I've been familiar with Mahler's symphonies for 40 years, and have probably listened to hundreds of recorded performances, and if the term `the only set of Mahler symphonies you'll ever need' could reasonably apply to just one set, then in my opinion it would be this one. I owned the earlier set of Klaus Tennstedt's Mahler symphonies cycle, but decided to acquire this new, expanded set on finding it included live accounts of 5, 6 and 7; recordings of which were often available on the used market at silly prices. After listening again, I'm now even more convinced that this is the definitive Mahler symphonies integral set, especially with the extra live recordings. True, in some works Tennstedt can be equalled and sometimes bettered by individual issues by other conductors, (or by Tennstedt himself in several live recordings on the London Philharmonic's own label and BBC Legends) but for a complete set I think this beats the rest. Bernstein's first cycle on CBS/Sony is the closest contender, but the EMI set generally has better sound. For me there are just two conductors who could bring virtually all of Mahler's symphonic work fully to life and they've already been mentioned. Strange, isn't it, that both died at no great age from the effects of cigarette smoking (both 60+ a day men).
Tennstedt's first recording of Mahler 1, although lauded on its original appearance in the late 1970s, is a little smoothed out and lacking in character, and is probably the least successful instalment here. I think that this is something that the conductor himself acknowledged, and he wanted to re-record it in the studio, something he didn't get the chance to do. Try his live recording of No 1 on BBC Legends for an `echt-Tennstedt', much more feral performance of this work, in spite of the iffy sound (the recording was derived from a private, off-air taping), and a few negative reviews.
Despite many opinions to the contrary, I find the differences between Tennstedt `live' and `studio' often to be overstated, and although No 2 is very different `live' (LPO label), the studio version doesn't want for intensity, and is one of the best on disc; the closing pages are truly stunning. Comparing this to Rattle's spectacularly overrated earlier `Resurrection' (still `Gramophone's top recommendation, I see) leaves me totally perplexed.
No 3, is excellent and for me it is the only Mahler 3 `DDD' recording worth having. Tennstedt doesn't impart quite the same dynamic qualities in No 3's first movement as does Bernstein (CBS/Sony), Kubelik (Audite) or Haitink (Philips `Originals'), but he doesn't fall too far short and the recording is better. Also, Tennstedt is a shade too quick in the final movement, taking just over 20 minutes. Better this though than, say, James Levine's tediously lugubrious 27 minutes (sounding like maidens drowning in Golden Syrup). Having just listened to the recently-released live No 3 (ICA Classics), I found a slightly better overall performance - the last movement's timing now increased to 22 minutes plus, with the earlier movements more tightly held together - all compromised somewhat by sound lacking in high frequencies, with detail blunted as a result.
No 4 is given a straightforward unaffected performance that whilst very good doesn't have the same old-world, fairytale feel that Horenstein (CfP), Kletzki (EMI) or Kubelik (DG) give to this very personal (to Mahler) symphony. That said, Tennstedt's soprano soloist (Lucia Popp) is better than the alternatives mentioned, with the exception of Emmy Loose (with Kletzki) who imparts a special innocent, wide-eyed quality.
I think the 5th can take a number of different interpretations and be `right'; it's that kind of work, and I'm not convinced that the live 5th is so much better than his studio version. However, in either case Tennstedt turns in an excellent performance; the angst isn't done to death and the transition from darkness/despair to light/joy is well judged. If there's a problem, it's the Adagietto, which Tennstedt takes too slowly (around 12 minutes, in both recordings). Again this is entirely subjective and others might be aghast at my preference for Rudolf Schwarz's 7' 31" in his 1958 stereo recording with the LSO (Everest). I wonder why Mahler called it `adagietto' (= slightly faster than adagio) and then contradicted this with the German instruction `sehr langsam' (`very slowly', which is adagissimo, or maybe largo) - any offers? I very much like Tennstedt's way with the third movement - an imaginary, phantasmagorical journey through a rough landscape, as I see it.
The 6th is magnificent in both cases, though I actually prefer the studio version in the first movement, where Tennstedt's he
avy trudge at the start suggests that Death himself is treading on Mahler's heels. However, from then on I find I prefer the live version. These, together with the other live recording (LPO label), I think are the very best interpretations of No 6, and especially memorable in each case is the Andante, where Tennstedt gives a sense of unease and disquiet to Mahler's `escape' into the Austrian Alps, perhaps suggesting that although one can get away from a troubling world by entering Nature's realm, it's never possible to get away from oneself.
I never much liked the 7th until I heard Tennstedt's studio recording, where the fragmentary themes are stitched together into a comprehensive whole. The quasi-military themes, the crepuscular interjections, the crazy references to the `Merry Widow' and snatches of Mahler's earlier music; all are presented in a coherent way. The live 7th however, racks up the strange and sinister flavours of this symphony by several notches. It's a slower yet `edgier' performance with greater contrasts between storm/stress and calm/repose, and I doubt that any other recording can rival it - not even Tennstedt's other live performance on BBC Legends.
The 8th is very good, even compared to the live version (LPO) where the scale is shrunk due to the reduced forces used and the shortcomings of the performance venue (Royal Festival Hall). The studio recording unfortunately goes opaque and two-dimensional at the very end when the engineer or producer seems to have decided that the off-stage orchestra and the organ should all but obscure everything else. The 8th doesn't show Mahler at his inspirational best and it needs a bravura performance to keep it interesting, and overall I've yet to hear a better rendition of the mighty 8th than Solti's, despite his excesses (or perhaps Bernstein's 1966 recording - in the main better than Solti in performance, but less well recorded).
This set includes the only recording, as far as I know, that Tennstedt made of the Ninth. It's a tough, sinewy and trenchant performance that rivals the best, (though not up to the standard of Bernstein). It's also somewhat let down by quite shrill and brittle sound, especially in loud passages during the first movement.
It's a hell of a shame that Tennstedt never recorded the whole of the Tenth because the Adagio from that work (the only movement that the composer fully completed before his untimely death) is magnificently done here; the emotions felt at having very soon to say farewell to the world, being heroically conveyed.
The set also includes a performance of Das Lied von der Erde. However, this is one of Mahler's works that I simply can't get into, so I won't comment. `Das Lied' is the biggest weapon in the armoury of Mahler's detractors, when they say his works are depressing and morbid. Personally I think it's their only weapon when the balance of emotion in the vast panorama of Mahler's symphonic work, though running the whole range of human feeling, falls most often in the direction of optimism.
Recording quality is generally very good and even outstanding, except, as mentioned before, in the Ninth, and I suspect that some remastering has been done in places. I no longer have the original set for comparison, but I noticed that a problem at the opening of the Third on the `old' set - the soundstage balance suddenly moving from right to left, about 15 seconds in, - has now been corrected. The LPO are wholly within the Mahler idiom, and while they don't display the plush, easy virtuosity of say the Vienna or Berlin Phils, their dark, grainy-earthy style generally suits the composer better than their state-cosseted European rivals.
For me, this set, augmented with Tennstedt's No 1 (BBC Legends), Horenstein's No 4 (CfP) and Bernstein's No 9 (CBS/Sony), would be enough for that `desert island marooning'.
In conclusion, just to put into perspective the incredible value on offer here, I recall buying Haitink's Mahler 8, on two LPs, in 1972 (my first experience of the composer; I bought it on a hunch, never before having even heard the name Gustav Mahler); it cost £4.50 - an average day's pay back then. Here, you get 22 LPs worth for roughly 2 hours pay. What are you waiting for?