In search of the “authentic” Mahler style…

A century ago, Ludwig van Beethoven was by near-universal consensus the most admired composer among lovers and performers of classical music; at the time, little if any consideration was given to the issue of “authentic” performance practice. Keyboard instruments of Beethoven’s era had for the most part been discarded in favor of what we know as the modern piano; orchestral wind, brass, and percussion instruments were similarly superseded by more evolved models. Conductors of the era, including Gustav Mahler, were prone to adjust orchestration to compensate for forces larger and quite different in sound than those of Beethoven’s era.

Today, there is a strong argument that Mahler occupies the pedestal that had been held by Beethoven during an era when his great champions included names such as von Bulow, Paderewski, Rachmaninoff, Weingartner, Toscanini — and, of course, Mahler himself.

The fact that a small but artistically signifiant number of recordings of Mahler’s music were made during the acoustic and “shellac” (electrical pre-LP) recording eras — including several by artists who worked closely with Mahler — gives modern listeners the opportunity to hear these works as they had been sung and played during an era when, contrary to earlier assumptions, their reputation and popularity were on the rise until political and social upheaval – and war – swept Europe in the 1930s.

These early studio recordings, naturally, have given rise to speculation about whether or not it is possible to determine an “authentic” performance style for Mahler.

Several years ago, when I produced “The Music of Gustav Mahler; Issued 78s, 1903-1940” — the first comprehensive anthology of every commercially-issued Mahler 78s released between 1903 and 1940 and listed in Peter Fülöp’s exhausive Mahler discography — my intent was not only to present these recordings in the context of the era in which they were issued in the best sound possible, but to also offer informed insight into historical, technical, and artistic facts surrounding these recordings in the form of thorough liner notes authored by Sybille Werner.

The set and the accompanying notes were not conceived to answer questions about “authentic” Mahler performance practice — nor for that matter do I believe an answer to the question exists, though one can discern that there were significant artistic and interpretive characteristics unique to the era, particularly in instrumental playing.   Additionally, one cannot ignore overall differences among authoritative studio recordings made by Mahler’s conducting colleagues and protégés: Bruno Walter, Willem Mengelberg, and Oskar Fried. Likewise, the voices of Leopold Demuth, Lula Mysz-Gmeiner, and Sara Charles-Cahier, three singers who had sung under Mahler’s direction, shed light not only to the composer’s music but the vocal style and tradition of Mahler’s world, along with the many other singers represented in the set.

I have in recent months received several inquiries about the future availability of the set. I have completed most of the technical work on a follow-up set that will include the remaining 78s and several important recordings issued during the early LP era, but good quality copies of two discs have proven elusive. I expect this situation to be resolved in the next few months, and am speaking with my strategic partners about a short run of the original set once the second volume is completed. 

The original run of “The Music of Gustav Mahler; Issued 78s, 1903-1940” — 1000 copies — was warmly received by the press, and my distributors sold out of the set within less than two months of its release date. Used copies that turn up on eBay and Amazon command insanely high prices.

Releasing the set as a digital item through online retailers has proven problematic, despite the dogged efforts of my worldwide distributor, Alto Distribution, and my outstanding digital aggregator, Entertainment One.

Some of the major players in digital music for direct sale and download, most notably iTunes, have introduced logistical obstacles that make it next to impossible to make sets with a large number of tracks available for download or streaming.

As a result, I have decided to make the entire set available through a small-scale strategic partner for purchase in lossless download formats: Apple Lossless for iTunes users and flac for most other listeners. The original English-language liner notes and all German texts with English translations are included in .pdf format.

You can download it here.

I will leave any conclusions concerning Mahler’s “authentic” style to you, the listener.

My favorite recordings of 2017

For once in a long while, my picks are in sync with the dreaded critical consensus.

BEST REISSUE: Glenn Gould – The Goldberg Variations: The Complete Unreleased Recording Sessions June 1955 (Sony 88843014882)

This particular release is admittedly not for everybody, but is highly recommended to fans of Gould, musicians (particularly those who make recordings), and lovers of recorded music — for the opportunity to be a fly on the wall and hear how the metaphorical sausage is made. Perfectionist Glenn Gould found an ideal producer in John McClure, whose subtle ability to act as coach, psychologist, and cheerleader was a major factor in the success of this recording. This was Gould’s first commercial recording, with practically all of his previous studio work having been recorded direct to acetate discs by the CBC. It should therefore come as no surprise that most of the variations chosen for the final master recording were full takes with no edits, but at a few moments you can hear the wheels turning in Gould’s head concerning the possibilities opened by tape editing.

The set includes a vinyl LP replicating the original artwork in significantly better sound than the original, and is accompanied by a beautifully-printed book of several hundred pages packed not only with enormously informative multilingual text but photographs and documentation, including information on the final edit that listeners to the entire sequence of sessions will find enormously helpful.

BEST NEW RELEASE: “Crazy Girl Crazy” (alpha 293)
Berio: Sequenza III for woman’s voice
Berg: Lulu-Suite, five symphonic pieces) for soprano and orchestra
Gershwin (arr. Bill Elliott and Barbara Hannigan): Girl Crazy Suite
BONUS DVD: “Music is Music” — a film directed by Mathieu Amalric
Barbara Hannigan (soprano and conductor), Ludwig Orchestra

Barbara Hannigan is a musical “triple threat”: brilliant new music singer, compelling opera star, and conductor — one of the less-than-half-dozen best women to grace the podium in my not so humble opinion (the others being Susanna Mälkki, Nathalie Stutzmann, and Sybille Werner — sorry, Mirga, you’re terrific but not quite there [yet]).

So it is no surprise that a bit of all three facets of Hannigan’s music-making can be found in this adventurous and thoroughly satisfying recording from one of the best indie labels in the world, Alpha. I won’t go into too much analytical detail other than to say this recording grabs you from the first note and doesn’t let go until the last note of Gershwin fades to silence, leaving you hungry for more (which will, according to one of my French spies, be a collaboration with Reinbert de Leeuw slated for 2018 release). The Ludwig Orchestra plays with idiomatic character, and the sound quality is detailed, excellently balanced, and “up front.” It eclipses everything else new I’ve heard this year. Just get it. But get the physical edition – the download, sadly, does not include the must-see video bonus.

Sviatoslav Richter – A 1950s Retrospective

Two decades ago, Leslie Gerber’s enterprising New-York-based label Parnassus began issuing a series showcasing previously unreleased and rare recordings from Sviatoslav Richter made throughout the Soviet Union and its satellites in the 1950s – the decade before the explosive 1960 debut American tour that elevated him to a legendary status that never wore off. Over a period of several years, thirteen discs were issued in seven volumes. They were easily obtained at the big-city Tower Records stores in the USA,  but were often difficult to find abroad, and a bit expensive where they could be found.

Parnassus is now distributed by Musical Concepts, my friend Todd Landor’s label/distribution unit/production company. Late last year, after Todd had acquired the Colorado Quartet’s Beethoven recordings from Parnassus, I suggested that we compile a Richter 1950s retrospective  for digital-only release.

A little over four hours of music was selected from the near sixteen hours of music on the original discs for Sviatoslav Richter – The Early Years: Rise of a Virtuoso Legend. The choices were difficult, as the set is so consistently excellent from an artistic standpoint, but several major works for which Richter had an affinity were obvious choices, particularly Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7, Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-Flat Major, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (a very different interpretation than the well-known Sofia recital from 1959 issued by Philips back in the day),

The original Parnassus masters were generally good, but most benefitted from pitch stabilization to remove flutter from analog tape sources. A few were re-equalized and in several cases obtrusive lighting and electrical hum were abated; in a couple of instances, very slight noise reduction was applied.

And now, it is available from Amazon – for now, it is priced at under $9 in the USA and 8 quid in the UK.

American customers can find it here, and UK listeners can find it at this Amazon link.

More Praise for Cuckson, Burns, and Nono

Miranda Cuckson and Christopher Burns | Luigi NonoThe Examiner‘s Stephen Smoliar relates his experience listening to the my label Urlicht AudioVisual’s recording of Luigi Nono’s La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura with violinist Miranda Cuckson and electronica master Richard Burns some years after having heard a live performance by Gidon Kremer:

An impressive effort to document Miranda Cuckson’s performance of Luigi Nono

… A recent release of [La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura] by Urlicht has taken a rather unique approach to capturing that sense of journey. Violinist Miranda Cuckson and “projectionist” Christopher Burns made a recording after having given a performance in New York. This was a multi-track recording for playback on a 5.1 Surround Sound system, and it was released as a Blu-ray audio disc. For those who lacked the necessary technology, that disc was packaged with a more conventional stereophonic CD. As one who lacks that “necessary technology,” my own listening experience involved playing the CD with full knowledge of my previous spatial experience.

With that disclaimer I have to say that there is much to be gained from the CD in spite of its limitations. Without the spatial effects one is more inclined to attend to Nono’s motivic vocabulary. While this may make the journey less “physical,” one can still appreciate that sense of peregrination through the six sections of the piece (conveniently marked as separate tracks on the CD). Furthermore, those who understand the semantics of “madrigal” in its Renaissance context will probably be more likely to appreciate why Nono chose this noun to categorize this particular composition.

Nevertheless, the other significant disclaimer I must make is that I had the advantage of listening to this recording with the benefit of past experience. There is no doubt that this is complex music, the result of scrupulous attention to both the notations encountered on the music stands and the sounds on the recorded tracks. It is probably more than most listeners will be able to manage on first contact. Nevertheless, it does not take many exposures for mind to encounter familiarities as the performance peregrinates. The listener willing to let this music work its magic on its own terms is likely to be well rewarded.

Luigi Nono: La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura (1988-89) Miranda Cuckson, violin / Christopher Burns, electronics

Produced by Christopher Burns and Richard Warp Recording engineer: Richard Warp Recorded at A Bloody Good Record Inc, Long Island City NY Mixing engineer (stereo CD): Richard Warp Mixing engineers (DTS 5.1 surround mix): Paul Special and Richard Warp Assistant mixing engineer (DTS 5.1 surround mix): Dillon Pajunas DTS 5.1 surround mix produced at Sonic Arts Center, CCNY, NYC Produced for New Spectrum Recordings, NYC Executive producer: Glenn Cornett

Urlicht AudioVisual UAD-5992 CD plus Blu-Ray Audio for home theater systems — available at Amazon.com. CD plus DTS-CD for home theater systems — available here.

Patricia Leonard’s “Strangely Close, Yet Distant” Nominated for American Prize in Composition

Songs for Mahler in the Absence of WordsComposer Patricia Leonard informs my label, Urlicvht AudioVisual, that Strangely Close, Yet Distant, her trio for viola, cello, and piano included in the New York Piano Quartet’s Songs for Mahler in the Absence of Words, has been nominated for the American Prize for Composition. Congratulations to Patricia along with the members of the New York Piano Quartet along with recording engineer John Baker and his team!


Strictly commercial footnote: download the hi-def .flac edition here. Download the CD-quality .flac edition here. Download the hi-quality mp3 edition here. Buy the CD edition here.

Van Cliburn, 1934-2013

Just crossed the AP wire.

I’ve introduced myself to many celebrated musicians. Van was the first such person to step over and introduce himself to me — while I was taking a brief break in the coffee nook at BMG Classics. We chewed the fat for a few minutes, particularly about the greatly underrated piano music of Szymanowski. The media may have presented an image of Cliburn as shy, but I can vouch for that fact that he was gregarious company whose passion for music as both a player and listener was clear with every word.

I have a lot of fun and funny memories of interacting with musicians, but meeting Cliburn remains the most vivid more than two decades later.

Gene Gaudette on classical music, cultural politics, political culture, media, and his record labels.