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Classical Music

HPM Top 5 List: Mahler 8 Recordings

Five of the greatest recordings of Mahler’s monumental “Symphony of a Thousand”


The Houston Symphony is getting national recognition for its May 2014 performance of Mahler 8, the “symphony of a Thousand,” led by former music director Christoph Eschenbach. The work’s nickname comes from the large number of musicians that participated in its inaugural performance that took place in 1910. The Houston Symphony has a long history with the music of Gustav Mahler, including the Houston premier of his 8th symphony twenty years ago in 1994. American Public Media’s SymphonyCast will air the Symphony’s most recent performance of the work nationally Saturday, June 20, 2014 at 8pm.

To celebrate this broadcast event, here is a list of five of our favorite recordings of Mahler’s 8th Symphony.

5) Bernstein – Vienna Philharmonic: Bernstein’s last Mahler 8, this performance was part of the Salzburg Festival in 1975. Although some argue that this performance isn’t “ideal”, the unique color of the famed Vienna strings and horns and the passion with which Bernstein conducted make this a memorable performance.


4) Mariss Jansons – Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra: The most recent release on the list, this is a performance with no weak links. Although the orchestra is superb throughout, the vocalists in this recording are to be applauded as well. There are three good male soloists supported with fine choral singing, which is such a crucial component of this work. This recording is to be ranked among the best. 


3) Kubelik – Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Kubelik is a conductor who never strived for fame. In fact, he retreated from publicity and focused on music making. As a result, he produced a recording of Mahler 8 with, perhaps, the best singing of this difficult music. Kubelik’s faster-than-usual tempos have raised a few eyebrows, but none would argue that the music sounds rushed. This recording brings out warmth in the music that isn’t found in most other performances of Mahler 8.


2) Michael Tilson Thomas – San Francisco Symphony: This recording marks the conclusion of the SFS Mahler symphony cycle. This performance was approached systematically and carefully. Fanfare is quoted saying “The soundstage is panoramic in its breadth; the choruses, orchestra, and soloists are so carefully balanced across the acoustic space that no single component overwhelms the others.” 


1) Solti – Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Arguably one of the most beloved recordings of this work, Sir Georg Solti led the CSO with an intensity that is felt with each listen. Gramophone is quoted as saying “Solti’s Decca recording, made with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Vienna choirs in Vienna in 1971, is one of the most convincing performances of the symphony imaginable.”