After having discussed Simon Rattle’s approach to recording the music of Joseph Haydn during his tenure as Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) between 1980 and 1998, it seemed appropriate to shift attention to the earliest composer that received considerable attention. That composer was Gustav Mahler. I remember when the Ovation Channel showed a video of Rattle performing Mahler’s second symphony as his farewell concert with CBSO (which seemed a bit ironic since the subtitle of this symphony is “Resurrection”); and I seem to recall the announcer saying that Rattle selected this for his very first performance with CBSO.
Mahler clearly meant a lot to Rattle during his tenure in Birmingham. However, he never recorded the full canon of symphonies. The fifth and ninth symphonies are missing in the Warner Classics 52-CD collection Simon Rattle: The CBSO years; and, when it came time to recording for the first time a performing version of all five movements of the tenth, Rattle opted for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. On the other hand, Rattle seems to have had a particular interest in the early years of Mahler’s career as a composer. His recording of the early three-movement cantata Das klagende Lied (the sorrowful song) was impressive when it was first released; and it remains so to this day.
More interesting, perhaps, was his brief venture into one of Mahler’s earliest settings of a poem in Das Knaben Wunderhorn: Alte deutsche Lieder (the boy’s magic horn; old German songs), the nineteenth-century collection compiled by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. Mahler first turned to this collection between 1887 and 1890 when he was writing a collection of fourteen songs for voice and piano published in three volumes under the collective title Lieder und Gesänge (songs and airs). The nine songs in the second and third volumes are all based on Des Knaben Wunderhorn.
Only eight Wunderhorn songs were recorded by Rattle with CBSO, all sung by baritone Simon Keenlyside. Seven of these come from Mahler’s collection of settings composed in 1892 and published in 1899 under the title Humoresken. However, the eighth is “Ablösung im Sommer” (the changing of the summer guard), a bizarre ditty from the third volume of the Lieder und Gesänge collection about the death of a cuckoo whose primary theme would later resurface in Mahler’s third symphony. Since Mahler never orchestrated any of the songs in this earlier collection, Rattle performs an orchestration by Luciano Berio.
The other early composition included among Rattle’s recordings is “Blumine” (flower piece). This was originally written as incidental music for a reading of Joseph Victor von Scheffel’s dramatic poem Der Trompeter von Säckingen (the trumpeter of Saeckingen); and it is distinguished by what I have previously called “one of the most lyric passages Mahler ever composed for solo trumpet.” Indeed, Mahler liked it so much that he originally planned it as the second movement of his first symphony but discarded it after the first three performances of that symphony. In the Warner Classics collection, “Blumine” is presented as the first track of a CD followed by the four movements now performed as the first symphony.
At this point I need to make a personal disclaimer. Those who read this site regularly know that I live in San Francisco. Those interested in Mahler’s music probably also know that Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, has a voracious interest in the Mahler canon. Without going into any thoughts about the timing of respective releases of Mahler performances by MTT and Rattle, I can still state categorically that there is no substitute for listening to Mahler in concert. So much detail is packed into every one of his orchestral scores that even the best of current recording technology cannot yet do justice to faithful capture.
As a result, if I am going to listen to recordings of Mahler at all, my preferences almost always turn to audio documents of historical interest. Thus, when I wrote about the EMI Complete Works release in June of 2010, I ended up drawing particular attention to the 1949 recording of contralto Kathleen Ferrier singing the Kindertotenlieder (songs on the death of children) with Bruno Walter conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker and the 1952 recording of baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing the Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen (songs of a wayfarer) with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. More recently I took to the Urlicht eight-CD box of 78 RPM recordings of Mahler performances issued between 1903 and 1940 like a kid in a candy store.
The bottom line, then, is that I really have nothing to fault with any of the Mahler performances in this collection. However, when it comes to perking up my ears with interest, I have to say that my response seems to be similar to those who compiled the EMI Complete Works collection. They selected only two CBSO recordings, Das klagende Lied and the seventh symphony. As recordings go, these selections bring out interpretative details that are much harder to find in other recordings. However, when it comes to paying for a large collection of CDs, my preference, for better or worse, goes with the Complete Works collection, which, I am happy to say, is still in circulation.