Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony

Mahler-Klemperer S2 Album Cover

Introduction. Readers of The Orthosphere might approach the following essay as though it were an addition to a suite of music-appreciation essays that I have posted at this website.  Previously at The Orthosphere, I have commented on the music of Ernest Bloch (1880 – 1959), Eduard Tubin (1905 – 1982), Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958), and Howard Hanson (1896 – 1981).  Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911) is by far a more important composer than any of those four despite the fact that each is a splendid and wonderful composer in his own way.  I have reason to believe that once, during his sojourn in New York State and on his way to Niagara Falls with his wife, Mahler passed through the small town on Lake Ontario where, in my exile from my native California, I have lived since the fall of the fateful year 2001.  A fair number of Mahler acquaintances made their way to California in the 1930s.  I knew musical people in California who had known Mahler – or who had known Mahler’s wife or daughter.  I knew others who, like me, had come powerfully under the spell of Mahler, whose influence may be heard in certain landmark film-scores, like those, for example, of Eric Korngold.  For me, Mahler has been a presence, immediate and personal, since my late teens, when I began to make my acquaintance with his extraordinary symphonies on record.  That was the heyday , at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, of the long-playing vinyl album.  Usually, the album came with extensive, small-type notes on the reverse of the cover or with a booklet inside the sleeve that was even more detailed than the back-of-the-sleeve essay.

It was possible in Los Angeles in the early 1970s to purchase “boxed sets” of the Mahler symphonies in the so-called Vox Box series – vintage (usually monophonic) recordings offered in three-disc sets for about a dollar per disc.  I probably first heard the “Resurrection” Symphony (Symphony No. 2, begun in the late 1880s and finished in the early 1890s) in one of the many recordings of that work made by Otto Klemperer, a Mahler-acolyte and noteworthy itinerant conductor, who became especially associated with Mahler’s “Resurrection.”

Mahler 01 Color Portrait

Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911)

I. We hear in the music of Gustav Mahler – in his symphonies and songs, for those were alone his genres – the whispering spirit of cultural finality. It is as though in Mahler’s ideas of developmental scale and infinitely nuanced instrumental color, and in his extended (also fragmented) melodies and dense often-grotesque counterpoint, Western music had reached the ultimate stage in the logic of its maturity, from which it could grow no further. Mahler’s context – Vienna at the end of the Nineteenth Century, Austria-Hungary before the fatal calamity of war, sugary, colorful, melancholy and delirious all at once, and in three-quarter time – itself imparts a flavor of fleeting ripeness to his scores.  One cannot listen to Mahler’s music without hearing, or rather without the experience of being haunted by, one’s knowledge, inescapable, of the artist’s tribulations and suffering.  Mahler’s premature death came at the age of fifty, from heart disease exacerbated by a streptococcal infection and by the emotional upheavals of his tenure with the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.  The infidelity of his wife, Alma, which he discovered at this time, did nothing to help the situation.  The concluding Abschied  of Das Lied von der Erde (1909) and the counterpart Adagio  of the Ninth Symphony (also 1909) have long since become iconic of this aspect of Mahler’s oeuvre, representative of that fading-away of existence and bitter-sweet leave-taking from all that one loves, with which posterity has come to associate the man.  The attitude about Mahler was not always so sympathetic.


Wilfrid Mellers (1914 – 2008)

Writing in the journal Scrutiny in 1940, during the twelve years when Nazi hegemony in Europe prohibited the performance of Mahler’s scores on the continent and at a time when English and American critics had not yet come to terms with Mahler’s aesthetic,Wilfrid Mellers (1914 – 2008), always perceptive in his judgments, boldly argued for that composer as an artistic “key-figure.”  In his essay, “Mahler as Key-Figure,” Mellers quotes some of the standing dismissals of Mahler at that time: “For instance, we are told that Mahler is an ‘old wind-bag’ who talked so much about his own tragic feelings that he did not even know what his feelings were; or, more politely, that though Mahler the tragic sufferer was genuine enough in his emotional outpourings he was essentially the romantic egoist and we (being so much more mature and sophisticated) are not interested in that sort of thing any longer.”  In addition, Mellers writes, although the ascription conflicts with those that castigate him as avant-garde and a provocateur, “we have the theory that Mahler is the bourgeois composer par excellence, whose aim and function is to ‘move masses.’”  In the last of these charges, we see emerging the modernist anti-communicative snobbism that would soon, beginning in the 1950s, make a habit of condemning all music for which a viable audience of non-specialists existed – the music of composers like Edward Elgar and Jean Sibelius, to name but two in addition to Mahler.

These complaints, as recorded by Mellers, echo prejudices against Mahler that first appeared in music-journalism at the turn of the century and that persisted for a long time.   Nicolas Slonimsky collects a number of these in his Lexicon of Musical Invective (Revised Edition, 1965).  Thus, for the reviewer of the New York Musical Courier, writing in November 1904, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony sounded like so much “drooling… emasculated simplicity.”  Critic Rudolf Louis of Die Deutsche Musik der Gegenwart, writing in 1909, bluntly declared Mahler’s music “repulsive” on the grounds, as he so charmingly put it, that it “acts Jewish.”  Reviewer R. D. Darrell, writing of the Eighth Symphony for the American journal Downbeat as late as 1952, heard only “fatuous mysticism and screaming hysteria.”  Mellers must have been aware of criticisms such as these, much harsher than those that he actually quotes; yet surprisingly, of the pronounced skepticism concerning Mahler’s symphonic achievement, and even presumably of the hostility to it, Mellers can write that, “There is an element of truth in all these accounts.”  The fact that Louis was apparently an anti-Semite does not mean that recognizably Jewish elements play no part in Mahler’s symphonic sound world.  They do, importantly, as we shall see.  For Mellers, Mahler “is the typical romantic figure”: “as a Jew… conscious of a sense of isolation” and as an heir of such musical precursors as Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, and Richard Wagner, acutely aware of prior compositional achievements colossal enough to humble even the most ambitious creative spirit.

Like all authentic creators, Mahler, as Mellers puts it, was both an original genius and a synthesizer, seeking to reconcile innovation with tradition, the Christian with the Jewish, and the romantic-subjective with the objectivity of Eighteenth Century music – whence in all likelihood, and exemplarily, his frequent attempts to fuse sonata form or scherzo or rondo with fugue.  “If we concentrate,” writes Mellers, “on that aspect of Mahler’s romanticism which we can locate in [purely] musical terms we see that technically it is associated, as the cult of the personal usually is, with the chromatic (‘Wagnerian’) nature of his harmony, and the exotic (or colouristic) aspects of his orchestral technique.”  It should be added, however, that Mahler often builds the drama in his symphonic structures on the contest between the chromatic and the diatonic, the expressionistic and the songlike, a pattern that the Second Symphony well illustrates.  In its chromatic character, Mahler’s music, according to Mellers, “marks the end of a cultural epoch,” as “the sunset of his voluptuous harmony and rich orchestration wavers into the twilight of… Berg, Schönberg and Webern.”  At the same time, Mahler’s music looks backwards to the rich ethos of Austrian and Central European folksong, especially to the triple pulse of the Ländler, also beloved of Schubert, whose quest for a lost innocence Mahler recapitulates at a new degree of urgency.

Finally, in connection with Mahler’s interest in baroque procedure, his Catholicism becomes incorporated in his music.  Mahler became a convert in 1897.  In this, Mellers finds another clue why the reception of Mahler’s music corresponded to irritation for decades after his death: “The incomprehension of his music so arrogantly displayed during this period is due as much to the traditionally religious aspect of his art as to the notoriously unpopular element of personality.”  For Mellers, “the polyphonic aspect of Mahler’s work is associated with… the musical past,” which Mahler wishes to preserve on the grounds that it represents a spiritual achievement contact with which becomes increasingly necessary in the burgeoning industrial-materialistic society.  The composer, whose childhood occurred in the provincial countryside, struggles to find his place in this society, without compromising his integrity as a person; he offers his own struggle as a model to others.

This intention, to hold the culture back from the abyss of nihilism, explains the presence in Mahler’s scores, supremely irritating to his detractors, of Kitsch-genres: the Klezmer tunes, parade-ground marches, and snippets of cabaret-song.  These decadent late-versions of authentic folk music represent a last, rapidly diminishing remembrance, by modern persons, of an earlier, spiritually charged life – the one lived by grandparental generations, now dead.

MAhler S2 01 Illo

Mahler’s Second: An Enormity

II. The death-shadowed Second Symphony in C-Minor, which nevertheless struggles towards faith, began as a stand-alone, single-movement tone poem on the model of Liszt and Richard Strauss. In concept, Liszt’s Héroïde Funèbre (Symphonic Poem No. 8 [1854]) seems a relevant precedent, especially considering the descriptive title that Mahler first appended to his own manuscript-partiturTotenfeier or “Funeral Rites.” Mahler explained that the musical graveside elegy of the score referred to the entombment of the “hero” of his First Symphony  (1888), whose subtitle “The Titan” the composer borrowed from a novel, one of his favorites, by Jean-Paul Richter.  In a romantic context the Titan refers to Prometheus, the pagan proto-Christ, divine tutor of humanity, redeemer of the people through his tuition, and sufferer of dictatorial retribution for his generous deeds.  Liszt, too, had written a Prometheus, his Symphonic Poem No. 5 (1855), in which the mythic figure becomes allegorically the artist-as-martyr whose vision remains unappreciated until his death, whereupon posterity, reversing its judgment, celebrates him tardily and guiltily.  Perhaps also the Totenfeier reflects Wagner’s Siegfried, whose funeral march forms a powerful interlude in Die Götterdämmerung, the final opera of The Ring.  Yet Mahler’s obsequies for his hero sound nothing like Wagner’s for the assassinated Volsung, nor really like Liszt’s lugubrious perorations.

Marked in the score – Allegro Maestoso: With Serious and Solemn Expression Throughout and Wild – the first bars of the Totenfeier, after a short tremolo in the violins and violas, require the double basses, with bows biting into the strings, to launch what Mellers, in The Sonata Principle (1962), describes as “a strifeful Mannheim skyrocket, straining to break the bands of the harmony’s processional rhythm.”

Deryck Cooke and Michael Kennedy see a precedent for these otherwise unprecedented symphonic gestures only in the opening bars of Mahler’s first large-scale work, his cantata Das Klagende Lied (1878).  Cooke writes of the Totenfeier that, “the funeral march rides ruthlessly over everything” in the movement; Cooke thus seconds Harold Truscott, who describes the cortege as “rumbling throughout much of the movement… sensed even when it is not played.”  The march-theme spins off motifs that Mahler exploits as subsidiary themes.  If this were grief, it would be grief inflamed by anger and troubled by anxiety.  Not too far into the movement, Mahler deploys his second subject: a quieter, more transparently scored, rising theme in the violins – colored by flutes, horns, and muted trumpets – that tries to solace the grim mood.  Not only does the recurrent tread of the procession resist such solace, however, but the appearance of the plainsong Dies Irae, associated with the Last Judgment, also contributes to maintaining the movement’s dark mood.  Toward the end of the developmental section, we hear, once, a motif that will return as a central, generative element in the elaborate Finale – a foretaste of the “Resurrection” theme.  Mahler foreshortens the recapitulation; he ends, not at all with a great crash, as one might expect, but with a sudden descent into silence.

The Second Symphony had the longest gestation of any Mahler symphony.  To the composer himself the Totenfeier loomed, if not quite as a fragment, then as a portent that pointed beyond itself.  Just where the portent might lead, Mahler at first remained unsure, composing the next three movements as intermezzi that would stand in contrast, mood-wise, to the Allegro Maestoso and to whatever would follow them by way of a Finale.  What would ultimately become the third movement, or Scherzo, and the fourth movement, with a sung text, Mahler drew from his existing settings of the folk-poems in the Clemens Brentano collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn; while what would become the second movement, the Andante Moderato, he composed from scratch.  This Andante  plays deceptively with classical conventions.  On its surface, it offers a sweet visage strongly at variance with the first movement’s grimness: in its initial phrases it sounds for all the world like mock-Schubert, with lilting reminiscences of the cake-like Rosamunde music.  Swiftly, chromatic intrusions becloud the simple harmonies, with the glowering temperament of the previous movement returning to subvert the assertion of innocence.  The “spiritual quest” reaches an impasse conspicuously not resolved by a recapitulation of the opening bars, whose transparency the listener now apprehends as entirely faux naïf.

Anthony of Padua

Anthony of Padua Preaches to the Fishes

For the Scherzo, Mahler adapted his Wunderhorn song about Saint Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes, dispensing with the vocal part, massively expanding the structure, and re-orchestrating thoroughly.  A moto perpetuo in three-quarter time, the Fischpredigt” Scherzo offers no relief from the prevailing despair; on the contrary, its obsessive rhythms and weird instrumental effects suggest precipitation into madness.  In the text of the original song, Saint Anthony, finding the parish church abandoned, decides to preach to the fishes.  The fish rise to attend as though a miracle were in the offing, but, as the text says: Die Predigt geendet, / Ein jeder sich wendet, / Die Hechte blieben Diebe, / Die Aale viel lieben. / Die Predigt hat g’fallen, / Sie blieben wie allen.”  [“The sermon once over, / Each darted for cover. / Every pike stayed a rover, / Every eel a lover. / The sermon they cherished / But their vices ne’er perished.”]  In a darkly comedic way the folk-verses comment on the vanity of actions and words – even those of a saint, who might be as deluded as a sinner.

Musically, an ascending theme in the brass signifies the effort to transcend delusion, but the tripping rhythm drags down the attempt, leaving us in the world of empty chapels and lunatic homilists.  The rute (a kind of musical brush) and col legno effects in the strings suggest that the Scherzo is, in fact, a Totentanz, appropriate again under the morbid dominion of the first movement.

Next comes the symphony’s shortest section, which, however, introduces the human voice for the first time. Urlicht, or “Primal Light,” also began as a Wunderhorn song.  To darkly colored brass-band accompaniment, at slow tempo, the contralto sings of the “Röschen rot,” the “Rosebud red,” that symbolizes the Christian redeemer.  Yet if the flower and the light were Christian symbols, they would also have strong Behmenist or mystical connotations, as does the expressed longing of the poem for a return from this world – this wandering path of exile – to God.  To add to the ecumenic mélange of impulses, Mahler chooses to accompany the repetition of the song in the second half of the movement with a violin solo the minor key warbling of which sounds like nothing else but a Jewish lullaby.  If it occurred as an interlude in Fiddler on the Roof, no one would think it out of place.  The words of Urlicht, writes Davies, “leave no room for doubt that the entire [symphony] is a prolonged meditation on the reason for life, on the need to accept a teleological view of existence.”



 III. The three middle movements of the musical scheme at last taking form in his mind, Mahler could begin to contemplate the Second Symphony’s Finale, which he understood would need to match the first movement in scale and ambition – and effect transfiguration for the Totenfeier’s mood of adamant hopelessness.  Mahler wrote to friends about his certainty that the Finale would require “the word” – that is, vocal, probably choral, forces, and a text, as had the Finale of Beethoven’s Ninth – and about the difficulty of finding suitable verses.  The death of Mahler’s elder colleague the conductor Hans von Bülow occurred at this time.  In March 1894 Mahler attended Bülow’s memorial service in Vienna, at which he heard a choir sing Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s hymn “Die Auferstehung” or “The Resurrection.”  Mahler appropriated Klopstock’s first stanza, altering it slightly, omitted the others, but wrote supplementary verses of his own.  In a later suppressed program note, Mahler described his Finale this way: “We again confront all the dreadful questions and the mood of the end of the [first] movement.  – The voice of the caller is heard: the end of all living things is at hand, the last judgment is announced, and [all] the horror of that day of days has set in.  – The earth trembles, graves burst open; the dead arise and step forth in [long] endless files.  The great and the small of this earth, kings and beggars, the just and the ungodly – all are making that pilgrimage.”  The apocalypse unfolds until, “an almighty feeling of love illumines us with blessed knowing and being.”

Like the anonymous medieval author of the Dies Irae , or Dante, or Albrecht Dürer, or Jerome Bosch, or the many composers like Wolfgang Mozart and Hector Berlioz who had set the Requiem Mass – Mahler was attracted by the imagery of the Apocalypse; but he also found nourishment in the more consoling Pauline vision of the Last Judgment.  One should be skeptical of the view, sometimes encountered, that Mahler was an intellectual naïf.  On the contrary, as such of his biographers as Egon Gartenberg, Kurt Blaukopf, and Henri Louis de la Grange have shown, Mahler read methodically in a variety of subjects, including religion and theology, throughout his adolescence and adulthood.  Blaukopf, for example, while noting that earlier Mahler-biographers had tended to neglect the composer’s intellectual life outside the musical domain, characterizes his subject as “well-read, conversant with classical poetry and with the novel and drama of his day, as well as with the works of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky.”  According to Blaukopf, Mahler had “an extensive interest in philosophy” but was also “drawn to Christianity”; moreover, “his Christianity was deeply felt,” despite the fact that, “it never attained to the state of dogmatic manifestation.”

The Second Symphony, summed up in its Finale, is not only musically but also philosophically and religiously coherent.  Musically, as Kennedy writes: “Mahler weaves his fabric from a skein of thematic cross-references, anticipations and cross-fertilizations.  Offstage horn calls and what can only be called fanfare-fantasias prepare for the violent percussive outburst that precedes a wild popular march.”  The Finale begins im Tempo des Scherzos” – with an outburst of anguish involving the full orchestra.  As this subsides into quietude, the horns (Rehearsal Division No. 3) call to one another mysteriously from remote locations in the auditorium, their interweaving, increasingly complex figurations introducing a calculated spatial element into the score, as does also the offstage brass ensemble, when later it comes into play.

Out of the initial horn-episode, Mahler develops a vast march, with ever-thickening textures, on the Dies Irae (11 – 20), already heard in the Totenfeier; this gathering tumult comes to a great and calamitous climax, as though to reiterate the cry of anguish with which the movement had begun.  Now is the moment, after a brief silence, for the “fanfare-fantasias” that Kennedy remarks to come into their own (22 – 28).  After that – the “Nightingale” episode, combined with a reprise of the distant horn calls, which leads to Klopstock’s hymn (30): Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du / Mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh!”  [“Rise again, yes rise again thou wilt / My dust, but a short sleep hence!”]  Mahler’s own verses, however, are the ones that articulate the idea behind the music.  The kernel of it is this: Was entstanden ist / Das muss vergehen! / Was vergangen, auferstehen! / Hör’ auf zu beben! / Bereite dich zu leben!”  [What rises to be / It must pass away! / What passes away it rises anew! / Leave off thy fright! / Rise again to light!”]  Mahler’s words parallel Paul’s in First Corinthians 15:42 and following: “So it is with the resurrection of the dead.  What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.” And later (15:52): “For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised… For this perishable body must put on imperishability.”  As Eric Voegelin has noted, Paul’s text, in its original Greek, echoes themes that appear in Plato and Aristotle, especially in the former.

Paul of Tarsus

St. Paul Preaching

In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates describes poetry – or art – as an activity by which men transcend their mortality to create metaphysical values that constitute the real, although intangible, bases of orderly existence.  For Paul, belief is an art, which he strives to perfect.  For Mahler, art is belief; it articulates the conviction, as Blaukopf puts it, that “all the toil of earthly life is meaningful” and that  “death does not extinguish life, for resurrection is certain.”  What does “death” mean in the context of Mahler’s ”Resurrection” Symphony?  “Death” stands as metaphor for all those compromises with humanity that we associate with the purely economically driven, routine-based, bureaucratized society and that have as their consequences the alienation of the individual from himself and from the communal and moral sources of his integrity.  Artistic achievement serves to remind the individual of that integrity, whether he sustains it or has let it lapse.  According to Blaukopf, Mahler “was obsessed by the idea that his compositions were in the truest sense indestructible.”  Mahler builds his symphonic structures, in part, from already-existing materials – the Dies Irae melody, a Jewish lullaby, the sound of night birds trilling, and Klopstock’s hymn – that he himself resurrects in a new context.  “Resurrection” implies for Mahler not only what Blaukopf calls “a concept of workmanship, ensuring creative continuity” but also the openness of existence.

The harmonic scheme of the symphony illustrates such openness, moving from the grim C-minor of the Totenfeier to the brilliant, uplifting E-flat major of the Finale.

Mahler Scherchen

IV. The first full performance of the Second Symphony occurred in 1897, with Mahler himself conducting. Later performances in Mahler’s lifetime involved the cooperation of some of the key figures of the Mahler performing tradition as it emerged in the Twentieth Century – Oskar Fried, Otto Klemperer, Hermann Scherchen, and Bruno Walter. Mahler’s acceptance in the latter half of the Twentieth Century has often been ascribed to the supposed pioneering evangelism of Leonard Bernstein.  While Bernstein certainly widened the modern audience for the Mahler oeuvre, especially in the United States, the idea of his solitary crusade on behalf of an unknown composer is a pure (some might say self-serving and idolatrous) myth.  In fact, Mahler had early tenacious advocates in Walter, who began as his assistant in Hamburg and moved with him to Vienna, in the Dutch director of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, Willem Mengelberg, and in others.  Walter gave important premiere performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde.  Mengelberg, who had known Mahler and who had invited Mahler to conduct his orchestra, organized a Mahler Festival in 1920, at which all the symphonies and Das Lied were performed.

Mahler performances in the 1920s and 30s, while not legion, but were hardly unknown.  Fried, Klemperer, Scherchen, and Walter all steadily advocated from the podium; so did Arthur Rodzinski and Carl Schuricht.  Klemperer and Walter carried on their advocacy in America, to which the Nazis forced both in exile.

The “Resurrection” Symphony has been recorded dozens of times.  The discography below adheres to selectivity; its sections follow a chronological principle, with “Historical Recordings” listed first, followed by “Early Stereo Recordings,” and followed again by “Recent Digital Recordings in Various Media.”  The criteria are personal and eccentric if not altogether arbitrary.

Historical Recordings: (1) Oskar Fried conducts the Berlin State Opera Orchestra, the Berlin Cathedral Chorus, and soloists Gertrud Bindernagel (soprano) and Emmi Leisner (contralto); recorded 1924.  (Naxos 8.11052-3)  Fried’s is an acoustic recording, whose audacity, given the technical limitations under which the engineers achieved it, is hard to overestimate.  Fried’s recording should not be anyone’s initial exposure to the Second Symphony, but those who gradually invest in the work will eventually want to hear it.  Despite the swish of the shellac surfaces and the narrow dynamic range of the sound, the drama and conviction of the interpretation manage to tell.

(2) Eugene Ormandy conducts the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, the Twin Cities Symphonic Chorus, and soloists Corinne Frank (soprano) and Ann O’Malley Gallogly (contralto); recorded 1935.  (Biddulph WHL 032)  Ormandy’s is only the second recording of the Second Symphony, ten years after Fried, and using the electrical recording process.  Ormandy’s later, stereo “take” of the work is routine, but this commercially daring recording has real fire and, for its vintage, excellent fidelity.

(3) Otto Klemperer conducts the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, the Akademie Kammerchor, the Singverein der Musikfreunde, and soloists Ilona Steingruber (soprano) and Hilde Rössl-Majdan (contralto); recorded 1951.  (Vox CDX2 5521)  The “Resurrection” Symphony was a signature-item for Klemperer throughout his career.  His interpretations varied, from the manically swift to the glacially slow in tempo.  His postwar Vienna account for Vox is reminiscent of Fried’s but with much better sound – although not yet in stereo.

(4) Bruno Walter (I) conducts the Vienna Philharmonic, choral forces, and soloists Maria Cebotari (soprano) and Rosette Anday (contralto); recorded in concert 16 September 1948.  (Archipel ARPCD 0082)  Klemperer once said that Walter was a “moralist” and that he was an “immoralist.”  Where Klemperer’s interpretation is craggy and modernistic, Walter’s, especially in this “air-check” of a broadcast concert, softens the edges, with a certain gain in the sweetness that is, after all, an element of the score.

Early Stereo Recordings: (1) Hermann Scherchen conducts the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, the Vienna State Academy Chamber Choir, and soloists Mimi Cortese (soprano) and Lucretia West (contralto); recorded 1958.  (High Definition Tape Transfers HDTT 137)  Scherchen, who, like Leopold Stokowski, took great interest in recording, was the first out of the gate with a stereophonic “Resurrection.”  Using multiple microphones, the Westminster engineers bring the listener into the midst of the orchestra, revealing a richness of “inner detail.”  Scherchen led his forces through one of the most powerful Finales ever.

(2) Bruno Walter (Bis) conducts the New York Philharmonic, the Westminster Choir, and soloists Emilia Cundari (soprano) and Maureen Forrester (contralto); recorded 1958.  (Sony SM2K 64 447)  Like Scherchen’s “Resurrection,” Walter’s belies its more than fifty years, the stereo soundstage being extraordinarily spacious and deep.  The Columbia engineers crafted a more blended sound, however, than their Westminster counterparts.  As in his 1948 Vienna performance, Walter emphasizes the lyrical side of the score.  His choral entry is magical.

(3) Otto Klemperer (Bis) conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus and soloists Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano) and Hilde Rössl-Majdan (contralto); recorded 1963.  (EMI CDM 7 696622)  By 1963, Klemperer had slowed considerably, so that this landmark EMI recording clocks in at 79 minutes compared with 75 in 1951.  In 1963, however, Klemperer takes the Scherzo slightly faster than he had in 1951, with an increase in the grotesque mania of the movement.  Klemperer’s “Last Judgment” is here as frightening as in Scherchen’s recording.

(4) Maurice Abravanel conducts the Utah Symphony, the University of Utah Civic Chorale, and soloists Beverly Sills (soprano) and Florence Kopleff (contralto); recorded 1967.  (Silverline Classics Audio DVD 288244 – 9) Maurice who?  The Utah Symphony?  Abravanel, a Greek-born Sephardic Jew, studied music in Berlin, and came to the United States in 1936.  He led and formed the Utah Symphony from 1946 to 1979, creating a first-rate ensemble in the Great Salt Desert.  The Vanguard engineers recorded Abravanel’s Mahler in a warm, resonant acoustic that perfectly matches the conductor’s optimistic understanding of the score.  – At least equal to Klemperer and Walter.

Recent Digital Recordings in Various Media: (1) Claudio Abbado conducts the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, the Orfeón Donostiara, and soloists Eteri Gvazava (soprano) and Anna Larsson (contralto); recorded in concert 2 August 2003.  (EuroArts DVD 2053268)  The visual element rarely adds much to an orchestral performance.  Because of Mahler’s fantastically variegated orchestration, however, and because of the spatial element in the “Resurrection” Symphony, the image can help listeners understand the subtleties of the score.  This is especially so when the performance is as beautiful and carefully judged as Abbado’s.  An additional attraction is the multi-channel layer of the disc, which spreads the sonic platform to four speakers.

(2) Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony, the SFS Chorus, and soloists Isabel Bayradakian (soprano) and Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson (mezzo-soprano); recorded in concert 23 – 26 June 2004.  (SFS SACD 821936-0006-2)  Thomas began as a protégé of Bernstein, but has honed a personal style with Mahler that is less histrionic but more deeply probing than his mentor’s.  Like Abbado’s performance, Thomas’ is stunningly beautiful and superbly recorded, with a transparency that reveals extraordinary detail in the dense polyphony of the Finale.

(3) Bernard Haitink conducts the Berlin Philharmonic, the Ernst-Senff Chor, and soloists Sylvia McNair (soprano) and Jan van Nes (contralto); recorded in concert January 1993.  (Philips DVD 074 3131)  Haitink succeeded Eduard van Beinum at the Concertgebouw Orchestra; van Beinum had succeeded Mengelberg.  Haitink sustained the orchestra’s commitment to Mahler and recorded a complete cycle of the symphonies for Philips in the 1960s and early 1970s.  He has re-recorded the cycle several times.  Haitink’s 1993 account with the Berlin Philharmonic illustrates his “non-interventionist” style of interpretation, heeding strictly Mahler’s tempo directions and expressive indications. As in the case of Abbado, the intelligently directed visual aspect of the recording helps in “explaining” the complex goings-on in the score.

(4) Gilbert Kaplan conducts the Vienna Philharmonic and Singverein and soloists Latonia Moore (soprano) and Nadya Michael (mezzo-soprano); recorded November/December 2002.  (Deutsche Gramophon CD B0000989-2)  Kaplan is an American publishing millionaire who learned to read a score and conduct – for the purpose of leading performances and making recordings solely of Mahler’s Second Symphony.  Kaplan is not an “amateur,” except in the sense that he loves what he does.  He understands Mahler’s score to the proverbial t.  His interpretation, not altogether unlike Fried’s from 1924, is “analytic,” concerned with highlighting details and making the structure as obvious as possible.  Yet the result is convincingly musical; it is not just an oddity based on a hobby.  Those coming to the “Resurrection” for the first time might do well to begin with Kaplan.

4 thoughts on “Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony

  1. Pingback: Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony | Reaction Times

  3. About three years back I bought a DVD set of the complete Mahler symphonies (+ Das Lied) by the Concertgebouw Orchestra with various conductors. I watched one symphony each week, and it was as thrilling to watch this orchestra as well as to listen to the staggering virtuosity of its players. This orchestra has had a special relationship with Mahler’s works since the days of Mengelberg. On this set the Second is conducted by the orchestra’s Director (at that time), the Latvian Mariss Jansons.

    My favorite on this set is the Fifth conducted by Daniele Gatti. Certainly the best recording of the Fifth that I’ve heard. Who can hear the opening trumpet solo without experiencing nervous excitement? The soloist must have ice-water in his veins. Also, the Adagietta is not languorously drawn out, but moves flowingly with an ecstatic sweep.

    • I found Jansons’ reading rather distant and bland, but I have liked every Gatti performance of Mahler that I have heard. A Korean orchestra — perhaps it is the Seoul Philharmonic — has been issuing a Mahler cycle on Deutsche Gramophon, whose installments thus far, including the Fifth, I very much like. In the 1960s, Mahler recordings were still scarce. Nowadays there is probably a surfeit of them, with many being superfluous.

      To return to the topic of the Second Symphony, I strongly recommend you to listen to the 1922 – 24 recording of the “Resurrection,” made using the acoustic process, by Oskar Fried and a Berlin pickup orchestra. Despite the sonic limitations, it is as gripping a read-through as you will ever hear.

      Thank you for commenting.


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