Beethoven, Mozart and Bach have had the strongest support for GOAT among composers for a fairly long time – I’m a Beethoven man. But there are others whose music is hugely popular among classical music lovers. Among them, Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner have come to hold a special place for legions of fans, especially when it comes to live orchestral performances.
Like that of Bach, Mahler and Bruckner’s reputations did not rise during their lifetimes to anywhere near the level they have occupied for roughly the past half century. Mahler did achieve great acclaim as one of the leading conductors of his era, but strong reaction to his own music took a couple generations to grow significantly.
While I’ve posted on Bruckner already, I’m returning to him here because he is often grouped with Mahler by classical fans. There seems to be some disagreement among scholars as to whether Mahler studied under Bruckner, but he definitely cited the older Bruckner as an influence. Both are known primarily for composing long symphonies for large orchestras with huge brass and, in Mahler’s case, woodwind sections.
For years, Beethoven’s symphonies were considered the measuring stick for young conductors. You can say that about Mahler’s symphonies now; and, to a lesser extent in some cities, also Bruckner’s.
While there is nothing like hearing this music live, it holds up well at home as well. I know those of you who may have seen a link for this post on one of the Facebook classical music groups to which I belong don’t need advice from me on this topic. But perhaps some who are less experienced with these symphonies – or even completely unfamiliar with them – will find the following recommendations of use.
It’s not that long since I’d have provided links to purchase commercial recordings. But there are now so many great recordings and live performances on YouTube, that I will use those links instead.
Symphony No. 1: No conductor did more to popularize Mahler’s music than Leonard Bernstein, who recorded each of his symphonies multiple times, as well as leaving live performances on video. His feel for the first symphony was unmatched in my opinion; perhaps nowhere more so than the Klezmer passages in the third movement. This is his recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. If you’d rather watch Lenny in action, there is another performance of this symphony with him leading the Vienna Philharmonic on YouTube.
Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”: Bernstein is again my favorite for the second symphony; this time it’s his first recording with the New York Philharmonic from 1963. They performed it again a couple months later following the assassination of President Kennedy. That live performance is also available on YouTube.
Symphony No. 3: Conductor Jascha Horenstein was one of the early and most capable advocates of Mahler’s music. His later recordings of the first and third symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra are legendary. Here is that recording of the third, which is the longest symphony, not only of Mahler, but in the entire standard classical repertoire.
Symphony No. 4: George Szell, the longtime conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, was not as closely associated with Mahler’s music as were Bernstein and Horenstein. But he did make a justifiably famous recording of the fourth symphony in the late 60s that is frequently cited when the topic of best recording of the piece arises.
Symphony No. 5: The fifth is my favorite Mahler symphony. Each movement touches a different emotion in its own powerful way. Italian conductor Claudio Abbado was one of the best at leading it, having recorded the symphony several times over the years. Here is a live performance with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.
Symphony No. 6: Lenny returns, this time to lead the Vienna Philharmonic in a powerhouse recording of the sixth symphony. There is another performance with the same forces on video. This one is a live commercial recording.
Symphony No. 7: Claudio Abbado made several recordings of Mahler symphonies with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when he was their Principal Guest Conductor; including this highly regarded one of the seventh.
Symphony No. 8: While Abbado was guest conducting in Chicago, their Music Director was Sir Georg Solti, who also led his fair share of Mahler, including this legendary performance of the eighth symphony.
Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth): This piece could have easily been named by the composer as his ninth symphony. He apparently was afraid to do so in light of several other famous composers having died after completing their ninth, including, most famously, Beethoven. But he held off and wound up dying anyway after finishing his next major work, which he did call his Symphony No. 9. The great maestro, Otto Klemperer, leads it here with the New Philharmonia Orchestra, mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, and tenor Fritz Wunderlich.
Symphony No. 9: Conductor Bernard Haitink, who I posted on following his passing a few months ago, was a longtime advocate of Mahler’s music. Here he is leading his Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam in the ninth symphony on Christmas Day, 1987.
Bruckner composed two student symphonies, numbered 0 and 00. I’m skipping over those, as well as the first and second symphonies, which aren’t performed nearly as often as numbers 3-9.
Symphony No. 3: The German conductor Eugen Jochum may have spent as much time studying and conducting Bruckner’s symphonies as any of the great maestros. Here he is with the Staatskapelle Dresden from one of his two complete Bruckner symphony cycles on record.
Symphony No. 4: The fourth is one of the most popular and frequently performed Bruckner symphonies. There are two great recordings of it led by Claudio Abbado. Here he is with the Vienna Philharmonic.
Symphony No. 5: The conductor can make a huge difference in these symphonies. Here, Eugen Jochum returns, this time in a live 1986 performance with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, that lasts about 83 minutes. There are others that are in the neighborhood of 70 minutes. I love Jochum’s broad tempos.
Symphony No. 6: Although the sixth is perhaps less popular than 4 and 7-9, it was the first Bruckner symphony that I really came to love. And my single favorite recording of any of the symphonies may be this one of the sixth by Sergiu Celibidache and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra.
Symphony No. 7: Another of the most popular Bruckner symphonies is the seventh. Like Jochum, Herbert von Karajan made numerous Bruckner recordings over the course of his storied career, including several of the seventh. Here is his final recording, with the Vienna Philharmonic.
Symphony No. 8: The eighth is my own favorite Bruckner symphony and one of my favorite symphonies by any composer. Here, again, is Herbert von Karajan with the Vienna Philharmonic. The performance was given at the St. Florian Monastery in Austria, where Bruckner was a choirboy, then an organist and music teacher.
Symphony No. 9: Bruckner was another composer who never made it to Symphony No. 10. In fact, he had only completed the first three of an assumed four movements for his ninth when he passed away. While there have been fourth movements composed by several composers and performed by various orchestras and conductors, only the three movements that Bruckner finished are usually played. And here they are in a classic recording by Carlo Maria Giulini and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. To me, this is what a Bruckner orchestra should sound like.
I urge anyone who has thought about exploring the music of either or both composers to give some of these performances a shot. I think you’ll find it a rewarding and emotionally satisfying experience.
I may return with more recommendations for the music of other notable composers in the coming months. Mahler and Bruckner seemed like a good place to start in light of the dominant position their music has come to occupy in major concert halls around the world.