Various Artists

Mahler: Highlights

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As a composer of large-scale symphonies and song cycles, Gustav Mahler didn't write short, easy-to-digest pieces that could be collected conveniently on a sampler. Aside from the slight "Blumine" movement that Mahler rejected from the Symphony No. 1 (and which a lot of modern conductors insist on putting back in), a dubious Symphonic Prelude, and a few fragments that are never played, Mahler's music is found in long works, so any compilation of highlights or greatest hits necessarily consists of excerpts. Berlin Classics uses three CDs to do the job of representing Mahler's vast output, but the impression it leaves is muddled because the symphonic movements and song selections are mixed together without any clear pattern for a beginner to follow. It would be unfortunate if this fairly random assemblage of parts misrepresented Mahler as a composer of incoherent works or of modular bits and pieces that are merely stuck together. As dramatic as the mood swings and changing characters are in any piece by this composer, they either serve a programmatic purpose or fit into an organic sound world and make sense in the context of the entire work. So the idea that the second and third movements of the Symphony No. 4 are sufficient to convey what the whole symphony is like, or the notion that the Adagietto is an adequate representation of the Symphony No. 5 must be avoided. Likewise, the emotional power of Mahler's music comes through the building of energy over time, through multiple movements, so any section or snippet would fail to bring across the full impact of the tragedy of the Symphony No. 6 or the struggle and sublime resignation of the Symphony No. 9. While the playing on this set is often decent, and the fullrecordings by such worthy conductors as Kurt Masur, Kurt Sanderling, Václav Neumann, and Günther Herbig certainly deserve attention, too much of the Mahler experience is lost here, in the effort to merely touch on key parts of the major pieces. Anyone who is new to Mahler needs to listen to complete symphonies and song cycles to learn what makes his music tick. Experienced listeners already know that, so this set is not worth much to anybody, except as an introduction to what's in Berlin Classics' catalog.

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