Cover of CD box set from Urlicht AudioVisual

Cover of CD box set from Urlicht AudioVisual (Urlicht AudioVisual)

Every July 7 -- Gustav Mahler's birthday -- I try to set aside some time for listening to his music, which has long been an essential part of my life. As I've written before, the experience of encountering Mahler for the first time changed everything for me.

To begin with, hearing those startling, emotional sounds made me realize that I had to study classical music so that I might understand this composer better. That, in turn, led me to a profession as a classical music critic. But enough about me. What do you think of my career?

But seriously, folks, Mahler will always be a big deal to me, which means I never tire of learning more about him and hearing more interpretations of his work. And that is why I want to make sure you know about a collection from Urlicht AudioVisual -- "The Music of Gustav Mahler: Issued 78s, 1903-1940."

This set of eight compact discs is indispensable to serious Mahler fans. Of course, the most serious will already have the Bruno Walter-conducted items and may have tracked down a lot of the more obscure material already. But a lot of us will find many a fresh treasure -- or curio (the Fourth Symphony recorded by a Tokyo orchestra in 1930, for example).

And, besides, it's great to have everything gathered together in a neat package, all sensitively transferred (by Ward Marston, Mark Obert-Thorn and Charles Martin), with highly detailed and illuminating notes by Sybille Werne and the set's producer Gene Gaudette.

The earliest item, made when Mahler was still alive, is perhaps a bit tangential, but still valuable -- a 1903 recording of an aria from the Weber opera that Mahler reconstructed, "Die drie Pintos." After that, it's all pure Mahler and endlessly fascinating, from Grete Stuckgold singing lieder in charming fashion to Dimitri Mitropoulos leading the Minneapolis Symphony in a taut account of Mahler's First.

There are marvels of interpretive nuance that emerge throughout the set, despite dated sound and some less-than-stellar orchestral playing here and there. Today's performers could learn an awful lot from studying this material.

Note, for example, the marvelous portamento and charm in the second movement of Symphony No. 2 conducted by Oscar Fried in 1924 -- not to mention his time-suspending approach to the "Urlicht" movement, with the rich voice of Emmi Leisner.

Speaking of singers, performances by two sopranos, Aaltje Noordewier-Reddingius in "Um Mitternacht" (with organ accompaniment) and Elisabeth Schumann in a song from "Das Knaben Wunderhorn," are exquisitely communicative. 

An unexpected highlight -- a salon orchestra playing very stylish arrangements of a selections from "Wunderhorn" and, yes, "Das Lied von der Erde" in 1928. Extraordinary.

Disc after disc, a valuable history emerges of Mahler appreciation in the decades immediately following the composer's death. I wish room could have been made for the 1940 Mengelberg account of the Fourth Symphony, since it is such an interpretive benchmark, but this set still delivers an invaluable lesson in music history -- and music-making.