The holy grail of Mahler’s Third

The holy grail of Mahler’s Third


norman lebrecht

May 05, 2017

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week:

There is no wholly recommendable performance on record of Mahler’s third symphony. The earliest, by F. Charles Adler in 1952, is faultlessly idiomatic, as is Jascha Horenstein’s 1970 LSO account, but both are marred by inferior orchestral playing and poor sound.

Claudio Abbado’s 2007 DVD from Lucerne is as good as it gets…

So could a new release be the long-awaited?

Read on here.

And here.

And here.


  • boringfileclerk says:

    I must disagree. Pierre Boulez’s account on DG is the recording by which all other performances must be judged. It should be the standard reference recording for generations to come.

    • David Osborne says:


    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Yes, I agree, Boulez’s DG recording of Mahler 3rd is my favorite too. The Wiener Philarmoniker sounds wonderful, the soprano-soloist Anne Sofie von Otter was outstanding and in her best days, the Wiener Sängknaben was simply angelical, and Boluez’s precise and emotionally cold conducting was just in this work surprisingly very appropriate (otherwise my favorite Mahler conductor on record is Bruno Walter).

  • Olassus says:

    A poorly structured work.


    Frankly, I have personally found the symphony wanting in its straining to hold my attention. I can count on one hand the number of times I have been able to listen to the entire work, each occasion being won by sheer force of will. Your mileage may differ. On the other hand, I have endless patience for Bruckner.

  • Bruce says:

    I’ve played all of them except 7 and 8, more than once, and have never been able to get into any of them except #4, which is (not coincidentally) the shortest one.

    IMHO he needed an editor: someone to convince him that not every single stray thought that passed through his head was of utmost importance to the world. The songs & song cycles keep him in line by providing structure that he must adhere to, but the purely orchestral works tend to be great big messes. My own private nickname for #3 is “The Kitchen Sink.”

  • Bob Oxley says:

    For over forty years I have turned to the Horenstein recording of the Mahler 3rd. It is a performance of rare insight and commanding presence. Norman speaks of difficulties with the sound. In three days in July, 1970, British sound engineer Bob Auger captured the sessions on tape. Auger sought to create, in his own way, the sense that the listener is present at a performance by favouring a wide dynamic range. At times he may have overreached, there are a few moments that are hard to reproduce successfully on all but the best stereo equipment. And, the London Symphony Orchestra is not at its best, there are a few insecure and out-of tune passages. However, no one who cares, should fail to hear the Horestiein Mahler 3rd., at least once.

  • Roberto says:

    Bernstein with NYPO (his 2nd recording for DG)

  • Hilary says:

    Seven minutes into the first movement (the Kubelik recording, which is one of the best as he keeps it moving along) is the first example of a trombone solo in a Symphony!

    • William Safford says:

      Saint-Saens 3rd Symphony has a trombone solo, albeit shared with the clarinet (so, I suppose, soli).

  • ben LEGEBEKE says:

    The best account on record(1975) of this symphony is by the Chicago Symphony under James Levine. His rendition is never surpassed-with stunning orchestral playing- and will be never surpassed until today.

    • Hilary says:

      Perhaps the Levine/RCA recording is blessed with the most imaginative cover artwork for a Mahler 3, or any Mahler trcording for that matter. Runner-up would be the Klimt paintings which adorn the DG Kubelik cycle.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      That Levine recording is (like the other ones he made in the 70s in Chicago and Philadelphia) terribly unidiomatic, that has not all that much to do with Mahler’s sound world and the musical style of this piece, and the playing isn’t even that great by CSO standards. The trombone solo is really strained for instance – and Friedman also expressed his dissatisfaction with it somewhere, IIRC, he said he was struggling with a bad cold. But it doesn’t matter anyway as this recording is musically so far off anyway. But I guess Americans think everything is great when it all sounds like “Star Wars”. LÖL

  • Patrick says:

    Martinon, Chicago, live….superb!

  • Daniel says:

    My vote is for Chailly and the RCO

    Interestingly, the reviews claim a perfect recording of the third and complains the first movement is too long….

  • Stephen Cera says:

    My favorite recording is the Horenstein / LSO, the conductor’s towering conception unmatched in musical cogency and expressive eloquence. Though I agree with NL that the recorded sound is somewhat disappointing, the orchestral playing is far from “inferior” … it is magnificent, Among more recent accounts, I agree that the Abbado / Lucerne DVD is hors concours.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    There is NO perfect recording of ANY Mahler symphony. There is no perfect recording of anything, by anyone, on any label, with any orchestra, any conductor. It does not exist. That’s what makes Mahler, and any great composer, so much fun – there are many ways to interpret and play it. Mahler 3s that I love: Levine, Bychkov, Horenstein, Kubelik, Bernstein, Maazel (Vienna), Tennstedt…they’re all wonderful in their own way.

    • Peter Phillips says:

      Strongly agree. But if I had to choose one it wouldn’t be Abaddo at Lucerne, maybe because the orchestra is just SO good. It all feels effortless but for me Mahler always need to sound like a struggle.

    • Stuart Rogers says:

      Totally agree with the statement that there is no perfect recording or performance of any work. I love these symphonies and learn so much from different approaches by conductors and orchestras. It’s the beauty of the ipod that I can store multiple versions of the same work. For Mahler, I have 43 different recordings of the 11 symphonies chosen by listening and learning over the last 10-15 years. Will not be adding this new 3rd to the collection. Thanks, Norman, for the review.

  • Pedro says:

    All the recordings by Haitink are excellent. I also remember some fine live performances by him in Cologne with the SOBR, by Abbado in Lucerne and by Ozawa in Paris with the ONF. Fischer was good with his Budapest forces several years ago at the Salle Pleyel but the orchestra was not at the top.

  • Neil van der Linden says:

    The first Haitink with the Concertgebouw orchestra is in my DNA by now. The next Concertgebouw recording with Chailly is in my mp3 player.

    • Maarten de Gier says:

      Fully agree!

      • Neil van der Linden says:

        And in my case it is certainly not for chauvinism, or certainly if it is it is a minor element.
        The acoustics of the Concertgebouw serve this piece so well.

  • Gordon Freeman says:

    What about Zander’s extraordinary recording?!

    • Olassus says:

      He paid Telarc — a vanity project, afaik, and not the only one!

      • James says:

        A vanity project, a fake? Sounds to be a typical Mahler affair….
        healling for a stricken world, eh? A real thigh slapper. Shreik and howl.

      • Bruce says:

        AFAIK = short for “as far as I know”

        Anyway, just because he paid for it doesn’t mean it’s not good. (Ditto for Gilbert Kaplan) It might be bad for other reasons, though.

  • Isolde Tristan says:

    This Mahler 3rd

  • Rich C. says:

    Last summer I was able to stand on that exact same stop that Mahler stood in that photo of him leaning on his walking stick. For anyone interested it’s about 30 minutes south of Toblach next to the Hotel Dolomitenhof in Sexten. Website below.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    If you travel to Oslo go to the café at the lobby of the Grand Hotell. Mahler put the last notes to the final version of his third there.

  • John Porter says:

    I will take Bernstein’s first recording of Mahler’s Third Symphony with the New York Philharmonic over any other.

  • Appassionato says:

    I just finished listening the Fischer’s performance, and I totally disagree with N. Lebrecht. Maybe the beginning is not as spooky as any of Bernstein’s performances, but never then less, it is a great performance. Much better then Fischer’s Fifth (for me his only disappointing Mahler).
    And speaking of awkward covers for Mahler’s symphonies the first place surely deserves cover for Symphony No. 1 with Leinsdorf.