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The last Romantic--the symphonies of Gustav Mahler

Orchestral music was in a state of transition when Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) took up his pen and began composing symphonies, the likes of which the world had never heard before. His nine symphonies span perhaps the most momentous transition in all of music. While his youth coincided with the final flowering of Late Romanticism (the music of Brahms, Shumann and Wagner), his later years saw the birth of radicalism (the music of Debussy, Hindemith and Richard Strauss) that was to undermine the centuries-old structure of music itself. In taking the traditional symphony to its expressive limits, and in so doing stretching the conventional tonal system to the breaking point, Mahler effectively contributed to its demise. In a sense Mahler is the last Romantic, the end of the line that begun about 100 years earlier with the classic symphonies of Franz-Joseph Haydn (and peaked with the symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven). After Mahler, the symphony was no longer important; 20th-century composers such as Bartok, Debussy, and Ravel ignored the genre altogether and felt no compulsion whatsoever to attempt writing one.


Not everyone was crazy about the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. His symphonies were long, emotionally over-the-top, and, some would say, tasteless. "The symphony," he explained, "should be like the world; it must contain everything." Indeed, had he not been a famous opera conductor, with much clout and access to a number of world-class orchestras, it's likely no one would have heard his music. Still, he never lost faith, and often said, "my time will yet come." And it did, too, in the age of recorded sound. And who should conduct his music in the age of records? Two of his understudies who had shared his vision, and who helped him conduct the massive forces his symphonies sometimes called for. They were Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, both of whom were in their early twenties when Mahler was approaching his 60s and writing his greatest symphonies.


Long after he died, Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic performed Mahler's last great work, the mighty Ninth Symphony, which was duly recorded and released to the public, on ten 78-rpm records (20 sides in all). This was in 1938. Walter was very familiar with Mahler's Ninth, having conducted the world premier in 1911.


Because Mahler's Ninth was so long it was seldom performed, thus when EMI's Fred Gaisberg learned that Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic were planning a rare performance, he decided to take the opportunity to record it. Because Walter had scheduled a number of rehearsals at Vienna's Musikverein, there was ample time for EMI's engineers to set up a "live" recording. Two machines were used, running in harness: while one was recording, the other was being loaded with wax. Eight weeks later, Austria was annexed by Hitler. A number of Vienna Philharmonic principles fled the country, as did Walter himself.


Gaisberg caught up with Walter, a "bewildered refugee," in Paris to obtain his approval of the recording, now packaged in a multi-disc album of ten 78-rpm records. Gaisberg recalled: "So delighted was he with the results that his usually sober face brightened up considerably." As well it might: it was an authentic document, laden with historic interest, had been captured on record with just 56 days to spare.


Listening to the performance today can be a harrowing experience. And while Walter recorded the symphony after the war (in stereo, for Columbia Records), he never again captured the feeling of his earlier 1938 performance.


The '38 recording has been digitalized and transferred to a single CD, and is available on EMI Classics (bar code #24356 29652). If you prefer a more modern sound there is Herbert van Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic's magisterial version (also highly-rated), on Deutsche Gramophone (bar code #28941 07262)


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