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 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 Choice—it has already been issued—you 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, 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.

volvic's picture

I remember years ago in college a fellow law student mocking me for loving Mahler - claiming it was "not real music" - whatever that meant.  I do wish I had his coordinates so I could send him this link.  I have most of Abbado's, Bernstein's and Karajan's interpretations,  all are beautiful, each of them showing the brilliance of the composer.  However, I have to admit having a soft spot for Karajan's performances especially both of the 9th's he recorded in the early 80's.  It is a shame DG gave up on SACD but I do wish they would re-introduce vinyl back in their repertoire rather than a few re-issues they currently release in vinyl or contract out.  I am glad they will be releasing hi-rez downloads to those who want but some of us have spent enough on our systems to switch over to HD's and routers.  Serinus you are a scholar and a gentleman.

JasonVSerinus's picture

Dear Volvic,

Thank you. Every time I am met by my detractors, I shall silently invoke your post.


volvic's picture

You are most welcome and thank you for the compliment.  One more posting regarding Mahler and to those who might not know about his music.  Karajan was interviewed a few months before his death and was asked why he came so late to Mahler:

"This I can answer exactly. I spent three years in Vienna as a student. We heard this music—Mahler, Webern, Schoenberg—a great deal; it was our daily bread. Then the war came and after the war concert managers offered me the chance to do all the Mahler symphonies. I asked them, how much rehearsal do I get? "Two rehearsals for each concert." I said, "Gentlemen, please forget it." Mahler is very difficult for an orchestra. First, you must, as a painter would say, make your palette. The difficulty is great and the greatest danger is when the music becomes banal. I conduct a lot of light music and it can be very difficult for an orchestra to realize it properly. I once spent a whole rehearsal on the Barcarolle from Les contes d'Hoffmann which is to me one of the most tragic things in opera; it is not joyful; a man goes from life to death. And in Mahler there is much of this."

Those who have never heard his 9th go get both if you can find em, greater music does not exist.  Still listening to all the performances on the DG site, thanks again Mr. Serinus. 

Nick aka Volvic

mank's picture

If ever there was music which demanded SACD recording, it is the music of Mahler.

It is shameful that DG has decided SACD has not really worked. - Au contraire, Mr. Serinius, it's that many of the performances which haven't worked. DSD/SACD is by far the finest means of reproducing music available to the public today.

For the sake of the composers and performers, reinstitute SACDs as the standard in the market place, and reissue in that glorious sound even the early recordings as John Newton did for RCA with the Fritz Reiner recordings at a reasonable cost. You owe it to recorded musical history.....