Mahler For the Asking & Future Hi-Res Downloads
Universal Classics, owners of the great Deutsche Grammophon, London/Decca, and Philips catalogues, has made its entire treasure trove of Mahler recordings available for free, full-track, online streaming. Whether you are a babe in the Vienna woods or a seasoned Mahlerite, this is a rare opportunity to audition and compare a good 180 Mahler symphony recordings, including over 60 out-of-print Mahler titles.
The tracks, first posted to Mahler150.com last year in honor of the 150th anniversary of Gustav Mahler's birth, remain available in 2011, the 100th anniversary of Mahler's death. While you can no longer vote on the contents of DG's 13-CD box set, Mahler: The People's Choiceit has already been issuedyou can still compile playlists of favorite movements and complete symphonies, and create your near-ideal mix-and-match performance of all Mahler symphonies and song cycles.
Rupert Waag, who conceived of the project, explained by phone from Hamburg that the music is streamed at 256kbps. "We're not attempting to satisfy audiophiles," he confessed. "We are a record company trying to sell records, and this is all for free.
"We felt that, especially with Mahler recordings, 60 seconds per symphony is not a very good way to get into the symphonies. Instead, we wanted to create a way where people, if they wanted to, could spend a great deal of time listening and listening. This allows the experience of comparing interpretations of one orchestra and conductor with another. You can have the fun of comparing the same conductor playing the same piece with two different orchestras, as in Abbado playing the First Symphony with Chicago, then with Chicago eight or so years later."
The bottom line: For Stereophile readers wanting to know what all the fuss is about, Mahler150.com offers a way in. For seasoned Mahlerites wondering how Abbado, Haitink, and Bernstein approached the same Mahler symphony on one or more occasions, you can get a sense of their respective accomplishments.
Once you know what whets your fancy, Universal Classics hopes you will pull out the plastic and proceed. Only by either playing a fine Mahler recording on an equally fine system capable of detailed, full-range reproduction, or attending a live performance by a quality symphony can you fully appreciate Mahler's grand-scaled accomplishments, I feel.
So far, the site has been a huge success. Even without technology compatible with the iPad and iPhone, the three-month voting campaign for the People's Choice Edition found visitors listening to 30 streams each. 60% of those streams were auditioned right through to the end, even if they were 20 or 30 minutes long.
"This shows much people are interested in Mahler," says Waag. "There is an awful lot of listening going on. Almost every single symphonic movement we posted was rated at least once."
Listeners are worldwide. With the site available in English, German, Spanish, French, and Korean, 80% of listeners have come from English speaking countries, and a surprisingly large number from Mexico.
Note as well that DG recently issued, for the first time in any format, a 1964 Vienna Festival live recording of tenor Fritz Wunderlich and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau performing Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). The performance took place in the famed Musikverein with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Josef Krips. The recording allows us to hear two of the finest singers of the last 50 years at the height of their powers.
While on the phone with Waag, I mentioned the extremely small number of DG high-resolution downloads currently available from HDTracks (15 as of June 12, 2011, including Boulez's Mahler Third with the Vienna Philharmonic). His response was heartening.
"We are definitely going to move into high-resolution as fast as we feel the consumer base warrants it," he said. "We've already started with HD Tracks in the US, and will test it in Britain, France, and Japan.
"We have hi-resolution recordings that have been lying in our vaults since the mid- or early-'90s, when we started recording in 20-bit. (We raised to 24-bit later in that decade). We did try to carry that across into SACD, but SACD as a sound carrier has not really worked. We think the download area will give us another chance to distribute the high-resolution files we've had for so long."
Sampling rates are a mixed bag. Many 24-bit recordings were and still are recorded in 48 kHz due to the number of instruments and available channels. Regardless, the prospect of better-than-CD sound for many of the great DG and Decca digital recordings of the last 15 or so years is something worth fine-tuning your system for.