no doubt Mahler's most Straussian symphony.
We don't have a direct line into what Mahler might have imagined the Third to be. Some early recorded interpreters, like Schuricht and Horenstein, clearly have an orientation more traditional than Mahler's own, and try to controt him into neater proportions. Others, like Mitropoulos and Scherchen, clearly project something more advanced than Mahler actually was, and shy away from Mahler's unabashed romanticism. What we do have is the fertile imagination of many great musicians - both on the podium and in front of the podium.
Szenkar/Koln Radio Symphony 1951 - Of all the Mahler pioneers, I wonder if Szenkar had the best grip on Mahler, but we'll never know. Most Jewish conductors of the era left Europe for America or England, Szenkar went to Rio. When he returned to Germany, he made a very small handful of recordings which show him as fully the equal of the other great luminaries of his time, but like so many musicians, we only have the faintest outline of his talent. Is this Mahler as we understand him? Not quite, but it's astonishingly close at times.
Dmitri Mitropoulos/New York Philharmonic 1956 - Dmitri Mitropoulos was, bar none, the most exciting conductor who ever lived. Even had Mengelberg ever recorded Mahler 3, he could not equal the excitement on display here. Late Bernstein often feels like ideal Mahler performances in slow motion, but Mitropoulos often feels like ideal Mahler in fast forward, and that's clearly what we have here. There is little of the alte Welt luminousness or balance that Bruno Walter brought to his late Mahler, occasionally inappropriately. Instead, we have Mahler the visionary in full flower, with playing from the New York Philharmonic that fully meets Mahler's demands. This is the Mahler who inspired Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, to their heights of mega-meta-expressionism. This is a performance so ahead of its time that I wonder if it's even ahead of our time. There is almost a lack of patience for Mahler's nostalgia, but the playing is so visceral that it never registers as impatience. It, rather, registers as hallucination. I often avoided this performance because I was so jarred by the unpredictable cuts of the first movement that it was hard for a person who knows the work too well to listen past its disfigurement for its virtues. Mitropoulos is one of my pantheon of five, for whom every scrap he recorded is worthwhile and insightful over a huge repertoire buffet. This may not be the full Mahler in either quantity or quality, but in many ways, it's even better. 9.2/10
Kirill Kondrashin/Moscow Symphony 1961 - Kondrashin is the member of Mahler's 'greatest generation' who still never gets enough credit because he didn't have much opportunity for support from Western record companies. Nevertheless, the vibrance jumps out of the speakers. Too fast it may be (91 minutes - in spite of a 33-mnute opening movement that feels lugubrious), overbrassed it certainly is (it's Russia, where orchestral brass is instructed to be heard over the iron curtain), and it trades some of the heavy Austrian dance rhythms of the third movement for something fleeter like a Czardas or a Trepak - Kondrashin gets through this usually 18 minute movement in 15. The Nietzsche movement is also faster than average, taking eight minutes in a movement for which Christoph Eschenbach routinely takes 14! But even if the brass is too loud throughout, the ebb and flow of the phrasing in the finale is a thing of true wonder. The pacing in the opening and scherzo is off, the orchestral balances are off, but where it really counts: the sheer bizarreness of Mahler's sound world, nothing gets by Kondrashin. The explosions of percussions and winds, the bizarre natural phenomena of the Flower movement, the string imitations of 31 flavors of wind in the opening, a near-perfect posthorn section in the scherzo (so imagine how fast the rest is...). In everywhere but the opening, what Kondrashin clearly understands is Mahler's natural stream of consciousness that bubbles over with musical ideas, flitting between them, never quite finishing them. Like all the greatest art, Mahler 3 is a work of imagination too infinite to ever feel complete. Oh, and the text is in Russian, weird... 8.85/10
Bernstein/New York Philharmonic 1961 - I believe this is Bernstein's first Mahler recording. Until recently, with the glut of late-Abbado performances and the Boulez/Vienna, the Mahlerwelt seemed divided in three between people who thought this the greatest of Mahler Threes, and Haitink's 1966 performance and Horenstein's 1970. There are greater, not least from both Bernstein and Haitink.
Bernard Haitink/Concertgebouw Orchestra 1966 - If Mahler 4 will forever be associated with Willem Mengelberg, and Mahler 2 is forever associated with Klemperer and Bernstein, Mahler 3 will probably always feel owned by Bernard Haitink. When still in his mid 30's, he recorded this longest symphony of the standard rep in a performance many still think unsurpassed. Ever since then, he's performed it multiple times with every one of the world's great orchestras. Haitink's recorded it so often that there will be plenty more to say about him later, let's just focus on this performance. While fundamentally the same sensible and fastidious musician throughout his career, Haitink was still just a young conductor here - thrust prematurely by his mentor's death into the appointment of a lifetime. There are all kinds of moments when the young Haitink's inflexibility creates something more wooden than Mahler would ever allow - and far more wooden than the performance always seems in my memory. He was clearly trying to make Mahler, in the third symphony of all pieces, into something much more classically structured than it is. The more conventionally structured final three movements are pretty much beyond reproach - the greatest performance Mahler will ever get. The last movement is simply a miracle, and Haitink is almost liquidly flexible in how he builds this much more conventionally romantic slow movement into something just about perfectly paced. But you feel Haitink trying to contort the second movement into a classical coherence it shouldn't possess. The third movement requires lots of accelerations and ritards, some of which are clearly beyond Haitink's perception. Nevertheless, the energy summoned in the climaxes is a natural phenomenon in itself, and the perfection of the final three movements are pure miracle. The miracle of this performance is the Concertgebouw, which was still fundamentally the orchestra of Willem Mengelberg. Mengelberg created the Concertgebouw in no small part to be the perfect Mahler orchestra - simultaneously possessing the dark roundness of German orchestras and the brilliance of French orchestras - full of instruments that refuse to blend, yet sound perfect together even so. This is not a Mahler 3 that tells you its untold depths, but there are very few performances that open you up better to its many glories. I wonder if the raucous military marches of the first movement, the manifold solos of the scherzo, the quiet depths of the night-movement, the luminosity of the finale, could ever be played more ideally. 9.875/10 (the great stuff is so great that it makes up for the very clear flaws)
Rafael Kubelik/Bavarian Radio Symphony 1967 (live) - Kubelik is my favorite conductor, bar none. Rafael Kubelik is also one of the unrepeatable Mahlerian events - a conductor who lives inside the oral tradition of this music in manners no score could ever tell you how. I have no idea how, time and again, his opening manages to capture the spirit Mahler surely must have intended - the precise attack of the harp, the exact obnoxiousness of the trombones and piccolos, the string tremolos of infinite animation, the folk-violin-like digging into the strings, the ominous stillness of the pianissimi, the exact right way he accelerates into the storm sections. Hell, even the wrong notes and imprecisions feel right. You feel Kubelik trying to make the flowers movement less bizarre and minimize the tempo changes, but he only minimizes and smoothens them rather than eliminate them - I don't agree with it, but it's a legitimate interpretation, and who's to say that he, and not everybody else, is wrong? What follows then is THE performance of the Scherzo - the tempi are gauged perfectly, as though with a sixth sense for how to project the structure with maximum momentum, and the posthorn solo even has shadings within its distant projection. If anything, the scherzo is too vivid. The night movement can't help but feel a bit monochrome and under-eventful after that experience. The next two movements feel underrehearsed. The fifth movement, meanwhile, is clearly underrehearsed, and has a little bit of clearly unintentional unsteadiness in the dangerously fast tempo. But then one arrives at the finale... Bernstein will always be Bernstein, so it's safe to say that only Haitink elsewhere reaches this level of 'Mahlerness' in the finale. Haitink glows like the sun at dawn or dusk, like Turner, like Brahms or the Meistersinger Quintet. Kubelik ebbs and flows like a river, like Van Gogh, like Dvorak or the Siegfried Forest Murmurs. After hearing Kubelik, all one can say about Kubelik is that he had an unmatched sense to know exactly what risks to take in performance. He has such an innate understanding of music that he knows precisely where the pressure points are when an interpreter must pivot, and precisely how much - other conductors take larger risks which some times reap even larger dividends, but none manage their risks nearly so well as to feel utterly right. Many musicians avoid spontaneity like the plague, with the result that they draw attention to their lack thereof. I don't know how Kubelik does it, but no other conductor consistently makes music feel so natural - Bruno Walter did, but never in repertoire as advanced as Mahler, Pierre Monteux did but he avoided the repertoire monsterpieces, perhaps Thomas Beecham who avoided most German Symphonists, or the young Carlo Maria Giulini who lost it as he aged, or Colin Davis and Ferenc Fricsay who certainly avoided Mahler, or the now underrated Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, whom even I have to admit has as many clunkers as revelations. In my experience, not a single maestro of our day projects this complete lack of self-consciousness. Under Kubelik, the music simply goes of its own volition, drawing attention to not a single element of the music except its totality. This is not Mahler as classical music, this is Mahler played as folk music. 10.5/10 (like Haitink, the great moments are too great to not score above its mistakes)
Sir John Barbirolli/Halle Orchestra 1969 - Say what one will about Barbirolli's Mahler, but it is utterly unique. The work of a master musician trying to come to terms with a relatively new composer his generation never understood. Rattle clearly learned a thing or two from his great English predecessor extremes of expression and view of structure, but the Barbirolli goes to extremes of expression all his own. Does it work? Well,... sort of. Barbirolli's sensibility is so different from just about every Mahlerian who came later that it's difficult to know how to judge it. Just to take the most obvious example, Glorious John's not-quite 20 minute last movement, after more tempo changes per bar than even Scherchen, ends not on a forte as indicated, but on a clear triple forte. For Sir John, as for Rattle, this is clearly the climax of the whole piece, not the apotheosis. He underplays the scherzo, which in spite of some wonderful sounds, is ultimately a bit of a weak brew. The Flowers movement has some glorious string slides and dance rhythms, but misses the point of bizarre imitations of pictorial scenes of waterfalls. Again and again in the finale, he violently lurches the tempo forward like taffy to create a finale full of musical action rather than repose, and almost succeeds in making it work. Later Mahler conductors err by making Mahler not raucous enough, so perhaps it's almost forgivable to err in the other direction. The marches in the first movement are truly glorious, utterly low-class in how they resemble military bands. Is there any orchestra that could play even half so un-self-consciously today? Barbirolli did the best he could, and there are insights and 19th century qualities in this performance that are utterly unique to it, but it's hard to avoid the thought that for all his good will, Barbirolli's sensibility is a little too of Mahler's era to understand a composer so ahead of his time. 7.5/10
Jascha Horenstein/London Symphony 1970 - Horenstein is the hot button Mahler conductor on the internet. Of the two best known Mahler writers online, Tony Duggan views him as a God, David Hurwitz as a demon of mediocrity. He is neither, but he's not a great Mahlerian either. His understanding of Mahler is, by the standards of later generations, shockingly regressive. Mitropoulos was mentored by Busoni, Scherchen by Schoenberg, and both captured the flame of their mentors by responding to music of vision and prescience - both Mitropoulos and Scherchen were at their strongest in the music of pioneers well ahead of their times. Horenstein, on the other hand, was mentored by Franz Schrecker and Joseph Marx, younger contemporaries of Mahler, distinguished but conservative names in music history - most definitely of their time rather than ahead of it. Horenstein, with his extremely classical sense of tempo and proportion, makes Mahler sound like Schrecker or Schmidt or so many of those early twentieth century Viennese composers who are not Mahler - creative in the sounds they create, but without Mahler's explosive imaginative wings. 97 minutes, while a bit slower than average, is hardly sluggish, yet Mahler under Horenstein is a long slog indeed. There is an utterly un-Mahlerian rigidity to Horenstein's conceptions that make his interpretations incredibly long-winded, and with very little sense of a new world exploding from the old. The execution can be sloppy, but whether it's through the natural inclination of the LSO or Horenstein's ministrations, I deeply appreciate the lack of vanity demonstrated in a real willingness to capture the strangeness of Mahler's sounds, Horenstein made Mahler more palatable for a generation of music lovers who were not ready to understand Mahler, just as he made a dozen other postromantic visionaries the same. He deserves credit for his pioneering efforts, but even among Horenstein's many pioneering recordings, this is mostly a dud, and one of the most absurdly overrated efforts in the history of the recorded performance. 6.1/10
Jean Martinon/Orchestre RTF - Hard as it is to find, Martinon's Chicago M3 shows up on every list of the great Mahler 3's. I can't find it currently, but his French performance is very good, albeit severely flawed performance. Like the CSO this rather French-sounding orchestra's a little too brilliant, too brassy, too unheedful of soft dynamics in this composer who forgives no expressive insincerity. Forgivably, there's imprecision everywhere - if this were Chicago performing, Fritz Reiner would fire half the orchestra, but the rest of us should be able to live with that. What's more troubling is the flaws of over-brilliance, and still more unforgivable, there's nary a piano to be found and not a single pianissimo in the whole performance. And yet, there is a personality which comes through that can only hail from a group of fine and free musicians. It seems clear that the bulk of rehearsal went into the last movement, which sounds as echt-Deutsch luminous as any slow movement in Brahms or Bruckner. The soloists take their turn in the spotlight and many do something unforgettable. 8.6/10
Bernstein/Vienna Philharmonic 1972 - Bernstein's earning the respect of Vienna was, of course, the key moment in the history of Mahler, even if it's significance trivializes hundreds of other events wrongly. Bernstein's (mostly) Vienna cycle of the 70's will always be simultaneously the most perfect consummation of Mahler performance, and a complete hash of two completely different conceptions of Mahler and of music. The Vienna Philharmonic can give great Mahler performances, but the polished golden elegance of the Vienna Philharmonic is so far away from the ecstatic Mahlerian abandon - and particularly to this of all symphonies. No wonder Mahler and 'his' orchestra hated each other. Not even Lenny can get them to shed the Viennese polish for the first two thirds of the first movement. As with Mozart, Schubert, and Bruckner before him and (still?) Schoenberg and Berg and Webern after, the Viennese held the unique key to Mahler's style, and yet they loathed Mahler and perhaps loathed themselves for rejecting yet another of their great genii who had the gall to push the boundaries of their glorious tradition still further. In all the great Austrians, they've given as many horrible performances as they've given performances of a greatness to which only they can ascend. In 1973, this is, unbelievably, the first recording the Vienna Philharmonic made of the work. There are qualities and charms of gemutlichkeit throughout, and when they suit the music as they do in just about everything except the opening, the result is truly how this music should have always sounded, but only this Viennese orchestra of orchestras can play it like this. Bernstein finds an ideal partner in the gloriously Austrian bittersweet yearning and nostalgia - so perfect are the Viennese that you sometimes wish Bernstein would get out of the way, let up on his typically extreme slowing down at the end of the second and third movements and just let the Viennese do their thing. But the performance only feels as though it first gets out of bed when the two military bands crash into each other. But the glory of this performance is the final movement, which finds Bernstein in the same expansive mood he as he would be thirteen years later. The sheen of Vienna Philharmonic, however, gives it a very different mood from its American counterpart. In New York, it has the feel of Hollywood and Broadway (in the very best sense, don't underestimate how much impact Mahler had on American music...). In Vienna, the feel is much darker, more inward, Wagnerian. Bernstein's also, as twelve years previously, quite free with the tempo. The result is perhaps one step removed from Verklarte Nacht. Even if the final movement does not have that unbelievably warm and loving intimacy of the '86 recording, the whole is a performance whose spirit is never to be repeated. 9.7/10
James Levine/Chicago Symphony 1975 - The virtuosity is their own worst enemy. All you have to do is listen to Bud Herseth's trumpet triplets at the beginning to realize that their playing is so mechanically perfect that there is no way the CSO will completely inhabit the Mahlerian style here. The young Levine, a brilliant upstart in his early 30's, is also his own worst enemy. He clearly understands the piece intellectually, but as in his Wagner, his sense of detail and proportion is so elegant that he never permits himself to truly give in to the flow and breath of a piece that demands to sprawl, and the result is uncomfortably wooden until, not surprisingly, the voices enter and Levine comes to more familiar territory. Levine takes a more than spacious 104-and-a-half minutes. Sometimes, as in the night movement, the result is extraordinarily evocative, sometimes, as in his wooden scherzo, you want to scream at him to stop controlling the structure so rigidly. His twenty-seven minute finale is (for its time) an extremely original conception, perhaps more connected with the slow movement of Mahler 4 or perhaps the slow movement of Beethoven op. 130 upon which Mahler clearly based it. Bernstein's final recording proves that a tempo that slow can work without reservation, but Levine is not Bernstein, and while one is in awe of the CSO's control, Levine keeps the leash too tight to rivet attention at such a slow tempo. With regard to the CSO, the dynamics seem almost geometrically terraced, so perfectly built from climax to climax as to seem like a perfect orchestral machine, not a hundred-twenty souls expressing themselves. Nevertheless, the performance has some extraordinary virtues. I don't know if the storm section has ever been immersed in such violence, the posthorn solo is absolutely exquisite, the night movement has a truly extraordinary sense of darkness and profundity about it, the children movement has a perfect balance of innocence and menace (...), but except for movements four and five, the great moments are nothing but a series of episodes, unconnected with the whole. 6.7/10
Abbado/Vienna Philharmonic 1984 - That Claudio Abbado was a great maestro can never be doubted. That he was a more exciting, more interesting conductor earlier in his career is a view held by a minority of music lovers, but not a small one, and generally includes me. The legend of Abbado's final years obscures the reality that he was a musician lauded for being a maestro without qualities. More on that anon, but in the meantime, let us give mild praise his Mahler 3 from the early 80's. Abbado, a mere stripling of 50 at the time, attempted a Third of unparalleled philosophical depth. All those exquisite qualities of detail and pacing and balance for which he would be lauded twenty years later as the maestro among maestri were present in abundance, but they did not yet drain the natural vitality of his musicianship. Certainly, there is nothing drained about movements one. four and five, which face Mahler's metaphysics unashamedly and treats the work as the deepest statement a musician can possibly make - what the elderly Wagner and young Schoenberg might have produced had they composed a work together. Were you to hear those three movements in isolation, you would think this a masterpiece among Mahler Threes. The soft dynamics, as ever with Abbado, are more exquisitely detailed than any other maestro has ever produced, propelled forward at backbreakingly slow tempos by incredible harmonic tension, and contrasted against climaxes of enormous force. Where Abbado fails is in those places which require something deliberately superficial. Vulgarity and sarcasm are not in the makeup of this musician who could unwittingly carry loftiness past depth into the realm of kitsch. The flaw of Abbado's musicianship eventually became its defining quality. More objective composers are incredibly well-served by Abbado's perfectionism, and the deeper late symphonies are extremely well-served by Abbado, but Mahler, particularly Wunderhorn Mahler, requires flesh and blood. 7.9/10
Klaus Tennstedt/London Philharmonic 1980 - There's Bernstein, there's Kubelik, there's Tennstedt. There are plenty of other great Mahlerians, plenty of other great ways to Mahler, but nobody else consistently has that sense of discovery, the independence to speak Mahler's language with complete fluency and idiomaticity, and Tennstedt, more even than Bernstein, spoke it with the prophetic force of revealed truth. Everybody before them is setting us on the path, and everybody after them is commentary on what they discovered. To have heard any of the three live in Mahler must have been the experience of a lifetime. Tennstedt begins this performance with one of the most perfect imaginable (is that even possible) performances of that 33-minute monster opening. Not even elder Bernstein can get those opening ten minutes - which hardly anybody knows what to do with - to sound so primeval. The whole thing practically roars. What becomes a problem in later movements is that Tennstedt's whole way of looking at Mahler is so lustily enthusiastic that there's hardly a moment with a particularly soft dynamic,
Bernstein/New York Philharmonic 1986: No musician has better proven that depth and flamboyance are not mutually exclusive, so Bernstein and the first movement were absolutely made for each other. There has simply never been a better performance of the opening. All the outrageous sounds of Mahler's nature cornucopia are here, their eminence multiplied to the n. He takes a full 35 minutes, and you don't want it to end. To be sure, there are moments in later movements when Mahler calls for restraint when Bernstein just can't leave well enough alone. And yet even if there has never been a more perceptive Mahlerian than Bernstein, there is a quality of Mahler's which he completely ignores in later years - so determined does Bernstein seem to give the ultimate performance of these works that there is nothing in his performances which feels unplanned. The sense that Mahler is simply writing his stream-of-consciousness, tossing off whatever comes into his head however spontaneous or imperfect. Bernstein, with his overwhelming sense of drama and expression, seems determined to give every moment utmost importance. Mahler by the elder Bernstein often feels like the ultimate performance in slow motion. The basic tempo of his 28... minute... finale... is slow enough to stop time - yet Bernstein is one of the few conductors who can truly get away with such slow tempi. How he does is secret only a musical genius could understand. There is an almost Hollywood/Broadway-like quality to the last movement, utterly unashamed of its emotional expression and big tune, completely different than the critical distance of so many conductors influenced by Schoenberg and Webern. Nevertheless, for all these reservations, this is, in so many ways, the ultimate performance. A one-off never to be repeated or bettered, so unbelievably exciting and profound that you cannot help but emerge changed at the end. Is it exactly what Mahler wanted? Who cares? It might be better. 13/10
Seiji Ozawa/Boston Symphony 1993 -
Simon Rattle/City of Birmingham Symphony 1998 - I will go to bat for Simon Rattle against his many critics in just about anything, but Rattle is one of the all-time great conductors because, in many ways, he is far more flawed than lesser lights who do everything right. Rattle takes 98 minutes, just a little slower than average, but you definitely feel languor in this most sprawling of symphonies. A little bit more propulsion in certain places would have let just little bit more air in. Yet in the last movement, you occasionally wonder what's his hurry. Even so, the reason he opens himself up to such criticism is because he has genuine ideas and personality and insight where others are content to have none at all. Rattle clearly understands the strangeness of Mahler, and he gives all its bizarreness its glorious due. In other performances, the last movement often seems like a long postlude after an action packed first hour and two intermezzi - 'here endeth the lesson' it seems to say. Rattle is clearly determined to make the finale the work's true climax, and is willing to clamp down on the action of the opening and scherzo to get us there. Personally, I think it's impossible to make Mahler Three something truly coherent, but as a result of what Rattle's plan seems to be, there's a lot before the finale that lacks a little urgency. Other Mahlerians for all time, Bernstein, Kubelik, Tennstedt, Kondrashin, Mitropoulos, Scherchen, Inbal, et al, swallow this monsterpiece whole. Rattle is unmistakably of their number, but in a very un-Rattle like way, he's a little too cautious here, so concerned with making his not-quite world class Birminghamers get everything right that he's not quite willing to bet the house on any passage. The good news is that he very much does get everything right, but would that he got more right than everything. Solid 9/10
Claudio Abbado/Berlin Philharmonic 1999 - Abbado, thanks be to the deity, shaves eight minutes from his Viennese excursion of 15 years earlier which was practically Heidegger-esque in its unceasing aspiration toward profundity. In place of Abbado's depth is a showcase for the Berlin Philharmonic in all their Berlin Philharmonicness. The Berlin Philharmonic under Abbado would often sound emaciated, a chamber orchestra with extra brass. Not here, here is all the massiveness of their Karajan sound, rendered as a concerto particularly for the Berlin Philharmonic. Mahler is adapted to the soundworld of Berlin like an orchestral concerto specifically for the Berlin Philharmonic. Attacks are blended and smoothened, Wagnerized perhaps, but as in Wagner or Bruckner, the rounded euphony is a ruse, a means to build the overtones atop each other to climaxes of the most enormous imaginable force. The tempo in the first movement is straight-jacketed in the most steady, Horenstein-like manner. The minor-key sections too fast, the major-key sections too slow. It is extremely un-Mahlerian, yet unlike in Horenstein, it's utterly breathtaking on its own terms; with dynamics perfectly gauged in breathtaking manner. The refinement is utterly contrary to Mahler's intent, but there's no denying the impressiveness of it. The flower movement is a wonder, full of unbelievable, recitative-like flexibility in the strings and perfectly gauged weather systems. The Scherzo becomes something far gentler than the piquancy of Bernstein or Kondrashin. A good musical friend of mine describes Abbado's gift for detail as the ability to trace the glistening of a dew from a tree, and it's an eminently correct description so many Abbado performances. Abbado's reserved personality refuses to summon Mahler's bitter sardonicism, but the incredible affection with which Abbado makes the Berliners paint nature here is ample compensation. The night movement has the most mournful personality of performances I've heard, more a rural Jewish cantor than Nietzsche. Abbado learns from his previous mistake, and shapes the finale in 22 minutes. Hardly different in timing from Kubelik or Haitink, but with a short-windedness that - rarely for Abbado, short-changes the profundity. Overall, it's a much kinder, gentler, Beethoven's Pastoral of Mahler 3's with all gentle pleasure of a breeze. Like Beethoven's Pastoral, the gentleness Abbado finds in Mahler does not preclude seizmic violence. Mahler nevertheless requires more edge than Abbado permits. Abbado has many admirers for whom he can do no wrong, but he had many limitations which only grew in his final years. But even if Abbado was not the cosmic master he's often alleged, he was very much a master. His musical knowledge was as deep as his instinctive musical personality was timid, and he able to work around the limitations of his reserve with the skill that only a great musician and thinker could negotiate. Abbado's Mahler, at least in the early symphonies, is even less Mahlerian Mahler than earlier in his career, but it is extremely fine, eugenically grown musicmaking from a great orchestra and conductor that have always been ill-equipped to play by Mahler's rules. 8.4/10
Pierre Boulez/Vienna Philharmonic 2002 - This is, along with Abbado, thought to set the new standard of Mahler 3's. I wouldn't go nearly so far, but its virtues are many and undeniable. Boulez, belying his reputation as an iceman as he often does, brings true heat and power with an enormous dynamic range from an orchestra not often known for forswearing its refinement. The sound he replaces it with, however, is un-Mahlerian, and by switching from ice to fire, he bypasses warmth. He turns the Vienna Philharmonic into something far more brilliant and treble-dominated than its natural metier, so ideal for so much in Mahler. As always with Boulez, the pacing is strictly controlled, turning the messy storms of subconscious nature into coherence. To composers more focused on order, this approach can be of enormous illumination, and Boulez's musicianship is such that he comes closer to pulling it off than many who take a similar approach. But listen to the regimentedness of the extraordinary two marching bands and storm section. It's so strictly controlled that the abandon, the humor, the sense that this musical fresco comes from a Jungian well of subconscious, is totally missing. Listen to the utter refusal to yield to emotional expression in the finale - precise brass attacks everywhere, lean string sound. Except perhaps for the length, there is nothing radical to elucidate in Mahler 3's finale, and Boulez manages to sound as though he feels contempt for this movement. The third movement, in spite of a wonderful posthorn solo, is far too stiff limbed to make any real impact. On the other hand, one has the sense of a completely different, luminously classical conception coming into focus. Boulez, like earlier conductors, is extremely strict with the second movement tempos, and instead attempts to achieve the nature effects with timbre and texture. Again, it's a miracle he's as successful as he is, but one has to wonder why such effort when there are easier and much more effective ways to elicit the same effects .The performance is at its most successful in the vocal movements, the simplicity of which lends itself better to Boulez's severity. One could call this an alternate approach, and yet it is the approach of so many unsuccessful Mahler 3's who lack the virtue of great playing. It says something about the narrowmindedness of much of Boulez's following that criticism of Boulez is equated with criticism of everything about Boulez. That is the mark of a cult mentality in which one has to silence the heretic. Nevertheless, Boulez was, unquestionably, a brilliantly talented musician, and perhaps even a brilliantly talented, if utterly perverse, thinker. Was he a genius? Not at least in my opinion, but unlike Boulez, I certainly recognize that my opinions can be, and often prove to be, wrong. Geniuses, like Mahler, are far more generous, far more diverse, far more willing to evolve, far more interested in incorporating the widest variety of influence into their work. Boulez is, in so many ways, a musician of 1955 who didn't evolve into the future. It often seems that Mahler wasn't truly understood until the 60's, and the effect of Boulez's recording is strangely quaint, like a more refined version of those old recordings which didn't quite understand a composer so ahead of his time. 7.2/10
Michael Tilson Thomas/San Francisco Symphony 2003 - 106 minutes. Tempos this slow should never work, but the weight and languor with which MTT invests it demonstrates it clearly does - at least for the most part. There's no denying how aware one is of time's passage when nearly two hours are on the line, but it's amazing that one is not more aware. MTT never misses a chance to invest the sound with as much weight as such tempos can possibly carry. In this case, the slow tempos give the players plenty of breathing room to express without inhibition. MTT, to my knowledge, has never done much Wagner, yet the rolling sensation of metaphysical space is so clearly Wagnerian. For all the drama of the timbre, it's all too focused on sublimity to feel enough musical violence - which in Mahler is a requirement. Yet the second movement is as close to a platonic ideal as a performance gets, and while the scherzo is a full 19 minutes, the basic tempo is nevertheless quite fast. Where it slows to a crawl is in the posthorn solos, in which languor is pretty much entirely forgivable. Rather than a merely distant encounter, you feel completely immersed in the echoing natural air which the posthorn solo occupies so quietly, and which sets up the night movement absolutely beautifully. Like the second movement, the night movement gets a desert island performance, full of sublime sounds that are absolutely eerie. The whole thing is, frankly, too lofty to consider a full view of Mahler. MTT and his glorious American band give the raucous comedy their full due when asked, but there's so much spaciousness and sublimity that by the over twenty-six minute finale you completely forget about everything that happened just a half-hour ago (in the case of this performance forty minutes ago). Nevertheless, it is a real and legitimate view of Mahler as the heir to Wagnerian metaphysics - Mahler 3 from the summit of the Zauberberg... - that fully deserves to be considered. 8.2/10
Riccardo Chailly/Concertgebouw Orchestra 2004 - This is ground zero of everything I find perverse about the 'New Mahler' in which the playing is so amazing it can sound like a digital reproduction of expression. Whenever I hear Chailly, not just in Mahler, I wonder to myself if there is such a thing as musicmaking that is 'too good.' I shall never cease to be in awe Chailly's craft. I don't think there has ever been a conductor who realizes the composer's score so effectively. And yet, Chailly's performances are as though we listen to a musician who'd rather play to an empty hall. It all seems like an extremely intricate game to him. Their technical level is so high that one, or at least I, can't hear past the technique. Mid-20th century had supervirtuosos in America like Fritz Reiner and George Szell, who established standards of both technique and taste that were unprecedented in orchestral life. Herbert von Karajan took their technical level still further and added a luxurious beauty of tone which no Hungarian save Ormandy ever attempted. Gone was the heat generated by the attaca of American precision, and in its place, a sonic velour. Karajan's digital spirit has been carried in Northern Europe by conductors like Riccardo Chailly and Mariss Jansons to a quantum plane so high it can even imitate feeling. In the sweep or in the detail, no orchestra ever played Mahler 3 this well, and Chailly, unlike Jansons, never misses an intellectual trick in any score. Just about everything in the score is here, unadorned. But what is the point of a perfect reproduction of a page? All you're drawn to is the excellence with which intensions are realized, but nothing's learned and everything can be predicted. It's as dry as a mouse in winter.
Michael Gielen/SWR Symphony 200 - Had Klemperer ever recorded Mahler 3, I'm sure this would be a reasonable approximation. The thirty-five and a half minute first movement is consistently slow and gritty. The whole thing, both major and minor, feels well under the generally accepted tempos, and with hardly a single measure in which Gielen permits himself the freedom of rubato. But like old-man Klemp, Gielen uses the extra time to dig into those weird sounds for maximum pungency. It's not an expressionist 3rd like Scherchen's, But Gielen is a far better technician than Klemperer ever was,
Christoph Eschenbach/Orchestre de Paris 2010 - Christoph Eschenbach has never been a musician as great as his talent, which is of a genius that equals those rare recreative musical brains who know how to reach into places unknown to the rest of us and consistently gets away with disobeying the composer in manners mere mortals never could. With musicians like him, music is a four-dimensional experience, the revelations of which can only exist in the moment of its performance. There are myriads of other ways to achieve greatness, but few which allow it so consistently. Eschenbach could easily have been among their number. Had Eschenbach stayed with the same orchestra for thirty years, he'd be remembered as the great German conductor of our time. Instead, he jets around, plays the absentee music director, collecting fees when he should be collecting great performances. The performances of this musician who relies on his talent to accomplish what only hard work can do, alternate between transcendence and outright incompetence. He is a musician who is far greater than he deserves to be, and could easily have been an immortal had so chosen. He fails at being precisely the kind of slick professional he aspires to be, which is antithetical to his natural probity.
Alan Gilbert/New York Philharmonic 2010 - Alan Gilbert should still be the director of the New York Philharmonic. He was the first director the orchestra had since Boulez who took the job for a reason other than vanity and showed genuine vision. He was unfairly maligned in standard repertoire, which ignored that at least he made the Philharmonic commit to their performances as though they wanted to be there; which is more than Maazel, Masur, or Mehta could do. This is a recorded download of his very first subscription concert as their music director. I read a review that ripped this concert to shreds, which from the vantage point of my headphones strikes me as incredibly unfair. Nobody will mistaken this for the performance of a master, but it does most of the right things. 8.5
Markus Stenz/Cologne Gurzenich Orchestra 2012 -
Eliahu Inbal/Tokyo Metropolitan Orchestra 2013 - Is Eliahu Inbal history's most underrated conductor, or simply history's most underrated conductor of Mahler? When hearing a rendition like this, it's possible to believe that Inbal is the zenith of all Mahler performance - not Kubelik, not Bernstein, not Tennstedt. This is from his second complete cycle, made in his mid-seventies, after a series of Mahler recordings while he briefly was conductor of the Czech Philharmonic - the kind of post he eminently deserves but never gets. It's exactly ninety minutes, definitely on the fast side, and even if you feel the speed, it's perhaps all the more an accomplishment to animate all those details at speeds for which nuance becomes far more difficult. Yes, maybe there could be a little more repose in his just barely 30 minute first movement, but on the other hand - it's still a half-hour long!!! Even Bernstein didn't know how to animate this monster movement before his sixties. Inbal excels Bernstein in the one place where Bernstein is lacking. Except for one movement - unfortunately perhaps the most important where Mahler stretches his imagination to its pinnacle, Inbal sounds as though he is recomposing Mahler's work in the moment of performance - tapping into the Mahlerian stream of consciousness as perhaps only Kubelik also does. Where Inbal fails, however, is slightly unforgiveable. Mahler was never more imaginative than in the scherzo, which requires a flexibility of tempo to which Inbal, sadly, does not give in. Like every other movement, the textures are vivid enough to eat, but they require breathing room which a steady tempo can never endow. Nevertheless, the glories of this performance are higher than nearly any other. Does the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony have a truly world class plushness? No. And when they achieve the effects they do, who cares? 12/10
Jaap van Zweden/Dallas Symphony 2016 - To go from the top of the violin profession to the top of conducting so quickly, to have raised the Dallas Symphony to such a level in a mere seven years... Zweden is clearly one of the world's most gifted musicians, no matter what Norman Lebrecht says. Whether he puts his gift in the service of something deserving is another matter. Like Lorin Maazel, his technical virtuosity can be strikingly unfeeling, but he's mercifully bereft of Maazel's mannerisms, and seems, to a fault, to let the structure of the work he directs speak for itself. And as in so many Zweden performances, the little details here are astounding. Like Gielen, he sometimes puts me in mind of how Klemperer might have conducted the work, but still more he puts me in mind of how Reiner, Dorati or Szell might have. Like all four conductors, the small nuances of dynamics, minor details of articulation that create a veritable tapestry of color, and all of it fitted neatly into an iron-clad sense of architecture. And therein lies the problem. Mahler 3 is not supposed to be a coherent, classical structure. Zweden can light fireworks, though he bypasses a number of chances for them, and even at moments when he does, he does not allow for the breathing room that gives us proper level of awe they should inspire. Breathing room is not a matter of tempo. At ninety-six minutes, Zweden's tempos are roughly average. Kubelik and Inbal are both much faster, yet by a very precise fluidity of tempo, they both give us the full view of the landscape Zweden denies us. Zweden generally is a conductor of the military variety whose music making does not have space for leisure. He clearly demands maximum control from moment to moment, and his precision can generate enormous intensity, if not always much in the way of expression. Beginning in the fourth movement, matters do improve significantly. The infamously imperious Zweden finally catches wing in the distant, elusive, fourth movement. The fire of life animates the last movement only intermittently, whose warmth seems anathema to Zweden. One would think that the Concertgebouw's old concertmaster, working so closely on Mahler with Haitink and Bernstein, would learn a thing or two, but there's no credential that can replace genuine connection. Zweden is clearly trying to give an alternative view of the score - a coherently designed building rather than a chaotic wilderness, and he should be given credit for that, even if it's ultimately unsatisfactory. As the New York Philharmonic's next music director, there will doubtless be a second Mahler 3 from Jaap, and it will probably be an improvement on the first. There are composers Zweden does exceedingly well - Bruckner seemingly principle among them with Wagner and Brahms close behind. Mahler, however, requires every human quality, and humanity is something Zweden deliberately seems to keep in short supply. 6.5/10