Mahler and Vanguard Classics

The music of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is seen by many as having fallen into relative neglect following his death. If one were to base that notion on the recording industry, one might buy that argument completely – consider that the total playing time of all Mahler recordings issued in the era of the 78rpm record comes to only about 25 hours of total listening compared to, say, the over eight hundred hours of Beethoven's music commercially released on disc prior to 1950.

However, recent research into early performances of Mahler's music by Sybille Werner included in Henri-Louis de La Grange's “Gustav Mahler, Volume IV: A New Life Cut Short, 1907-1911” indicates that live performances were in fact frequent in Europe from the time of Mahler's death – particularly in Germany and Austria up until the rise of Nazism.

The scale and scope of Mahler's music were an overwhelming challenge to the early recording industry (Polydor actually made an acoustic recording of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in 1924 with Oskar Fried leading heavily trimmed-down forces from the Berlin State Opera Chorus and Orchestra), but two technological breakthroughs changed the game. One was the invention of magnetic tape recording, developed in the mid-1930s in Germany and in frequent use by broadcasters there and in Austria throughout the war era; tape made long takes and easy "cut-and-paste" editing possible on a medium with lower noise and less susceptibility to damage than mechanical disc media. The other was the successful relaunch of the long-playing record format by Columbia in the early 1950s (RCA had tried to launch the medium in the mid-1930s but it failed miserably). Twelve-inch diameter LPs could accomodate well over twenty minutes of uninterrupted music on one side of a record as opposed to the 78, which in the pre-tape-era was limited to about five minutes a side (by 1950, Deutsche Grammophon had developed a mastering system using a tape player with a "leader" head that controlled the spacing between instances of the groove to extend a 78 side with quieter passages of music to as much as ten minutes in duration). As author Jonathan Carr argues in his brief single-volume biography of Mahler, "it was the long-playing record … which made a comprehensive breakthrough [of Mahler's popularity] possible. Mahler's work became accessible and repeatable in the home."

Mahler's music was championed far more by independent labels in the early days of the LP than the "majors." For Columbia, Mahler's protégé Bruno Walter made important recordings of the Fifth (originally issued on 78) and First Symphonies with the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York, but most of the other notable Mahler champions of the pre-stereo era were recording for independent labels. F. Charles Adler made recordings of the Third and Sixth Symphonies (both debut recordings), plus movements from the incomplete Tenth, for his own SPA label; Hermann Scherchen recorded Mahler for Westminster, and Jascha Horenstein, Otto Klemperer, and Hans Rosbaud all made important recordings for Vox.

Vanguard established its bona fides as a champion of Mahler with one of the label's very first releases, releasing a 78 (catalogue number 3) of Wer hat dies Lieblein gedacht? from Des knaben Wunderhorn, sung by Mary Paull accompanied by Kenneth Hieber, in 1948.

The earliest LP release of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 appeared nearly simultaneously on two labels – Vanguard and Urania – in 1953; the recording, originally made in 1949 for broadcast, featured the Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin (billed as the Berlin Radio Orchestra, now the Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester) conducted by Ernst Borsamsky. Like many early classical LPs issued by independent labels, the circumstances surrounding the origins of the recordings and the nature of the business transactions that led to the recording's release remain, to put it politely, a bit of a mystery. Many labels of that era issued recordings pseudonymously (most notoriously the Royale imprint, whose house conductor "Joseph Balzer" could turn out to be anyone from Hans Rosbaud to Hans Schmitt-Isserstedt to Karl Böhm). Vanguard's pioneering Mahler LP was thought by some collectors and scholars to be pseudonymous, but a letter in the Spring 2001 issue of International Classical Record Collector reveals that Borsamsky was indeed a conductor who had had a brief career in East Germany. According to blogger "Problembär", in a more recent e-mail to his blog from record collector "High Pony Tail":

I have in my possession a copy of a Berlin Philharmonic program from 1948 that has a brief biography of [Borsamsky].

He was born 1905 in the former Yugoslavia (in Belgrade if I'm not mistaken). He studied violin at the Vienna Hochscule fur Musik and then made his way as an orchestral violinist, eventually attaining the position of concertmaster at the Warsaw Radio Orchestra. That he must've done some conducting also at this point is probable as he came to the attention of Hermann Abendroth, who took Borsamsky under his wing and gave him some conducting lessons. He also earned favorable attention from Günter Wand, who invited Borsamsky to conduct his Cologne Radio Orchestra. After the 1950's, Borsamsky's name disappears.

The Berlin Philharmonic program notes also explained that Borsamsky was well known for his interpretations of 20th century music, and indeed, that program featured the German premiere of Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. Also in that program were Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe Suite No.2 and Stravinsky's Firebird.

Other early Mahler recordings on Vanguard include twelve songs from Des knaben Wunderhorn sung by Lorna Sydney and Alfred Poell accompanied by the Vienna State Opera Orchestra conducted by Felix Prohaska (first released as double LP VRS 412-413 in 1951 and reissued as single LP VRS-476 in 1956), the Rückert-Lieder sung by Poell with Prohaska and the VSOO (VRS-421), and Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit sung by Anny Felbermayer and Poell with pianist Viktor Graef (VRS-424).

Vanguard also licensed two Mahler recordings from other labels: from Pye, Sir John Barbirolli's recording of the First Symphony with the Hallé Orchestra (Vanguard Everyman Series SRV-233 SD), and from VEB Deutsche Schallplatten (now Berlin Classics) Vaclav Neumann's Fifth Symphony with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (Vanguard Cardinal Series VCS-10011/2).

Vanguard's first stereo Mahler recording had a familial link to the composer. It was the first stereo recording of the two-movement version of Das Klagende Lied, released in late 1959 and featuring soloists Margaret Hoswell, Lili Chookasian, and Rudolf Petrak, with the Hartford Chorale and Hartford Symphony Orchestra conducted by the son of one of the composer's cousins, Fritz Mahler.

By the early-1960s, Vanguard had established a reputation as a premier independent classical label issuing premium quality recordings of high artistic and technical merit at a lower price than competing major labels. While much of their focus was on baroque music, solo piano, and chamber music, the label had been making orchestra recordings with the Utah Symphony under music director Maurice Abravanel.

Vanguard's first two Mahler recordings with Abravanel were Symphony No. 8, recorded in December 1963 and released in early 1964, and Symphony No. 7, recorded in December 1964 and released in the spring of 1965. Each was the first available stereo recording of what were then rarely performed works. The critical response to both was overwhelmingly positive; to cite one example, Edward Greenfield, at the time music reviewer of the Manchester Guardian and later the co-editor of the influential Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music, quite preferred Abravanel's Seventh to a rival recording by an international superstar of the podium:

Amazingly, Abravanel makes the impossible finale of Symphony No. 7 even more convincing than Bernstein's. Bernstein seems unable to relax enough. … When you hear Abravanel you appreciate fully the simpler approach. Also Abravanel's warmly rather than tensely passionate account of the first movement is far more effective.

Abravanel's recordings of the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies had beaten Bernstein's to the market by a few months, and were issued at a lower price-point than Columbia Masterworks' recordings. Abravanel's performances offered an alternative to Bernstein's hyper-romanticized interpretive vision, putting the focus on Mahler's daring sonorities and unabashed modernism.

Between 1967 and 1969 Abravanel and the Utah Symphony recorded the Second, Third, Fourth, and Ninth Symphonies; five years later, in a string of sessions covering a period of a week, the First, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, plus the Adagio from the Tenth, were recorded. These 1974 sessions were recorded during the brief "quadrophonic" era, and were released release in both stereo and quadrophonic LP formats. The entire cycle remained in print until the end of the LP era, and began reappearing in 1991 on compact disc, again at a value price.

The thorough and informative liner notes for Vanguard's Mahler cycle added to the recordings' value for the dollar, with most of them written by Mahler authority Jack Diether and prominent classical broadcaster Martin Bookspan. The notes are reproduced on this web site in their entirety.

Gene Gaudette