Norman Lebrecht, for those unfamiliar with him, is an institution in the field of music commentary and criticism, and culture in general. He has his own BBC radio show ("Lebrecht Live") , as well as a weekly syndicated newspaper column (now in the London Evening Standard, formerly in the London Daily Telegraph), and is the author of a number of books besides this one. More often than not, Lebrecht can be a curmudgeon with the best of them (but always with the thought in mind of provoking one to think more deeply than usual), and seems to be one of the surviving few these days who can write in the style of the feuilleton (a humorous, often sarcastic, style of arts essay once common in Paris during Berlioz's time, and then brought to even higher heights in fin-de-siècle Vienna when Heinrich Heine "imported" the genre from Paris).
But there is nothing curmudgeonly about "Mahler Remembered," Lebrecht's anthologizing of reminiscences by people who knew Gustav Mahler. Instead, this is a chronological capturing of these reminiscences - many of them appearing in print for the first time - to provide a portrait of Mahler hard to find elsewhere, at least not in any single volume such as this. (The closest book, in terms of recording of reminiscences, is likely "Mahler: His Life, Work and World" by Kurt and Herta Blaukopf. There is some overlap, but Lebrecht's quotations seem fuller, and several in Lebrecht do not appear in Blaukopf.)
Among the highlights are an extended essay by Alfred Roller (Mahler's stage director at the Vienna Court Opera), describing Mahler's physical attributes from an artist's perspective (and giving the lie to any thought that Mahler was less than a fine physical specimen), a humorous tribute by Leo Slezak (a fine Wagnerian tenor in Mahler's troupe) who was not always highly motivated but who, in retrospect, realized that Mahler brought out the best in him, and tributes by his many acolytes, most particularly Arnold Schoenberg, Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter, as well as famous musicians still remembered today, including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Ferrucio Busoni and Fritz Kreisler. Of these, Busoni's is perhaps the most moving: It was at Mahler's very last concert, in New York, that he had premiered Busoni's "Berceuse élégaique," and it was Busoni who traveled in the company of Mahler on his final journey home from New York to Vienna by way of Cherbourg.
But the book goes well beyond these few names, and these brief highlights. Lebrecht seems to have found something from everyone of significance whose life or career intersected Mahler's, and quite a few from people of no particular historical significance at all save that they knew him and wrote something that is now part of posterity. What emerges is as full a personal portrait of Mahler as one is likely to find without collating bits and pieces from multiple sources and volumes.
I could manage to find only two unfavorable reminiscences, both of them "expected" (and quite well-known) from my earlier readings of writings on Mahler. One is by Franz Schmidt, a near-contemporary composer who was also the principal cellist in Mahler's Vienna orchestra, and the other is by Henry Krehbiel, the very influential music critic of the New York Tribune during the years Mahler spent in America. In Schmidt's case, one can easily read past the professional jealousy that generated his rant; he was after all not nearly as well-known a composer, and was an instrumentalist who chafed under Mahler's directorship. A little bit of historical perspective (not provided by Lebrecht) serves as well to explain Krehbiel's antagonism toward Mahler (a composer whose works he wasn't able to fathom): By the time that Mahler had arrived in New York, in the fall of 1907, Richard Strauss - both "friend and rival" and self-promoter without equal - had already established himself as the paragon of Germanic composers of the day.
A final somewhat off-topic comment. I thought, perhaps, that in Lebrecht's book I had found another small clue in the matter of what I've come to call "the Mahler-Ives connection" (the story, seemingly true, that Mahler had acquired a fair copy of the score to Ives's Third Symphony during his final year in New York, but didn't live long enough to perform it). Two persons who wrote reminiscences included by Lebrecht were Ossip Gabrilowitsch (a well-known pianist of the time), and his wife, Clara Clemens (daughter of Mark Twain and a concertizing singer). Twain was a close friend of Ives's father-in-law, Reverend Joseph Twichell, who married not only Charles and Harmony Twichell Ives but also Ossip and Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch. But it seems that a possible Mahler-Ives connection by way of Gabrilowitsch and Clemens is pretty much a dead-end: Harmony, despite being president of the Mark Twain Society, didn't think highly of Clara Clemens. And Ives thought so little of Gabrilowitsch that it doesn't even bear mentioning in the context of Lebrecht's book.
If you are one who thinks of Mahler in terms of his being autocratic and domineering, too tough on his musicians, and someone who was "a curiosity in his time," not to mention harboring thoughts of his being less than a first-rate composer, best that you stay away from this book; too many people who knew him felt differently, as Lebrecht's anthology makes clear. For everyone else, I consider Lebrecht's book a "must read."