Ten symphonies, eight conductors, but just one orchestra: there’s no doubt that the Berlin Philharmonic is the star of the show in this cycle of Mahler performances, taken from concerts given in the Berlin Philharmonie over the last 10 years. The earliest recordings – Claudio Abbado conducting the opening movement of the unfinished 10th Symphony on the exact centenary of Mahler’s death, and Simon Rattle’s performance of the Eighth – date from 2011; the most recent, the Sixth Symphony under their successor as chief conductor, Kirill Petrenko, comes from the beginning of last year. As usual with releases on the orchestra’s own label, alongside the audio recordings the lavishly packaged set also includes high-definition videos of all the performances.
The presentation is immaculate, and technically the playing of this outstanding orchestra is superlative. But as you might expect when conductors with such very different interpretative approaches are involved, the musical results are variable, and it’s unlikely that anyone will find all of them to their taste. At one extreme, there’s Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s glib, superficial account of the Fourth Symphony; at the other are Abbado’s searing performance of the 10th’s great Adagio, and Bernard Haitink’s noble, gloriously elegiac Ninth. The rest fall somewhere in between.
Daniel Harding’s First Symphony is perhaps a little under-characterised, but always carefully moulded and immaculately paced; Andris Nelsons’ Second, the Resurrection Symphony, is certainly integrated more convincingly than the performance he conducted in Birmingham in 2009, but is never the overwhelming experience a great account of this work can be. Gustavo Dudamel and Rattle each conduct two works. If Dudamel allows the tension to sag too often in the Fifth Symphony, especially in the outer movements, his account of the Third seems very fine, the arc of its opening movement perfectly traced, the finale sustained to a blazing climax.
Rattle takes on perhaps the biggest challenges in the Mahler canon, the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. If he never quite solves the problem of the Seventh’s finale, he projects the epic canvases of the Eighth with all the pictorial vividness they demand. And Petrenko’s Sixth is very much on the credit side, too – a thoroughly traditional performance (the scherzo placed third in the sequence, the finale’s third hammer blow not reinstated), but one that balances quite beautifully the work’s tragic trajectory with its moments of elation.
Most Mahlerians are likely find something to impress them in this set, but at a considerable cost. Most of the major Mahler cycles on disc – those by Rafael Kubelík and Leonard Bernstein as well as Abbado, Haitink and Rattle, are available at significantly less than half the price of this one, and even the prestige of this great orchestra isn’t enough to compensate for that.