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Urlicht releases 78 RPM recordings of Mahler from the early twentieth century

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Based in New York City, where both individuals and businesses face extreme difficulty in standing out from the crowd, the Urlicht AudioVisual label has done some remarkable things to distinguish its individuality through an enthusiastic sense of adventure. I was particularly impressed with them last year when they released a recording of Luigi Nono’s “La Lontananza nostalgica utopica futura,” going to great lengths to create a recorded document of a performance of a composition that was as spatial as it was acoustic. Indeed, the impact of listening to that recording (having had the good fortune to experience that music in concert) was strong enough for me to include it on my December list of five significant recordings that had been overlooked for GRAMMY nominations.

Last December found the Urlicht pendulum swinging a great distance from one of Nono’s last compositions (completed in 1989) with the release of an eight-CD box of 78 RPM recordings of performances of the music of Gustav Mahler issued between 1903 and 1940. Now, to be fair, the only one of these recordings released during Mahler’s lifetime (the one from 1903) is a single aria from his completion of Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Die drei Pintos, which suggests that Mahler himself probably never had the opportunity to listen to recordings of his own music. It is also worth noting that most of the performers on these recordings are likely to be unfamiliar to just about anyone without a passionate interest in the early history of audio recording.

On the other hand there is also a generous share of names whose legacy still reverberates in the present day. Most important of these is Bruno Walter, who became Mahler’s assistant in 1901. Walter is represented by two major recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic and two shorter selections. His performance of the ninth symphony was recorded in concert on January 16, 1938 (only months before the Anschluss); and a complete recording of Das Lied von der Erde was made from a concert given on May 24, 1936. At that same concert contralto Kerstin Thorborg sang Mahler’s setting of Friedrich Rückert’s poem “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” which was also recorded. There is also a studio recording of the fourth (Adagietto) movement from the fifth symphony made in studio on January 15, 1938.

However, this collection is also useful in documenting the work of those conductors who were early champions of Mahler’s music. Some of these are familiar: There is another studio recording of the Adagietto made by Willem Mengelberg with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in May of 1926 and a studio recording of Jascha Horenstein conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin with baritone Heinrich Rehkemper in 1928. (The reader will note that specificity of recording details was far from consistent in those days.) There is also a surprising Japanese recording of the fourth symphony, made in studio in May of 1930, with Viscount (that’s what the label says) Hidemaro Konoye conducting the Tokyo New Symphony Orchestra and soprano Eiko Kitazawa.

While we tend to associate initial American interest in Mahler with New York, there are also two highly impressive recordings of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. The earlier of these is of the second (“Resurrection”) symphony, recorded in January of 1935 with Eugene Ormandy conducting. This is one of many recordings that Ormandy made for RCA Victor prior to his move to Philadelphia. The other is a recording of the first symphony made on November 4, 1940 with Ormandy’s successor in Minneapolis, Dimitri Mitropoulos.

The names of the vocalists in this collection are likely to be less familiar to most readers with the possible exception of Elisabeth Schumann, who recorded “Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht” (from Des Knaben Wunderhorn) with pianist George Reeves on February 18, 1930.

By this time I suspect many readers will be wondering about sound quality. In this respect one must be fair and accept the fact that there is only such much that expert digital signal processing can do, at least at the present time. As a result, there tends to be limited dynamic range; but, while some instruments definitely register better than others, for the most part one hears the instruments that matter almost all of the time. On the other hand there are also some bizarre sonorities, the most memorable probably being the chimes at the end of the second symphony recording made by Oscar Fried with the Staatskapelle Berlin in 1924.

Thus, while these recordings will probably not satisfy audiophiles obsessed with the “living presence” of the music, those whose preferences run to the diverse approaches to interpreting Mahler’s music will probably find these recordings irresistible and will relish all eight CDs in the collection.

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