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Gustav Mahler's Symphonies: Critical Commentary on Recordings Since 1986.

This work is a sequel to Lewis M. Smoley's The Symphonies of Gustav Mahler: A Critical Discography (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986). The earlier volume included the three hundred known recordings of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) "released for public consumption" (p. xiv) from 1924 (the first recording) to 1986. Now Smoley continues with the 650 recordings released from 1986 through 1995. He includes the numbered symphonies of Mahler (plus "completions" of Symphony no. 10), Das Lied von der Erde, and the Adagio from Symphony no. 10.

Each entry lists the conductor, orchestra, vocal soloists, chorus, recording company, record number, year of issue, total time of the recording, and a rating ("excellent" to "adequate"), and is followed by review by Smoley. For rereleases, Smoley adds the dates of previous releases. The volume is divided into chapters by symphony. Within each chapter, entries are arranged alphabetically by name of conductor. The work concludes with indexes of conductors, orchestras, soloists, choruses, and record labels.

The volume is comprised primarily of Smoley's reviews of the 650 recordings. The reviews are generally two hundred to four hundred words long (this time in a good-quality typeface). For rereleases, Smoley reuses his reviews from the 1986 volume, making minor editorial changes. J. M. Perrault, who reviewed the 1986 volume (Notes 44 [1987]: 276), was severe in his criticism of Smoley:

In sum, then, Smoley has amassed an invaluable trove of information but vitiates its validity as the basis for his own questionable value judgments by an undue subjectivity, a concentration on his own emotional response to each version rather than on the music and its performance.

In the introduction to the 1996 volume, Smoley attempts to establish objective bases for his reviews:

Consideration should be given to a combination of factors, including the presence or absence of a conceptual overview for each piece, treatment of Mahler's detailed markings, evocation of contrasting moods, rendering of musical effects, and determination of tempi and their extraordinarily frequent modifications. (p. ix)

He also considers the "conductor's overall approach" ("objective" or "personal") and "sonic reproduction" (p. xi). He briefly explains his criteria and then loosely describes each symphony. For example, in writing about the Second Symphony, he states:

Urlicht, with its prayer for redemption, provides a perfect prelude to the awesome opening of the finale. I have always felt that this magnificent movement [i.e., the finale], with its quasi-religious quest for redemption, comes off more convincingly if presented as a positive resolution of the tragedy of the first movement. Yet another reason to give full measure to that movement's tragic muse. (p. xii)

If one is thoroughly familiar with the Mahler symphonies and their backgrounds, such descriptions are comprehensible and imply Smoley's perspective. But his remarks are too sweeping either to be instructive to less-informed readers or to provide the objective critical foundation that he intends. Even Smoley admits:

No matter how objective the judgment is intended to be, subjective elements undoubtedly come into play. To avoid a merely personal approach, the reviews that follow try to balance an overall impression with a critique of specific passages considered significant. (p. xvii)

The latter he does with a vengeance, frequently citing the performance of specific measures in justifying his evaluations. One often wonders whether he has indeed considered the performance as a whole. And the reviews are not enhanced by a sometimes wayward writing style, for example, "Bertini plays up the movement's ups and downs, fits and starts" (p. 111).

In the imprecise world of record reviewing, Smoley usually follows mainstream opinion, although there are exceptions. Thus he disparages John Barbirolli's 1969 recording of Symphony no. 5 as "generally labored, heavy-handed and stiff" (p. 108), while this recording receives a rosette (i.e., outstanding) in The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs (Ivan March et al. [London: Penguin Books, 1996], 733) and is recommended by several reviewers in the most recent Mahler overview in the American Record Guide (56, no. 6 [1993]: 67).

Nevertheless, Smoley's new volume is valuable and useful, especially if supplemented with related tools, such as Peter Fulop, Mahler Discography (New York: Kaplan Foundation, 1995). But there is a larger issue. Many new recordings of Mahler symphonies have already been released since the publication of Smoley's latest volume. In the ongoing flood of new recordings, are books the best medium of timely discographic information?

CHARLES A. ROECKLE The University of Texas at Austin
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Author:Roeckle, Charles A.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1997
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