It is all too easy to take Gustav Mahler's symphonies and orchestral songs for granted in the 21st century's first decade. More than ever before, concert performances and recordings of these works abound, and at a level of proficiency that reveals the remarkable extent to which musicians worldwide have assimilated the composer's idiom. Given the music's primacy in today's central orchestral repertoire, we forget how the great Mahler advocates of the past had to champion his music in the face of adversity. "Who can bear those monstrous symphonies, those over-blown, out-of-date horrors," asked one leading music critic when the New York Philharmonic launched a Mahler Festival to celebrate the composer's 1960 centenary.
Yoel Levi’s Mahler has been a mixed bag: marvelous versions of Symphonies Nos. 4 and 6, a good but not great No. 1, and a dull 5 and 7. The Second is one of the great ones, though, a performance of the type that Bruno Walter or George Szell would have appreciated. It will not appeal to those who need their Mahler to sweat blood, and Levi is not the kind of conductor who makes his interpretive points through attention-getting tempo adjustments and exaggerated string portamentos. Rather, his personal touch reveals itself in scrupulous attention to dynamics, care with instrumental balances, and finely honed ensemble. Such an approach always risks blandness, if only because the result can sound effortless just when the music needs to express tension and a sense of strain; but when it works, as here, it can offer more sheer musical satisfaction and staying power than many more demonstrative efforts.
If you have Bernstein/Ludwig/Berry performing this music and you buy this new version, you'll have all you need for Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Riccardo Chailly offers the most fabulous orchestral playing imaginable: those celebrated Concertgebouw winds have a field-day with Lob des hohen Verstands and St. Anthony of Padua's Fish Sermon. In Revelge the big martial buildup at the center of the song is positively terrifying in its violence. Equally terrifying in its quiet, oppressive dread is Der Tamboursg'sell. Enough of this: you won't hear these songs better played or conducted anywhere. David Hurwitz, classicstoday.com
The incomparable lied baritone, Christian Gerhaher, revisits Gustav Mahler in his latest release Mahler: Orchestral Songs. Accompanied by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra , under the elegant baton of Kent Nagano, Gerhaher has recorded three Mahler song cycles in their authentic orchestral versions for the first time. On Mahler: Orchestral Songs, Gerhaher manages to blend with the compelling sound of the orchestra, but at the same time makes his baritone hover above the instruments, so that every word and nuance comes across without ever sounding forced. Simple in style and full of empathy, this is the art of song at its finest.