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 "Who can bear those monstrous symphonies, those over-blown, out-of-date horrors," asked one leading music critic when the New York Philharmonic launched a Mahler Festival to celebrate the composer's 1960 centenary.
You will probably be as incredulous as I was to learn that the greatest cycle of Mahler symphonies comes not from any of the usual suspects - Abbado, Bernstein, Chially, Haitink, Kubelik, Rattle, Sinopoli, Solti, Tennstedt - but from the unsung Gary Bertini, who spent the better part of his career as music director of the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra. Unlike any of those more publicized sets, each of which includes a misfire or two, Bertini is consistently successful from first to last; his performance of each of these works can stand comparison with the very best available.
If the Alpha label had done nothing more than return Gustav Leonhardt to the studio, it would still be one of the best contemporary classical record companies. That everything else about its releases – the sound, the liner notes, even the reproductions on the covers – is as good or better than what any other classical company manages is only icing on the cake. Leonhardt has been one of the finest harpsichordists in the world for more than 40 years, and his recordings of the repertoire from Frescobaldi to Bach have been the standards against which all other recordings have been judged. But Leonhardt had made no recordings for most of the last decade, and listeners began to wonder if he ever would again. Now, with his fourth release for Alpha, listeners can finally relax, confident in the knowledge that Leonhardt has indeed returned. This 2005 disc of keyboard music by Byrd finds Leonhardt at the top of his form. As always, his technique is secure, and nothing in Byrd's virtuoso writing is beyond him. And, as always, his musicianship is assured, and nothing in Byrd's sensitive music is beyond him.