Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler in 1907

Now that the symphonies of Gustav Mahler are programmed almost as often as those by Beethoven and Brahms, it’s astounding to recall just how new the current veneration of Mahler is in the grand sweep of classical music history. Prior to the Mahler centennial concerts in 1960 — the launching pad for the Mahler boom — the composer’s music was a rarity in the concert hall and sparsely represented on records. The nine completed symphonies and then-extant movements of the unfinished Tenth weren’t all recorded until 1953, with the Sixth and Seventh being the last to enter the catalog that year — and it wouldn’t be until fall 1967 that the first set of all nine under one conductor, Leonard Bernstein, appeared.

These days, though, pre-1960 recordings of Mahler abound, mostly deriving from radio airchecks for which there was no thought of release at the time they were made. They are a fascinating bunch, for they come from an era when there was little or no ongoing performance tradition for Mahler. Conductors were on their own, with just the meticulously marked scores and maybe a few recordings as guides. As a result, a good number of these performances are more volatile and unpredictable — if not as neatly played — compared to the smoother, safer Mahler renditions that are all too common today.

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There are still more of these audio souvenirs in the pipeline, which has just delivered a two-CD compilation of hitherto unreleased performances and interviews titled Mahler Pioneers (SOMM Recordings). The conductors are Hermann Scherchen — a genuine Mahler pioneer — and Walter Goehr, whose Mahler credentials have been virtually forgotten. The interview subjects are Leopold Stokowski — who was in the audience for the triumphant world premiere of Mahler’s Eighth in 1910 under the direction of its composer and led the first American performance in 1916 — and percussionist Alfred Friese, who played under Mahler in the New York Philharmonic.

Scherchen (1891–1966) was a heroic figure to the hardy core of Mahler buffs in the 1950s, having made provocative recordings of the Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 5, 7, and 8 and the Adagio from the Tenth for Westminster and Columbia well before everyone with a stick got into the act. A friend of the avant-garde of his time, Scherchen had a probing, experimental bent that extended into the music of the past, and he could be very controversial in his choices of tempos and balances.

Here, SOMM has unearthed a 1948 Scherchen/BBC Symphony performance that now supplants Erich Schmid’s rare 1951 rendition on LP as the earliest recording of the Tenth’s Adagio. Made four years before Scherchen’s commercial recording for Westminster, it is a stark testimony to the conductor’s unpredictability. The 1948 Adagio is much faster than the 1952 one, speeding up where the later performance tends to get slower and slower. It sounds wilder, more impetuous, more dangerous, more in tune with the notion that Mahler was inching toward breaking with tonality entirely, more like the Mahler who may have frightened listeners and musicians in those days.

However, I prefer the massive 1952 rendition for the impact of the movement’s dissonant, crunching, climactic chord, where Scherchen takes his time rolling it over instead of rushing through it as in 1948. Also, the sound quality is not good — opaque, with details smudged, and you can hear the grinding of what sounds like 78 RPM surface noise.

Goehr (1903–1960) is best known these days as the father of the modernist British composer Alexander Goehr and not so much as a conductor whose huge quantity of recordings — almost all of which are long out of print — proliferated like mad on mostly budget or obscure labels in the 1950s. Walter Goehr being called a “Mahler pioneer” comes as news to me. Although his recorded repertoire stretched far and wide from Claudio Monteverdi to Michael Tippett, there are no Goehr recordings listed at all in Péter Fülöp’s incredibly encyclopedic Mahler Discography.

Goehr did, however, give a couple of British premieres of Mahler works — one of which, that of Das klagende Lied with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1956, is included in this set. The list of vocal soloists is eye-popping. Soprano Joan Sutherland, never known as a Mahler performer, is here, along with the now-legendary tenor Peter Pears and contralto Norma Procter. It should be noted that only the second and third sections of the work were performed; the long-missing first (and I think, crucial) section, “Waldmärchen,” which Mahler deleted, wouldn’t be available until 1969.

Unfortunately, the sound quality is awful — muffled, congested, not even good enough to rank as a bootleg. That’s a killer in a lavishly orchestrated choral work like this. From what I can make out of this murk, Goehr’s pacing is fast and sometimes nervous, Sutherland occasionally veers close to shrieking, Pears’s inimitable timbre does come through, and Procter sounds fine. But none of the words from the singers are intelligible, and the tinny cymbal bashes sound like they do on acoustical 78s.

Goehr’s 1960 rendition of the Symphony No. 4 with the LSO as part of the BBC’s Mahler centenary concerts ten months before the conductor’s death doesn’t do him any favors either. The first movement drags from beginning to close. The second and third movements are more reasonable in pacing, but Goehr lacks an organic feeling for the graceful curvature of the phrases. Soprano Teresa Stich-Randall sings with point, passion, and suspenseful fluctuations in the fourth movement. The mono sound is clearer than in the other works, but still not up to even adequate 1960 standards.

So much for the music on this release, which is symmetrically programmed to include a mid-career piece bracketed by the beginning and end of Mahler’s musical journey. The two discs give us some corroborative detail on the iconoclastic Scherchen but don’t confirm Goehr as an unjustly underrated Mahlerian.

The interviews, conducted by sound engineer and Mahler advocate Jerry Bruck and American Record Guide’s late Mahler expert Gerald Fox, are another story. The then-88-year-old Stokowski is feisty and sharp as a tack, calling out boards of directors from 1916 to the present day (1970) for trying to prevent him from performing the gigantic Eighth Symphony, while Friese gives us a vivid portrait of Mahler as an excitable, nervous taskmaster and perfectionist, a “crazy musician” and “a great man.” These conversations will stand on the shelf beside William Malloch’s interviews with surviving members of Mahler’s New York Philharmonic as go-to documents.