Top Ear

Georg Solti and his Supercharged Mahler Symphonies Set

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Jeremy Lee writes

Georg Solti’s history of recording Mahler is rather interesting:  from 1964 to 1971 he completed a Mahler cycle for Decca with the London Symphony Orchestra in symphonies 1, 2, 3 and 9, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Symphony No. 4, and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in symphonies 5-8.  In around 1980 however Solti decided to take advantage of digital technology and remake with the CSO the symphonies not previously done with them (that is 1-4 and 9), giving us a complete CSO cycle that is featured in this box set.  Afterwards he recorded two Das Lied von der Erdes:  first with the CSO and then with the RCO.  He also remade the 5th symphony with the CSO, and further remade it yet again with the Tonhalle Zurich Orchestra in the very last year of his life, but the Das Lieds and the later 5ths are not included here.  If you are familiar with Solti’s style in Bartok, Beethoven, Bruckner, Brahms, Strauss or Wagner, you probably know what his Mahler sounds like, because it’s invariably vital and thrilling, yet also rather rash and insensitive at times, like so much of what he has conducted.

Let’s start with the digitally remade symphonies first.  I’ve never really warmed to Solti’s interpretations of Mahler 1 even though I respect them a lot.  The LSO version sounded fresher but suffered from stiffness at times, particularly in the 3rd movement, and some bad playing in the 4th movement, and overall it sounded rather coarse.  This CSO version improves in the playing department (the CSO brass is as you would expect fabulous) and there’s quite a bit more polish but the stiffness is still there.  Solti’s exceptionally electrifying interpretation of Mahler 2, however, suits my taste very well.  I’ve noted in my previous review of the LSO version; it’s a terrifying, visceral approach.  The CSO version is a bit more expansive, and the (relative) delicateness Solti brings to the 2nd movement is appreciable, but the climaxes are not a hair less powerful:  witness the cries of despair (the most spectacular opening to the 5th movement ever recorded?) and the immensely loud Aufersteh’n (the organ almost drowns out everything).  The LSO Third Symphony thrilled the living daylights out of yours truly (review here) and the CSO remake is similarly intimidating, particularly due to the prominence of the CSO brass, but compared to the LSO version the CSO’s playing sounds much more refined.  Solti, too, has rethought his approach to the piece.  While he keeps the faster sections at a consistently high voltage, he puts more attention on the tender passages (the finale is now much more heartfelt), which is all for the good.  My only quibble concerns the 1st movement which strikes me as a glib-through in the slow passages (no problems when the music whips up to a frenzy).

The only impression I have of the RCO 4th was that it was nothing special.  I find that the CSO 4th is, contrary to critical opinion, a very fine 4th, which is as leisurely and delicate as any other good recording, and sporting a gorgeous-sounding Kiri Te Kanawa in the finale.  In some climaxes the sound Solti gets is rather contrived but I suppose that’s his particular tendency.  While I’ve never heard the LSO 9th (which is critically acclaimed) this CSO version is pretty good.  The expansive tempi Solti chooses in the 1st and 2nd movements (30:16 and 18:00 respectively) may be striking, but he uses the time wisely to coax some beautifully heartbreaking playing in the 1st movement and to give a country bumpkin edge in the 2nd movement.  The Rondo-Burleske, however, is somewhat disappointing because it’s not as thrilling as you would expect (especially compared to so many other versions); thankfully probably as compensation Solti provides us with an immensely soul-searching and world-weary finale which strikes me as one of Solti’s more successful conceptions of a Mahlerian slow movement.  These remakes were recorded in Decca’s early digital period and sound “steely-toned” as some reviewers have described, but one cannot discount the fact that the sonics are clear, clean, and full of presence and impact.

Onto the analogue recordings.  Solti’s 1970 5th symphony is possibly the least successful recording here.  Firstly, the sonics are weird:  the perspective of the sound picture shifts randomly and irregularly too often (the timpani come and go maddeningly).  Secondly, Solti’s neurotic conception has all bark and no bite, exemplified by the speedy and at times ferocious 2nd and 5th movements that nonetheless sound like an aggressive bull terrier fighting with a chihuahua more than a fire-breathing lion claiming sovereignty over a vast territory like we get with Kubelik, Bernstein, Tennstedt and even Mackerras.  Thirdly, the Adagietto sound really impatient, fourthly, Solti holds back the brass chorale of the 5th movement frustratingly soon, and finally, the strings sound scrawny in general and the brass isn’t even all that powerful.  It’s rather disappointing, and I really hope he does better in his remakes which I have not heard.  The 6th is a speedy, high-nerved approach that completely eschews Mahler’s tragedy and horror in favor of a exuberant show of virtuosity that makes the piece sound more like one of those flashy orchestral showpieces American record companies loved to record in the dawn of the stereo era.  Therefore we get a 21-minute-dead first movement, complete with exposition repeat (Barbirolli’s is slower and makes do without the repeat) and a 27-minute finale, one of the fastest around.  Speaking of which, the finale sports some powerful hammers, and I appreciate Solti’s adherence of the “a tempo” marking after those hammer-crowned climaxes.  All the departments concerned flex their muscles in dazzling display, and as such it’s all very exciting, but it also sounds very vulgar sometimes–try the blatting, shouty climax of the Andante Moderato.  Overall, however, I wouldn’t call it “brutal” because it doesn’t have that rhetorical weight or devastating, destructive power Bernstein, Tennstedt, Barbirolli or Levine gives to it; nevertheless Solti’s approach is musically very satisfying and it’s hard not to be astonished at the sheer virtuosity of the golden-age CSO.

Solti apparently never understood the 7th and was obliged to record it to complete his Mahler cycle, and one can tell from the sectionalized Rondo-Finale’s lurching changes in tempo that Solti didn’t put lots of thought and care into his conception (understandably the Rondo-Finale is not a very coherent work anyway).  Possibly in an attempt to cover this fact, Solti approaches the work like he approaches the 6th, which to me works pretty well.  The first movement, one of Mahler’s most wonderful conceptions, is a thrill-ride thanks to the astounding brass section, and the scherzo is aptly ghostly.  The Nachtmusiks have been done more sensitively, but Solti here surprises with his beautiful shading.  So in balance this is a pretty fine recording.  The fabled 8th has long been hailed as one of the best recordings of the work, and I concur.  The soloists are a dream-team (is this the most well-sung 8th ever?) and the choral work from the Viennese is admirable.  Solti’s way with the work is powerful and flashy, as he always is, and it all culminates in a spectacularly grand Alles Vergängliche that will blow you out of your seats.

So in the end whether you want such a showy Mahler set is entirely subjective.  Many people I know can’t tolerate the prominence of the CSO brass (gives them headaches), and admittedly Solti’s refusal to adhere to the received Mahlerian style is not to everyone’s taste.  Yet this is in many ways an exemplary Mahler set:  not only is it beautifully played and mostly very well recorded, it scales the heights of sheer feel-good thrills in Mahler that few other conductors have been able to match so consistently.  At London Decca’s modest price, admirers of Solti and the CSO (and aspiring brass players too!) should not hesitate.


  • Album name:  Mahler:  The Symphonies
  • Performers:  Sir Georg Solti;  Chicago Symphony Orchestra
    • Symphony No. 2:  Isobel Buchanan (soprano);  Mira Zakai (contralto);  Chicago Symphony Chorus
    • Symphony No. 3:  Helga Dernesch (contralto);  Women of the Chicago Symphony Chorus; Glen Ellyn Children’s Choir
    • Symphony No. 4:  Kiri Te Kanawa (soprano)
    • Symphony No. 8:  Heather Harper (soprano I);  Lucia Popp (soprano II);  Arleen Auger (soprano III);  Yvonne Minton (contralto I);  Helen Watts (contralto II);  René Kollo (tenor);  John Shirley-Quirk (baritone);  Martti Talvela (bass);  Wiener Staatsopernchor;  Wiener Singverein;  Wiener Sängerknaben
  • Label:  London/Decca 430 804-2
  • No. of discs:  10
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD/DDD

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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