This Mahler cycle has had a checkered history on disc. The two earliest performances (Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6) were released on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. EMI then picked up the rest but didn't bother to distribute the set internationally. After it was deleted, French EMI put Symphonies Nos. 1-5 in a budget box but never bothered to release the remainder. So it's wonderful to have it all together at last on 11 well-stuffed CDs, because on balance this is the finest complete Mahler cycle available. It has no weak spots at all, and several of the interpretations here, including Symphonies Nos. 1, 5, 7, 8, and 9 stand at or near the top of the list. The sonics are also stunning, a tribute to the WDR engineers working both in Germany and also live in Tokyo, where the last few items in the cycle were recorded. This is the Mahler cycle in which the music most closely sounds like it actually does in concert.
Gary Bertini's approach in some ways resembles Kubelik's, in that he's always thinking in terms of large paragraphs and never distorts a phrase or fractures the long musical line in order to make his interpretive points. That doesn't mean that he's insensitive to Mahler's use of instrumental color either atmospherically or structurally. No one gets more atmosphere out of the cowbell and celesta episodes in the Sixth Symphony, for example, or uncovers more ear-catching detail in the second movement of the Eighth Symphony. His First and Fourth symphonies have all the freshness and spontaneity that you might imagine. Nor does Bertini underplay the music: witness the raucous ending of the Seventh, and above all the extraordinary, 28-minute-long finale of the Ninth. This is one of the few exceptionally slow accounts of the music that really works, possibly because of the energy that Bertini brings to everything that comes before.
Bertini also has a first-rate lineup of vocal soloists, with Lucia Popp in the Fourth, Florence Quivar in the Third, and in the Eighth, sopranos Julia Varady and Marianne Haggander, altos Anne Howells and Quivar again, tenor Paul Frey, and baritone Alan Titus, among others. This Das Lied von der Erde also is extremely fine, with Ben Heppner in excellent voice and Marjana Lipovsek offering one of her finest outings on disc. Throughout, the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra plays magnificently, with both passion and precision. The brass are especially spectacular. You won't hear anywhere a finer trombone solo in the first movement of the Third, or a more ebullient, horn-led scherzo of the Fifth. God only knows how long this set will remain in print, so grab it while you can, and stick it on your iPod without delay. If you want to know what Mahler's all about, conveniently and inexpensively, this is the set to have.
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com