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Mahler: Complete Symphonies / Wit, Halasz, Olson

Mahler / Polish Nat'l Radio So / Halasz / Olson
Release Date: 04/27/2010 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8501502   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Gustav Mahler
Performer:  Hanna LisowskaJadwiga RappéEwa PodlesLynda Russell
Conductor:  Michael HalászAntoni WitRobert Olson
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Polish National Radio Symphony OrchestraCracow Polish Radio/TV ChorusCracow Philharmonic Chorus,   ... 
Number of Discs: 15 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MAHLER Symphonies Nos. 1-10; Blumine; Symphony No. 10: Adagio; Michael Halász, Antoni Wit,Robert Olson, cond; Polish Natl RSO; Warsaw PO & Ch; Kraków R Ch; Kraków Boys’ Ch; Cardinal Wyszy?ski U Ch; Warsaw Boys’ Ch; Hanna Lisowska (sop); Ewa Podle? (alt); Jadwiga Rappé (alt); Lynda Russell (sop); Barbara Kubiak; Izabela Klosi?ska, Marta Boberska (sop); Ewa Marciniec (alt); Timothy Bentch (ten); Wojciech Drabowicz (bar); Piotr Nowacki (bs); Kraków P Ch • NAXOS 8501502 (15 CDs: 13:31:54 Text and Translation)

This boxed set combines most of Naxos’s Mahler symphony recordings formerly issued Read more singly and reviewed previously in Fanfare, but the set as a whole brings up several interesting questions regarding the nature of the orchestras, conductors, soloists, and the very nature of a Mahler symphony cycle itself.

It is a given that no single integral Mahler cycle by one conductor can provide or fulfill all the demands of this rich and multifaceted music, but the real miracle is that we’ve reached this point at all. Any reader younger than 60 cannot remember a time when Mahler was either dismissed as a raving lunatic or not performed at all, but such was the case until the late 1950s. Leonard Bernstein, in one of his 1959 Young People’s Concerts, dropped the Mahler Fourth (including the last movement, sung beautifully by soprano Reri Grist) on the heads of his unsuspecting prepubescent audience, and Jascha Horenstein made the British take their Mahler and like it, too, in a landmark performance of the Eighth Symphony around the same time. Bernstein, whose Columbia contract gave him carte blanche to record anything he wanted, proceeded to tape the whole cycle over the next few years. Far from being an unsellable turkey, sales were brisk. Horenstein and Rafael Kubelík recorded Mahler in the studio, elder statesman John Barbirolli and Mahler’s two surviving disciples, Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, were lured into recording their own views of the music in stereo, and before you knew it Mahler became mainstream. In passing, we should not short-change Eugene Ormandy, often dismissed as a mediocre maestro, whose own live performances of Mahler’s symphonies and landmark recording of the Deryck Cooke edition of the 10th did much to spread the gospel.

I remind readers of all this because it was not unusual in those heady days for orchestras to have problems grasping Mahler’s peculiar sound world. Only the two orchestras that Mahler himself had conducted, the Vienna Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic, had anything like a Mahler style in their blood. Barbirolli practically had to drag great playing out of the Berlin Philharmonic in his 1962 recording of the Ninth, and Klemperer’s new stereo recordings with the Philharmonia Orchestra, for all their beauty of sound, had nothing like the easy flow of his mono recordings with the Vienna Symphony. Nowadays, we hear correct (or near-correct) Mahler style out of virtually every orchestra worldwide. The Polish National Symphony, which probably wouldn’t have been able to produce a good Mahler performance in 1965, here sounds thoroughly comfortable with his unique idiom. Yet when I say correct Mahler style, I must amend that because there is no one Mahler style. His symphonies are unique in being able to withstand several different approaches, from fairly swift, taut, and dramatic to slow, alternately relaxed or tense, and brooding. Moreover, I’m pretty sure Mahler himself changed the way he conducted his own symphonies from year to year, depending on his mood at the time.

This particular set, primarily the work of two Polish conductors, is fascinating in that it gives us Mahler not in a German or Anglo-Saxon vernacular, which is how most of us came to know it (even through Klemperer, Walter, Barbolli, and Horenstein), but rather through an Eastern European vernacular. Leonard Bernstein often said that one can grasp the correct rhythmic feel of a classical work by learning something of the speech patterns of the composer’s homeland, and he was right. Except for the 10th Symphony, led here by American Robert Olson, this is Mahler with a Polish-Bohemian accent, and as such is probably closer to what the composer himself heard in his mind when writing it.

There are some weak moments, especially any time the horns are asked to really put forth a full volume of sound, and the Polish winds aren’t always flawless. Not only Halász but also Wit is sometimes forced to decide between reaching for that one finely etched detail that makes or breaks a phrase or going for the big picture. What’s amazing is that so much of it does come off well that I found myself having fewer complaints about any single performance in this set than about others’ performances. The sound quality is, to my ears, simply spectacular and exactly what I want to hear in Mahler: crystal-clear reproduction of the instruments but enough ambience and right-left separation to give that exciting 3-D quality to Mahler that his music demands. As I said, certain climaxes lack a little (the end of the first movement of the First Symphony is one; the very beginning of the Third is another), but these conductors—particularly Wit—know so well what to do with the rest of the music that only a seasoned Mahler listener would hear them as just a shade subpar. In that first movement of the Third, for instance, Wit is the only conductor I’ve heard besides Michael Tilson Thomas (in his earlier recording with the London Symphony) who makes musical sense of that first movement, tying the strands together to make it sound coherent and not episodic. Despite two weak vocal soloists, Wit brings a similar sense of continuity and beautiful chamber-like atmosphere to the often fragmented Symphony of a Thousand . Olson’s 10th, in the rare edition by Joe Wheeler, was not as emotional an experience as Mark Wigglesworth’s superb Deryck Cooke 10th, but it’s still better than anyone else’s. I’ve heard so many really disappointing performances in the supposedly top-drawer cycles of Georg Solti, Benjamin Zander, James Levine, Bernstein, Leif Segerstam, Christoph von Dohnányi, Tilson Thomas, Klaus Tennstedt, etc., that finding a slightly weak or ineffective moment here and there doesn’t really dull my enthusiasm for this set as a whole.

Would I recommend any performances as a first choice? Yes, three: Symphonies Nos. 3, 7, and 8. But many of the others were, for me, clearly second choices (Nos. 2, 4, 5, 6, 9, and 10), and since several of my first choices are rare and/or out-of-print recordings (such as the Mehta Second, Tennstedt Fifth, and Kubelík Seventh on the out-of-print New York Philharmonic boxed set), as a whole it is certainly first choice as a complete cycle. I was also quite happy that the booklet includes all the lyrics of all the sung symphonies. Even at Naxos’s list price, it’s cheaper than any of the cycles I cited in the above paragraph, and shopping online will find you a discounted price that’s more than easy to live with.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley Read less

Works on This Recording

Symphony no 1 in D major "Titan" by Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Michael Halász
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1888/1896 
Symphony no 2 in C minor "Resurrection" by Gustav Mahler
Performer:  Hanna Lisowska (Soprano), Jadwiga Rappé (Alto)
Conductor:  Antoni Wit
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra,  Cracow Polish Radio/TV Chorus
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1888/1896; Germany 
Symphony no 3 in D minor by Gustav Mahler
Performer:  Ewa Podles (Alto)
Conductor:  Antoni Wit
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra,  Cracow Philharmonic Chorus,  Cracow Philharmonic Boys' Choir
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1893-1896; Hamburg, Germany 
Symphony no 10 in F sharp minor/major: 1st movement, Adagio by Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Antoni Wit
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1910; Austria 
Symphony no 4 in G major by Gustav Mahler
Performer:  Lynda Russell (Soprano)
Conductor:  Antoni Wit
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892-1900; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 5 in C sharp minor by Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Antoni Wit
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1901-1902; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 6 in A minor "Tragic" by Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Antoni Wit
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1904/1906; Austria 
Symphony no 7 in E minor by Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Michael Halász
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1904-1905; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 8 in E flat major "Symphony of A Thousand" by Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Antoni Wit
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra,  Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir,  Warsaw Boys' Choir
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1906; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 9 in D major by Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Michael Halász
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1908-1909; Austria 
Symphony no 10 in F sharp minor/major by Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Robert Olson
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1910; Austria 

Sound Samples

Symphony No. 1 in D major, "Titan": I. Langsam, schleppend
Symphony No. 1 in D major, "Titan": II. Kraftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell
Symphony No. 1 in D major, "Titan": III. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen
Symphony No. 1 in D major, "Titan": IV. Sturmisch bewegt
Symphony No. 1 in D major, "Titan": Blumine (original second movement)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, "Resurrection": I. Allegro maestoso. Mit durchaus ernstem und feierlichem Ausdruck
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, "Resurrection": II. Andante moderato. Sehr gemachlich

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Bayley is right! The best Mahler Set available! September 9, 2013 By P. Ledesma (Wellington, KS) See All My Reviews "After listening to this set for myself, I have to be pretty much in agreement with what was written by Bayley. Rather than repeat what we agree upon, it would probably be more helpful if I make my points about the few disagreements I have. I will start with the Olson performance of the Mahler’s 10th symphony. I have the Wigglesworth recording of the Cooke version from 1993 with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. If that is the one she finds to be more emotional than Olson’s reading, then I couldn’t disagree more! Olson’s performance of the Wheeler version was the first I’ve ever heard that actually sounded like music that Mahler would actually write! That ALONE provides me with all of the emotion I would be looking for! But it delivers far beyond that with exceptional musicianship from all of the participants! The orchestra soars while remaining transparent, yet they can back off dynamically with no decrease in intensity or tone quality! In the 8th symphony I didn’t find any weak soloists - as did Bayley - unless you consider anyone that can’t sound exactly like Christa Ludwig or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to be considered weak. But like Bayley, this performance became my top choice for Mahler's 8th. Antoni Wit has become my favorite conductor, and this collection of vocalists and instrumentalists put on a world class performance that I will look forward to every time I want to hear this work! Halasz and the PNRSO are equally as masterful with the 7th, which makes all 3 conductors in this set as succeeding in displacing former favorite Mahler Symphony performance that have been top picks of mine for a decade or more! The 3rd symphony is outstanding as well, but I still lean slightly to my Bernstein from 1987 (Avery Fischer Hall) with the New York Philharmonic, but just by a thread! The disappointments are very few and the impressive moments are many! So I agree that this is probably the best complete set of Mahler symphonies available!" Report Abuse
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