Although Gustav Mahler had his acolytes, in his lifetime critics and audiences mostly failed to appreciate his music — which must have seemed so overwhelmingly vast, so impossibly dynamic, so stylistically conflicted in the early 1900s. Irked after spending time with bigger star Richard Strauss, Mahler famously wrote to his wife-to-be, “My time will come.”
Nearly as famously, in 1967, Leonard Bernstein pronounced, “Mahler—his time has come,” fifty-six years after his death. Via an essay brimming with characteristic zeal in High Fidelity magazine, Bernstein was heralding the release of his complete Columbia recording of the composer’s nine symphonies, the very first integral set, mostly performed by the New York Philharmonic.
In one sense, Mahler’s work was very much of its time, as a fin-de-siècle, ultra-Romantic summing up of music from Bach to Wagner via operatic symphonies steeped in Austro-German folklore. But the stylistic and thematic conflicts in his music—high art vs. kitsch, nostalgia vs. modernity, orchestral extremes vs. chamber subtleties, innocence vs. irony, even heaven vs. earth—kept it avant-garde for many decades.
British scholar Donald Mitchell sees Mahler not as a musical sunset on the nineteenth century but the sunrise of the twentieth, the prophet of everything from the Second Viennese School to Shostakovich to postmodernism: “I think of Mahler’s works as constituting a mythic, epic Praeludium to the twentieth century. To whichever work one turns, it is impossible not to hear outlined, somewhere, an unmistakable anticipation of a significant technique, the opening up of new formal paths, of significant areas of expression to fresh exploration and inspiration.”
To Bernstein, Mahler’s time had come precisely because of the spiritual duality in his music: “the conflict between an intense love of life and a disgust with life.” People in the ‘60s could appreciate Mahler’s visionary music only because the world had experienced “seventy years of world holocausts, of the simultaneous advance of democracy with our increasing inability to stop making war, of the simultaneous magnification of national pieties with the intensification of our active resistance to social equality ”
On the eve of next year’s one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his birth, it seems that Mahler’s time has come all over again, for some of the same reasons and for some new ones. Mahler has become the new Beethoven—the composer whom conductors and orchestras feel driven to measure themselves against, the test of choice for interpretive depth and ensemble virtuosity. The corporate record business has downsized and brick-and-mortar music retail has virtually disappeared, but from San Francisco and New York to London and Zurich, one Mahler cycle begins as another finishes—with undoubted upsides and perhaps some downsides, too.
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Other conductors had made important individual Mahler recordings before Bernstein, of course, particularly in the pre-war era by the composer’s disciple Bruno Walter and conducting peer Willem Mengelberg. But after Bernstein, other star conductors would truly take the baton, waxing their own complete cycles as the record business entered a heyday and Mahler became part of the standard repertoire.
Record-buyers eventually had myriad options for Mahler interpretation—from the path-burning intensity of early Bernstein to the august drama of late Bernstein (he returned to the scores for Deutsche Grammophon), from such Old World maestros as Rafael Kubelik and Georg Solti to CD-era stars like Simon Rattle and Riccardo Chailly. The world’s greatest Mahler ensembles—Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Philharmonics of Berlin and Vienna among them—recorded the symphonies multiple times.
Nearing the finish line is what could be the last great-name, major-label Mahler cycle, on Deutsche Grammophon and led by Pierre Boulez—like Donald Mitchell, a key exponent of Mahler as not so much the last Romantic but as the first modernist, the enabler of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. The French conductor’s series, begun in the mid-‘90s and made with various orchestras to divided reactions, culminated last year with a surprisingly sympathetic account of the epic and often problematic Eighth Symphony with the Berlin Staatskapelle. There are only some orchestral songs and the Adagio from the unfinished Symphony No. 10 remaining, which may be recorded for a boxed set to appear in 2011, the one hundredth anniversary of Mahler’s death.
Even as major labels shy away from big-ticket productions, advances in recording technology have made quality live recordings more feasible to produce by orchestras in-house, so that many have made a virtue of necessity. Most of these recordings are audiophile productions, released on high-resolution, surround sound-capable Super Audio CD (SACD). But late this summer came a sign of the times: the first major download-only Mahler cycle, via the New York Philharmonic, renewing its connection to a composer whose final position was as chief conductor of this orchestra. The Philharmonic’s imprint quickly released, via various digital outlets, live recordings prepared for broadcast that document the orchestra’s traversal of the symphonies with Lorin Maazel, a tribute to the departing music director.
Of the other in-house Mahler cycles, the one that looks and sounds like a prestige major-label production is that by the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas. They have nearly completed their lovingly packaged run of the symphonies and major vocal works, with an album of orchestral songs due as a capper next year. The series has won four Grammy Awards and, according to the orchestra, has sold 150,000 units so far (with the SACDs accounting for 85 percent of sales, over downloads).