Just how many great Mahler labels are there? There’s obviously Deutsche Grammophon and Decca, the two Universal giants who churned out a vast amount of legendary Mahler, including of course Bernstein’s second set, Karajan, Abbado, Kubelik, Chailly and Solti. Sony and RCA has been pretty impressive too, and besides the obvious Bernstein’s first set, there’s also the extremely impressive Levine and some Reiner. EMI has also been gracious in releasing Klemperer, Tennstedt and Barbirolli’s Mahler, not forgetting Bertini’s underrated set, and while Audite and Hänssler aren’t large operations compared to the aforementioned giants their releases of Kubelik’s live Mahler and Gielen’s Mahler deserve commendation.
Yet Naxos–a huge label whose quality offerings mostly equal and sometimes surpass those of established giants–isn’t one of them. That’s a pity, because with the exception of Wit’s astounding Mahler 8th and Halasz’s impressive Mahler 7th and Das Lied, none of them really deserve recommendation, especially when competition is so tough. The budget-label moniker won’t save them: while Wit’s Mahler 2nd, a fine but uninspired effort, is on a 2CD set with no filler and will set you aside around $100, you can have the reference Mehta or Klemperer on a single CD at a much cheaper price.
That is, to Top Ear, a pity. Wit’s Mahler 8th left both of us contemplating the possible excellence of a Mahler set if he redid the rest with the same forces (the Warsaw Philharmonic and Choir). If it was great enough and sold at the usual Naxos price, it could be the bargain of the century and may potentially displace those on the top of our Mahlerian leader board. Unfortunately, or so it seems, this was not to be, as the most recent Naxos Mahler offering—somebody’s Das Lied—wasn’t Wit’s, and wasn’t very good. It seems that times have changed, and in Naxos’ mind somebody else needs to take Wit’s position as Naxos’ Mahler conductor.
Enter this new release: a Mahler 1st by Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
From critical reviews we know that her most recent Brahms set has been a rather hit-and-miss affair, but her rendition of Bernstein’s Mass could even better the composer’s own version. And as we at Top Ear have never heard any of Alsop’s efforts, we can’t predict anything, and we don’t particularly have high hopes for this newcomer.
But then, anything may happen. Alsop’s critically acclaimed Brahms 3rd was a surprise given that her other symphonies were nothing special, and maybe her first foray into the world of Mahler may prove successful. Just maybe, her new recording would knock the likes of Kubelik, Solti and even Bernstein off the top of the leader board. Or, more pessimistically, it may be yet another uninteresting Mahler offering from Naxos. What do we know?
The only constant fact in this sea of variables—the only definite thing we know—is that Mahler’s 1st is one of the most performed and recorded of Mahler’s symphonies, and that this newcomer has a lot of competition to face even at the budget price. So we wish Naxos all the best, and look forward to this new recording accordingly.