This album features recordings of four piano rolls that Gustav Mahler made of his own compositions.
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 "Who can bear those monstrous symphonies, those over-blown, out-of-date horrors," asked one leading music critic when the New York Philharmonic launched a Mahler Festival to celebrate the composer's 1960 centenary.
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.
The Barbirolli Societys latest release is a 2-CD set of the complete concert given in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester on 20 October 1960, with the combined forces of the Hallé and BBC Northern Symphony Orchestras. The concert consisted of Nielsens Symphony No.5 and Mahlers Symphony No.7. Michael Kennedy, writing in 2000, stated: Performances of the (Mahler) Seventh were much rarer then than they are today, and Mahlerian scholars and enthusiasts flocked to Manchester for the event, among them Deryck Cooke who was profoundly impressed by Sir Johns ability to make the works structure cohere. This was an especially significant comment coming from Cooke, who harboured many doubts about the symphony and confessed to finding it most problematical.
This unbelievably exciting record is actually a Mahler world premiere! Das klagende Lied was Mahler's first great work–he was only 18 when he wrote it–but he later removed its first part and extensively revised the remaining two. The original versions of the second two parts, then, have never been performed until their release in 1997 as part of the new critical edition. The music is, as might be expected, less polished than the revision, but it's also wilder and even more powerful in many respects. Hopefully it will gain new attention for this neglected but totally characteristic work. This performance is nothing short of spectacular, and makes the best possible case for Mahler's original thoughts.
My first reaction was to wonder whether we had not passed saturation-point for recordings of Mahler's Fifth Symphony. Over a dozen are currently available, of which any one of those mentioned above should satisfy the needs of even an insatiable Mahlerian. All are performances on insight, executed in majestic style, and several are available on CD. Now comes Sinopoli to add to the pile. Remembering colleagues' reviews of his London performances of Mahler, I put this recording on the turntable with misgivings. But I have to report that I now gladly make room for this remarkable performance alongside my other favourites. It does not displace them, but it complements them.
Part of the art of conducting seems to me to lie in the ability to make the listener attend afresh to familiar music, to reveal new or different facets. This is what Sinopoli does here, and whatever may go on in the concert hall (I have not heard him there), in the recording studio, judging by this release, the most certainly does not miss or misjudge the spirit of the music.