Skip to main content

Studying Performance Practice Through Sound Recordings: Gustav Mahler

A guide by Historical Sound Recordings (HSR) on using sound recordings when researching performance practice since the early 20th century.

About Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was an Austrian composer and conductor, often described as one of the most important figures of European art music in the 20th century. Mahler began his formal musical studies in 1875 as a pianist with Julius Epstein at the Vienna Conservatory, and moved his focus to composition, studying with Franz Krenn. In Vienna, Mahler was immersed in the musical climate of composers such as Wagner, Brahms, and Bruckner, as well as in the mileu of socialist, Nietzschean, and pan-Germanist philosophical thought. Mahler's first post as a conductor was in 1880 at a small summer theatre near Linz, Austria. In 1881, Mahler was engaged at the Landestheater in Laibach, conducting his first opera, Verdi's Il trovatore, in addition to other works by Rossini, Donizetti, Mozart, and Weber. Later in 1886, Mahler was appointed the junior colleague to renowned conductor Arthur Nikisch. Eventually, Nikisch and Mahler developed a rivalry, causing disagreement over who was to conduct the Wagner Ring cycle in a prominent series of performances. At the Hamburg Stadttheater, where Mahler was director from 1891-7, Mahler became a close friend and mentor of the young conductor, Bruno Walter, who later became a major proponent of Mahler's compositions. In 1897, Mahler became director of the Vienna Hofoper, where he gained renown for his perfectionism, daring, and artistic success in both musical and dramatic production. During his tenure at the Vienna Hofoper, Mahler also made many trips to conduct his own works with other orchestras, especially as his Second and Third Symphonies gained critical and popular acclaim. In 1903, Mahler began a long and fruitful relationship with Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Mengelberg also became a major proponent of Mahler's compositions, as shown in Mengelberg's direction of the Amsterdam Mahler Festival of 1920. In 1907, Mahler began serving as conductor with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he conducted operas by Wagner, Mozart, as well as Beethoven's Fidelio, working with star soloists including Caruso and Chaliapin. During Mahler's time at the Metropolitan Opera, Arturo Toscanini was brought in to conduct, creating another rivalry. From 1909-1911, Mahler was also music director of the New York Philharmonic, where he programmed music of composers including Rachmaninoff, Strauss, Debussy, MacDowell, and Elgar.

Mahler's reputation as a conductor was frequently noted as a dictatorial trainer of singers and orchestral players, while eliciting interpretations that were magnificent, revelatory and at times, controversial. For example, in reviews of Mahler's 1894-5 concerts as conductor of the Hamburg Philharmonic, critics railed against his re-orchestrations and distinctive tempi in performances of Beethoven. However in another review from Mahler's work with the New York Philharmonic, which can be found in a 1910 Woolsey Hall program of a performance of the NY Philharmonic under Mahler's direction, he was praised for his unparalleled interpretive abilities in the Berlioz Symphony Fantastique: "Always keenly alive to, and most successful with any opportunities for pictorial dramatic expression, Mahler fairly reveled in this highly imaginative work, and in point of finish and of detail, nuance, and rhythmic force, contrasts and variety of color and an emotional suggestion which was almost scenic in its vivid realism his reading was one of almost sensational brilliancy."   

Bruno Walter, Mahler's assistant conductor at the opera houses of Hamburg and Vienna, later premiering Das Lied von der Erde and Mahler's Symphony No. 9, also offered reflections on Mahler's work as a conductor: "Nothing was routine in his performances; even if he was giving a work for the thirtieth time, he gave it as though for the first. Though his approach seemed free and impetuous, it was invariably governed by the most rigorous exactitude." Mahler also marked the scores of his compositions with detailed exactitude in terms of expressive indications -- ranging from highly specific markings for dynamics and articulations, to long descriptions for tempo and tempo modifications. Nevertheless, Mahler felt that the score was only the starting point for music-making, as Bruno Walter recalled of Mahler: "The best in music is not set down in the notes. This best, this essential, soul leaped forth with such passion from his conducting, with such an effect of personal confession, such elemental force." 

Index

Oscar Fried, conductor, Berlin State Opera Orchestra

Willem Mengelberg, conductor, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Kenneth Slowik, conductor, The Smithsonian Chamber Players

Suggestions for further reading

Oscar Fried, conductor, Berlin State Opera Orchestra

Oscar Fried (1871-1941) was a German conductor and composer, and was the first conductor to record a Mahler symphony. Mahler and Fried first met in 1905, and Mahler soon invited Fried to conduct his Second Symphony, the Resurrection, in Berlin, with a 20 year-old Otto Klemperer conducting the off-stage ensemble. Up until 1905, Mahler's works had only met with failure in Berlin. However Fried's performance of Mahler's Second Symphony was a rousing success, inspiring such enthusiasm that the beginning of the fourth movement, 'Urlicht,' was delayed due to applause, and the audience compelled Mahler and Fried to make several curtain calls. A correspondent from Neue Freie Presse reflects on the controversial, yet successful Berlin reception of Mahler's compositions: "Whatever one thinks of this symphony, for many years past no other piece of music has been acclaimed in Berlin with such paroxysms of joy." An article in the Vossiche Zeitung praised the talent of Oskar Fried, who, "in a miraculously short time seems to have learned all the secrets of his trade." 

A Closer Look: 

Nearly twenty years after Fried's Berlin performance of the Resurrection Symphony, Fried recorded the symphony in 1924 with the Orchester der Staats-Oper, Berlin, the Berlin Cathedral Chorus, and soloists Gertrud Bindernagel (1894-1932) and Emmi Leisner (1885-1958). Fried's distinctive interpretive style can be noted through the sharp staccato articulations, biting accents, and forward-driving tempi throughout the five movements. The recording also reveals an orchestral portamento in the strings, coinciding with where Mahler indicates portamento in the score. In addition, the strings play with portamento in sections where sliding supports the technique of particular left hand shifts, and is not indicated in the score.

Furthermore, the fifth movement, "Aufersteh'n," of Fried's recording of the Second Symphony demonstrates characteristics of early 20th century choral performance practice. In particular, the choral ensemble sings with a variety of articulations, ranging from sustained legato tone to articulate, pulsating phrasing. Notably, the Berlin Cathedral Chorus sings with a heterogeneity of sound, with the character of the individual voices coming through within the total ensemble sound. In a similar manner to the orchestra, the chorus sings with a forward driving pulse, creating a musical effect of insistence and urging throughout the final movement. 

In the liner notes to the 2001 reissue of the 1924 recording, Richard Whitehouse comments on Fried's interpretation: "The expressive freedom with which he controls the music, at the level of localised detail, between movements and across the work's almost 85-minute span, suggests that the personal conception that clearly impressed Mahler almost two decades before is substantially intact in the present recording." 

Suggested recording in the collection: 

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 2, Gertrud Bindernagel, Emmi Leisner, Berlin State Opera Orchestra, Berlin Cathedral Chorus, Oskar Fried (rec. 1924, reissued 2001, 8.110152--8.110153 Naxos) 

Willem Mengelberg, conductor, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951) was a Dutch conductor who studied at the Cologne Conservatory with conductor Franz Wüllner, who was a student of Anton Schindler, friend of Beethoven. He went on to become music director for the city of Lucerne in 1892, and soon after, in 1895, became music director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, a position he was to hold for fifty years. In 1902, Mengelberg first heard the music of Mahler at the Krefeld Summer Festival, where Mahler's Third Symphony was performed with the composer conducting. Mengelberg was struck not only by the composition, but also by Mahler's style of conducting and phrasing, so much so that Mengelberg sometimes said that Mahler the conductor exemplified "all that he himself was striving for" (Paap 29). Mahler soon after made his conducting debut with the Mengelberg's Concertgebouw in 1903 with the Third Symphony, which created much enthusiasm and debate in Amsterdam's musical centers. Mahler returned to the Concertgebouw again in 1904 to present the Second and Fourth Symphonies. The first concert of Mahler's visit featured the Fourth Symphony performed twice, the first time conducted by Mahler and the second conducted by Mengelberg. Mahler later told his wife that "Mengelberg's reading was so like his own that it was clear that Mengelberg had understood all his inner thoughts." Mengelberg paid close attention to Mahler's rehearsals, in which changes were often made to the score and expressive details in the score were elaborated upon and explained. Mengelberg's scores of Mahler include markings that reflect such details, as well as include Mahler's own handwriting and explanations. 

In Mengelberg's address to Columbia University upon receiving an honorary doctorate in 1928, the conductor describes the evolution of music over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, and Mahler's contribution in this context: "In the course of the 19th Century individualism lost more and more its militant character. Dreamy, romantic accents (Mendelssohn, Schumann) arose in it, followed by contemplative and finally melancholy, pessimistic moods (Brahms, Tschaikowsky). Then there grew out of pessimism a great longing and the striving toward a new ideal: toward a community transcending the individual. This tendency is embodied in the work of Gustav Mahler, who, in a certain sense, has created a folk-music of our period, and who has thereby added a new and greater value to our symphonic music." 

A Closer Look:

A salient example of Mengelberg's interpretative style of Mahler can be found in his 1926 recording of the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony. Mengelberg's distinctive phrasing incorporates rubato as indicated in the score, as well as in specific moments in which in would be difficult to capture in the score through written instruction. The opening violin melody is played with a general sense of forward motion, and each pick-up begins immediately after the third beat of the measure, urging each part of the phrase forward. In general, Mengelberg's flexibility of pulse evolves gradually out of a sequence of gestures. At times, however, there are more sudden stretches and ritardandi of the tempo, creating particular emphasis on a climactic moment of the phrase. A notable moment is when the main theme comes back toward the end of the moment, and here, Mengelberg allows it to begin slower, creating a sense of contemplation and reflection. In addition, the listener can hear ample portamento in the strings of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, in a coordinated manner within the sections. While portamento was a common performance practice among string players of the early 20th century, there is evidence that suggests Mengelberg specifically determined the style of portamento in a unified manner for the Concertgebouw, of which he was director for fifty years, from 1895-1945. 

Suggested recordings in the collection: 

Gustav Mahler: Adagietto from Symphony No. 5, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Willem Mengelberg (rec. 1926, request CD W-842, Columbia L1798)

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 4, Jo Vincent, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Willem Mengelberg (rec. 1939, Philips PHM 500-040) 

Gustav Mahler: Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen, Hermann Schey, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Willem Mengelberg (rec. 1939, AD. 103-104)

Kenneth Slowik and The Smithsonian Chamber Players

Kenneth Slowik (b. 1954) is an American conductor, cellist, and viola da gamba player. He first established his international reputation through his work with the Smithsonian Chamber Players, Castle Trio, Smithson String Quartet, Axelrod Quartet, and Anner Bylsma's L'Archibudelli. In 1988, Slowik became conductor of the Smithsonian Chamber Orchestra and in 1998, he was appointed as conductor of the Santa Fe Bach Festival in 1998. He also served as conductor of the Santa Fe Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra from 1999 to 2004. As an educator, Dr. Slowik is on the faculty of the University of Maryland School of Music and has been artistic director of the Baroque Performance Institute at the Oberlin College Conservatory since 1993. Furthermore, Kenneth Slowik has garnered awards for recordings in his extensive discography, including two GRAMMY® nominations, France's Diapason d'Or and Choc, Italy's Premio Internazionale del Disco Antonio Vivaldi, among others. 

As an extension of their work in baroque and classical performance practice, Kenneth Slowik and the Smithsonian Chamber Players' recorded works of Gustav Mahler, using early sound recordings resources to inform their interpretation. In the liner notes to their 1996 release, Transfiguration, Slowik describes this process: 

"The research leading to this recording involved close examination of instruments, musical scores, iconographic evidence, and written documentation from the period, including instrumental method-books, orchestral seating charts, concert reviews, composer's correspondence, and other literary materials. In this case, however, our investigations were also substantially aided by the powerfully eloquent aural testimony provided by early-20th-century recordings... Our performance of the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony owes much to a 1926 recording of the work by Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951) and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra... The 1926 recording is a fascinating document of orchestral rubato and portamento, both of which were trademarks of Mengelberg's painstakingly-prepared Amsterdam interpretations...

"Of course, slavish imitation of any particular recording would be both unmusically bereft of creative interpretative involvement, and directly in contradiction to the personal expression that underlies the romantic style. Nonetheless, without careful study of these precious links with the past, we run the risk of reaching untenable conclusions from fragmentary evidence, the more so since recordings point out the great gap that often exists between what was prescribed by tutors and what was actually done by performers" (Slowik 4-5).

A Closer Look: 

In Slowik's 1996 recording of Mahler's Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, the Smithsonian Chamber Players capture the distinctive approach to tempo flexibility and portamento that is characteristic of many Mahler recordings from the early 20th century, including Mengelberg's 1926 recording of the Adagietto (see Willem Mengelberg, conductor, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra). In particular, the listener can hear an emotive ebb and flow of the pulse, with striking moments of slowing and speeding the tempo within the phrase for dramatic effect. Throughout the movement, one can hear noticeable portamento in prominent melodies, heightening the sense of connectivity and legato within the musical phrases. In addition, the nuanced rubato led by Mr. Slowik creates an elevated sense of rhetoric from phrase to phrase, allowing the melodic exchanges between the different sections of the orchestra to speak with their own sense of timing and expression. In this way, Kenneth Slowik and the Smithsonian Chamber Players achieve an individual sense of expression within the context of performance practices revealed through early sound recordings. 

Suggested recordings in the collection:

Request Transfiguration, Smithsonian Chamber Players, Kenneth Slowik, conductor. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, 1996.

Request Gustav Mahler, Smithsonian Chamber Players, Santa Fe Pro Musica, Kenneth Slowik, conductor. Dorian Recordings, 2003.