To say that I have listened to every note of this 16 CD set before reviewing it would not be true, but I have certainly already spent many hours in its company and feel able to deliver at least a preliminary account of its many virtues and possible drawbacks.
Tennstedt's Mahler is of the old school; no "Mahler lite" here. The word which repeatedly came into my head while listening was "majestic". His tempi are indeed often slow but by no means necessarily the slowest in comparison with other successful versions and his sense of the music's architecture invariably means that he eschews any tendency to drag. The quality most associated with his interpretation is massiveness, a sense of great blocks of sound being manipulated into position to form a mighty edifice.
This studio cycle was recorded over a period of nine years from 1977 to 1986 and I would say right away that the sound is remarkably good. At first sight, EMI's decision to remaster only some symphonies is puzzling but in fact is quite straightforward: only those symphonies recorded in analogue between 1977 and 1981 have been deemed in need of remastering, which was done between 2000 and 2002 - with the exception of no. 2, which was recorded in very early digital in 1981 and thus presumably too glassy or in some way unsatisfactory owing to inexperience with the technology. Otherwise, the remaining nos. 4, 6, 7, 8 and "Das Lied von der Erde" and the three live recordings of no. 5, from 1988, no. 6, from 1991 and no. 7,from 1993, were all recorded in digital sound and EMI have presumably deemed it unnecessary to remaster them.
I appreciate that Tennstedt devotees will tell you that to hear him at his best it is necessary to go to live recordings such as his phenomenal 1989 recording with the same orchestra on their own label or performances on the BBC Legends label, but this set still represents an extraordinary conductor in some of his finest work playing his favourite composer. Furthermore, you still get the chance to make some interesting comparisons between studio and live performances as this latest issue includes three live performances of Symphonies 5, 6 and 7. I am not entirely convinced that these live recordings are always immeasurably superior to the studio versions; there is, for example, very little difference between the two accounts of no. 5, although on balance I actually preferred the studio version. While the Trauermarsch is weightily imposing in both, the playing of the second movement a little scrappier in the live account, intonation is occasionally suspect and the overall mood is too hectic for my taste. The Adagietto has a richer, more powerful, sobbing intensity in the studio but I do, however, love the way Tennstedt engineers its ending on a barely perceptible thread of sound in the live performance; both versions are superb. In general, the live performances are slower and have an intense, mesmeric quality not always evident in the occasionally less inspired studio versions of the Sixth and Seventh; at the same time it is possible to criticise Tennstedt's preference for drawn-out tempi as unnecessarily indulgent.
Tennstedt called the London Philharmonic Orchestra "the best orchestra for Mahler in the world" and when listening to certain passages, such as those featuring the flutes and oboes in the "Abschied" from "Das Lied", I can only concur; there is a great deal of wonderful solo artistry, especially from the woodwind and horns, and invariably a gorgeous sheen on the sound of the orchestra as a whole. The best performances here are, I think, the Third and the Eighth, but the set as a whole represents an extraordinary bargain and an indispensable survey of Tennstedt's special gifts in Mahler, suitable either for the seasoned collector or the novice wanting to be introduced to the glories of Mahler's symphonic world.
The surprise for me in this box set was "Das Lied von der Erde"; I had not previously heard it and rather assumed it to be inferior to the established classic versions, but this is not the case. Klaus König has been judged by some to be the weakness in the set but I find him to be in very good voice: heroic if slightly throaty of tone but with plenty of heft and ringing top notes. Any slight strain is hardly inappropriate in such demanding music. Agnes Baltsa's smoky, vibrant mezzo is not really inward and other-worldly enough in comparison to the poise of Janet Baker or Christa Ludwig who have more nobility of timbre than Baltsa's more earthy sound but her more overt melancholy works in the longest "Abschied" on record, she floats some beautiful top G's and her repeated "ewig" as she fades away is hypnotic. Tennstedt's phrase-shaping is immaculate; his ability to sustain the requisite tension is enormously helped by the lustrous playing of the LPO, whose shimmering strings allow him to bridge the long, drawn-out lines.
Given Tennstedt's penchant for grandeur, the opening of the First Symphony is a model of delicacy and restraint: over a gentle ppp the horns intone their motto suggestive of "faery lands forlorn", then the trumpet fanfare injects a note of urgency, the orchestra building to the most stirring climax possible. As throughout this cycle, the brass and horns are marvellous, often whooping with Straussian verve. The only disappointment here comes with the rather diffident manner the trumpets adopt for the passage at 10'38". Time and again one is struck by Tennstedt's sense of pace and timing, his artful use of rubato, his ability to recapture the momentum having once relaxed. With Tennstedt, one must always take the long view, but occasionally - and most damagingly, perhaps, in the Ninth - a lack of emphasis and punch such as Bernstein or Solti can bring to crucial moments is apparent in Tennstedt's "slow burn" demeanour.
The "Resurrection" is the longest of many a recording, making Klemperer look positively brusque, but Doris Soffel copes admirably with the etiolated tempi, sustaining a rich, steady line and Tennstedt justifies his choice of beat, securing terrifying energy and commitment form the London Philharmonic Choir and steering the work home to an ending of overwhelming opulence and majesty. A great recording, not perhaps, as all-embracing as his live LPO version but nonetheless a success within the context of the recorded cycle.
The Third, as I have already said, is one of the best of all and also in the best sound. I still think that Levine is the most satisfying of all in the way he combines brooding mystery with dark purpose but both he and Tennstedt capture the ironic, faux-naif deliberateness the opening movement demands. Movement by movement, I find that his rivals sometimes surpass Tennstedt: in the second, both Kubelik and Levine manage to bring more charm to the tripping bucolic dance and in the third alto Ortrun Wenkel is very ordinary alongside Horne and Podles, but then nor do Bernstein (Martha Lipton) or Kubelik (Marjorie Thomas) have the best singers and they are still front-runners in this symphony. Tennstedt is just a tad too voluptuous compared with Bernstein, Wit and Kubelik in the "Sehr langsam. Misterioso" fourth movement, his boy trebles leaning into the "Bim-bams" rather coyly - the direction is "keck", not winsome - but this performance is greater than the sum of its parts and I find it the most successful after the Eighth. Both Bernstein and Levine take considerably longer than Tennstedt over the sixth movement and have been accused of taking an overblown approach, and although it is difficult to see how it is possible to overdo the intensity of such music, Tennstedt's somewhat more restrained and refined interpretation also eschews to some degree the unwelcome sentimental association of the melody with "I'll be seeing you again" uneasily melded with strains of "Also sprach Zarathustra".
The Fourth Symphony here is a gloriously open, lyrical, warm-hearted performance. Tennstedt's tempi can be daringly extreme but they work; this is a tender, poised account which succeeds in transporting us heavenward. Soprano soloist Lucia Popp is perfect; her honest, direct singing is all Viennese charm without a hint of Schmaltz.
I have already indicated that the Fifth is a great success. It created a stir on its appearance and remains a tour de force both of orchestral playing and interpretative cohesiveness; the central Scherzo, in particular, is striking in the virtuosity of the LPO horns and brass and the passion of Tennstedt's direction. The Sixth is a dense, doom-laden trudge, the slowest recording of all, yet Tennstedt's wonderful control of dynamics and sense of overall shape weaves a magical spell, preferable to Yoel Levi's almost panic-stricken haste, Szell's steely, frenetic urgency or Levine's crisp, clipped drive. It is in fact closest in mood to Bernstein's weighty grandeur and those two remain my two favourite versions. The live recording is even slower, but still hangs together. Similarly, both performances of the Seventh look leisurely on paper but are immensely compelling.
In the monumental Eighth, Tennstedt inspires his forces - somewhat smaller than normal but certainly not lacking in power or gravitas - to produce one of the finest recordings of this great but unwieldy and uneven work.
I have read criticisms elsewhere of some supposed inadequacy in the soloists and a slackening of tension in Part 2. I certainly hear nothing of the kind: the singers are wonderful, especially Edith Wiens as Una Poenitentium, and the climax to the whole piece is breath-takingly majestic. The sound is very fine and the reduction in choir members is all to the good as it allows Tennstedt to achieve greater clarity but without loss of weight. His tempi are finally judged, if occasionally idiosyncratic - but he does everything for good reason and clearly has a broad, over-arching vision of how the music should go, such that he manages to bridge some of the bare patches and potential longueurs when Mahler's inspiration flags somewhat. I found both the London Philharmonic Choir and the Tiffin School Boys to be thrilling, with intonation secure even in the upper reaches of the voices.
I agree with previous commentators that the Ninth is perhaps the least successful symphony here. It is a big, grand, gloomy account which lacks Bernstein's élan and often simply goes slack. Rhythms lose the pulse and despite some glorious playing and impressive moments, the conception is too diffuse and the momentum stalls.
The Adagio from the Tenth brings compensation for that disappointment; the sound is superb and Tennstedt has recovered the spontaneity missing in the Ninth; the intensity of the psychomachia depicted here is riveting, such that one gives nary a thought to the exceptionally long duration of the movement that Tennstedt demands.
This super-bargain box set is a wonderful testament to the devotion to Mahler of a conductor who came late to the composer but brought to his music the mature fruits of his own mental and bodily suffering. It is not flawless but evinces an integrity and honesty of response, in harmony with a technical proficiency, which secure Tennstedt's place amongst the greatest interpreters of Mahler.