Just in time for Christmas, the New York Philharmonic has released the ultimate recorded Mahler collection, a celebration of both the composer and the orchestra that he once led as music director. On twelve CDs, The Mahler Broadcasts, 1948-1982 contains live Philharmonic performances of the ten symphonies, Das Lied von der Erde, and Songs of a Wayfarer, and the names of the conductors alone are enough to send shivers: Barbirolli, Boulez, Kubelik, Mehta, Mitropoulos, Solti, Steinberg, Stokowski, Tennstedt, and Walter -- all noted Mahlerians presiding over scores that, in several instances, they never recorded commercially. Two big books come with the discs, a 500-page treasure trove of essays, interviews, texts, and translations, contemporary program notes and reviews, photos from the Philharmonic archives, a full documentation of Mahler's years with the Philharmonic (1909 to 1911), and a list of the orchestra's Mahler performances from 1904 to 1998. If that weren't enough, a fascinating two-hour radio documentary, assembled in 1964 by William Malloch, is also included, with recollections by musicians who knew Mahler or performed under his baton.
Where among all this largesse, I hear you ask, is the Philharmonic's own Leonard Bernstein? No conductor did more to bring Mahler into the symphonic mainstream, and none did more to consolidate this orchestra's special relationship to Mahler's music. The answer, of course, is that Bernstein's performances with the Philharmonic are all readily available elsewhere, so it was only logical to give these rarities preference. As with the orchestra's previous archival release, the material has been selected by Sedgwick Clark, a connoisseur of orchestral performance live and on disc, whose brief but eloquent commentary tells us exactly why each selection has a claim on our attention.
One could argue with Clark here and there, but after listening to the entire set I don't feel inclined to dispute any of his choices. Not one performance failed to give me some fresh insight into a composer I thought I had OD'd on long ago. Even Zubin Mehta outdoes himself in the Second -- this was the Philharmonic's 10,000th concert, on March 7, 1982, and everyone involved rises nobly to the occasion. The enigmatic Seventh Symphony has long been a stumbling block, even for Mahler fanatics, but the score sounds positively incandescent in this performance, thanks to Kubelik's passionate advocacy and the orchestra's virtuosity. Mitropoulos's Sixth is another magnificent achievement, an interpretation that seems hewn out of a single huge piece of marble, and Stokowski is just the conductor to keep the massive choral-and-orchestral forces of the Eighth in line without sacrificing a moment of the score's cosmic theatricality. For me, though, the set's high point, at least in terms of sheer on-the-spot, live-performance inspiration, is Tennstedt's electrifying account of the Fifth. The sonic quality may vary, but careful remastering by Seth Winner and Jon Samuels assures that even the earliest performance -- a 1948 Das Lied von der Erde conducted by Walter with Kathleen Ferrier and Set Svanholm -- represents the best broadcast sound of the period.
If Mahler is your composer, clearly these discs are indispensable. The price is $225 (plus applicable sales tax), and the boxed set may be ordered by phone (800-557-826), fax (317-781-4608), Internet (www.newyorkphilharmonic.org), or mail (New York Philharmonic, 5804 Churchman By-Pass, Indianapolis, IN 46203), or purchased at Lincoln Center's gift shops and Tower Records.