My list of favorite Mahler symphony recordings, prompted by those of Alex Ross and Opera Chic

I noticed with interest the other day a list of favorite Mahler recordings that Alex Ross posted on his indispensable blog, which quickly sparked a list by the anonymous author of the delicious Opera Chic blog. I find both of their summaries persuasive, but, naturally, I figured three can play at this game.

Not really a game, of course. This is terribly serious business, choosing the best recordings of Mahler symphonies. Those of us stricken with Mahlerian fever get very passionate about the performances that move us.

My first encounter with Mahler was the use of his music on the soundtrack of the Visconti film Death in Venice. I will never forget the sensation of being in a darkened theater and ...


hearing the Adagietto from the Symphony No. 5 start to unfold as the movie began. The way the slowly unfolding theme was matched to the gradual appearance of gentle waves on the screen -- well, I get verklempt just thinking about it all over again.

The movie itself had a massive enough impact on me (that's a whole 'nother story entirely), while its soundtrack not only introduced me to Mahler, but really triggered what became my life-long association with classical music. I liked that sort of stuff before then, but didn't necessarily love it, and certainly never guessed that it would become so important to me. Mahler was my primary entry point into the whole genre. Ah, but I digress.

After my Mahler baptism, I started collecting all the symphonies as I could afford them, and then, of course, adding multiple interpretations of each over the years. Oddly enough, I never got particularly enthusiastic about the conductor whose performances were featured on that Death in Venice soundtrack, Rafael Kubelik. Other interpreters ended up affecting me much more.

Here, then, my Mahler list. In some instances, I couldn't settle on just one.

Symphony No. 1: James Judd, Florida Philharmonic (Harmonia Mundi). Not the most famous recording, but a stand-out just the same. It would be worthy of honors just for Judd's individualistic, extraordinarily beautiful phrasing in the second movement alone.

Symphony No. 2: Leonard Bernstein, NY Philharmonic (DG); Leopold Stokowski, BBC Symphony (BBC Legends); John Barbirolli, Berlin Philharmonic (Testament). All three conductors were great personalities, and that's what they bring to these performances. (If you haven't already guessed, I love lots of distinctive touches of interpretation in Mahler -- and just about everything else.)

Symphony No. 3: Bernstein, New York Philharmonic (Sony Classical). The symphony's heights are scaled with truly poetic power.

Symphony No. 4: The only possible choice in my book is the enchanting 1939 recording by Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw (Philips). He learned the symphony directly from Mahler and poured into it delectable amounts of rhythmic flexibility and abundant portamento (exactly the sort of elements you can hear discussed in interviews with NY Philharmonic veterans who played the work with Mahler himself conducting).

Symphony No. 5: Barbirolli, Philharmonia (EMI); Bernstein, Vienna Philharmonic (DG). Towering personalities matched to towering music.

Symphony No. 6: Barbirolli, New Philharmonia (EMI); Barbirolli, Berlin Philharmonic (Testament). On the EMI recording, the conductor's controversially slow tempo for the march in the first movement is awesome in its emotional weight. He's just a little faster with the Berliners. In both cases, he gets to the soul of this score in an unusually powerful way.

Symphony No. 7: Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony (the orchestra's own label). Dynamic and involving. His earlier recording with the London Symphony (BMG) has much to recommend it as well.

Symphony No. 8: Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony (Decca); Dimitri Mitropoulos, Vienna Philharmonic (Orfeo). In each case, a sizzling performance. For me, Mitropoulos is a superb  Mahlerist, given much too little appreciation these days. Any of his Mahler recordings is worth hearing.

Symphony No. 9: Bernstein, Berlin Philharmonic (DG); Barbirolli, Berlin Philharmonic (EMI). Both conductors tap memorably into the profundity of the Ninth.

Das Lied von der Erde: Fritz Wunderlich, Christa Ludwig, Otto Klemperer, New Philharmonia (EMI). Sublime singing from both soloists keeps this release at the top of a field crowded with memorable performances.