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Mahler Symphonies & Das Lied von der Erde

Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra cond Gary Bertini

EMI Classics (£29 delivered free from Amazon UK - hear samples)

If you prefer your Mahler with as little 'interpretation' as possible, in straightforward reading of the notes on the page, then you will love this EMI release under Gary Bertini who plays them 'straight' and without too much of either sweet sugariness or angst.

In this set are all the symphonies plus Das Lied von der Erde - in essence, his ninth symphony, not numbered so because of the composer's superstition about Beethoven's nine. One could wish that the Cooke completion of the Tenth was here but has to respect those who prefer to close the cycle with just the one completed movement. Without cavil, these are as near masterpieces of recorded performance(s), as well as interpretive perfection, as we are likely to hear again in this life.

Sonically, this (as a whole set) is a wonder. All performances, from Cologne and Tokyo, are 'live' yet audience noise is unobtrusive. The booklet has a very interesting discussion about the quality of Bertini's musicianship and this conductor's great achievement of clarity and brightness. But the whole is much more than that, as the writer implies.

There is no note about each symphony's construction; in a sense all one wants perhaps is to know how many movements there are and the tempo indications. After that, all the listener needs is ... a good pair of ears and an open mind. True, Mahler's works are huge and to get to know them at all well, one generally needs to hear each piece at least three times before some of it will stick in the memory. Most of them take an hour or more, e.g the Third anything from 90 minutes to 105 or more - Bertini's 95'26.

There are so many great Mahlerians on disc, from Bruno Walter, Rafael Kubelik, Solti, Karajan, Bernstein, Haitink, Horenstein, Tennstedt (rather too nervy for my taste) - some like Rattle above all others (his 2nd and completed 10th are truly excellent) - and many others besides.

In Bertini's set, the cowbells of the Sixth and Seventh are not too prominent (which I prefer) and the three quaver solo on one note by the guitar in the latter work passes by blissfully un­noticed. (Why on earth did Mahler want this instrument in the piece?)

Bertini's 9th is heartfelt without ever being cloying. The sombre, terrifying struggle with death of the first movement, the corresponding lightness of the laendler, the galumphing burlesque, and the excruciatingly sad finale; never has a Mahler symphony more seemed to be a whole world.

A fine Das Lied von der Erde completes the set. Heppner is a marvellous interpreter, pure effortless tones, from the very first, immensely difficult phrase. Lipovsek does not quite match Janet Baker's classic account for tenderness; she is very closely recorded and there is more audience noise than usual. However, the extremely sensitive accompaniment and cleverly managed recorded balance make it a satisfying listen.

There is plenty of power too in a set that concentrates on clarity and beauty, and the music carries its own passion without the incumberance of an over-emotional conductor at the helm. If there could be such a thing as a Brucknerian way of performing Mahler, then this is possibly it. Of the two composers, Mahler is arguably the more exciting but my feeling is that Bruckner is deeper; and perhaps this is why I find this Bertini set so much more satisfying than any of the others listed above. I believe that (musically) we listeners live in the very best of all times. It is hard these days to find an orchestra that sounds less than brilliant. One may not have Cologne Radio SO rolling off the tongue as easily as (even) the BBC SO; but to my ears these 'lesser' names are producing wonderful things in music - all to our advantage. This set is Breughelian in its breadth and detail; if you only have one complete Mahler, this should be it.

Dennis Day