10 best Mahler singers (and some of the worst)

There was a time when it was possible to speak of a singers as ‘Mahlerian’, meaning that he or she had been trained by someone steeped in the Mahler tradition. That’s no longer the case. Singers are generalists nowadays and Mahler is just another composer on the schedule.

So I thought it might be useful to put together a set of outstanding singers who knew Mahler in their bones and left a lasting record of their interpretations, each with  their mentor in parentheses.

Christa Ludwig (Klemperer)

Jo Vincent (Mengelberg)

Richard Lewis (Berthold Goldschmidt)

Kathleen Ferrier (Walter)

Janet Baker (Klemperer)

Maureen Forrester (Walter)

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Horenstein)

Kerstin Thorborg (Walter)

Brigitte Fassbaender (Kubelik)

Lisa della Casa

Stokowski with Mahler 8 soloists, March 1916

And the worst?

Eiko Kitazawa utterly derails the 1930 first recording of Mahler 4, conducted by Hidemaro Konoye.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was cast on recordings by her husband Walter Legge despite lacking any positive feeling for the composer. Her singing is glassy at best.

Placido Domingo attempted Das Lied von der Erde in studio several times. So far as I’m aware only one of these hopeless efforts was released, with Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Other tenors who self-destruct in Das Lied include Jon Vickers, Siegfried Jerusalem and, latterly, Jonas Kaufmann. Klaus König, who recorded with Tennstedt, is nowhere near adequate. Desi Halban, who recorded Mahler 4 and some songs with Bruno Walter, is an avowed amateur – worth hearing as the daughter of Mahler’s cast-member Selma Kurz but not in the league of real performers.

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  • M McAlpine says:

    Interesting that the Szell version of Wunderhorn with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and D F-D is considered a classic. Having it on my shelves I concur with that. Also although Konig is certainly not among the best tenors to record Das Lied he is certainly at least adequate, if not quite good. And the fact that you omit the magnificent Wunderlich from your list does make your judgment highly suspect.

  • Eddie W. says:

    Wunderlich?!

  • Vovka Ashkenazy says:

    You forgot to rate Kiri Te Kanawa’s Mahler.

  • Deborah Mawer says:

    Domingo showed how vain he is by saying in interview that he wouldn’t like to do dLvdE in concert because he has to do nothing for that last 30 mins ! That of course was in the days he was still a tenor. Anybody know if he tried the movements 2+4+6 as a baritone ?

  • Dan oren says:

    Fischer with Horenstein ?

  • Jonathon says:

    Not even a mention for Fritz Wunderlich???? Extraordinary!

  • Caravaggio says:

    In agreement. Here are a couple of samples of what used to be

    Irmgard Seefried in the closing movement of the 4th symphony, with Walter
    https://youtu.be/nxhWvYHWr5U

    Rosette Anday in the “Urlicht” from the 2nd symphony, also with Walter
    https://youtu.be/NwvOV268mhk

    • aj says:

      In agreement ? how so without a mention of a
      certain Ewa Podles who could give most mentioned here a lesson or two on the art form ..

      • barry guerrero says:

        I saw Podles sing in a performance of Mahler 3 in Seattle (G. Schwarz). As far as I’m concerned, she stole the entire show! Fabulous

  • Nik says:

    You mention Ferrier and Walter but not Patzak?

  • Novagerio says:

    When reading “Mahler singers”, I was thinking of Gustav Mahler’s glorious ensemble at the Vienna Court Opera from the period of his tenure (1897-1907), such as Erik Schmedes, Franz Naval, Leo Slezak, Marie Gutheil-Schroeder, Anna von Mildenburg, Selma Kurz, Richard Mayr, Ottilie Metzger-Lattermann and a long etc.
    Most of them can be found on record, although they might for logic reasons be past their vocal prime.

    http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=92881

    Some of them had trained future singers, such as Anna von Mildenburg, who’s most famous student was Lauritz Melchior (a singer not exactly related to Mahler’s music)

  • Has -been says:

    Thomas Hampson recorded Mahler with Leonard Bernstein and was asked to sing all the Mahler songs in the last great Amsterdam Mahler Festival. He is claimed all over the world a a great Mahler interpreter and should be included in the ‘best’ list.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      who should he replace among the 10?

      • steven holloway says:

        I fear that many of us thought suggesting others would be welcome. You might have said that your 10 were irreplacable.

      • Bruce says:

        (a) Do there have to be only 10? I know the name of the post is “10 Best Mahler Singers,” but.

        (b) If someone must be removed, then… I was never much moved by Fassbaender. (Although I’m only familiar with her later recording with Giulini)

        • Quintus Beckmesser says:

          Fassbaenda made two recordings with Giulini of “Das Lied”, one live in Vienna, one a studio recording in Berlin. I much prefer the former (no longer available of course) from every point of view.

  • Tromba in F says:

    A bit off the beaten path, but I love this recording of Jose van Dam doing Wunderhorn, Ruckert and Kindertotenlieder: https://www.discogs.com/Mahler-Jos%C3%A9-Van-Dam-Orchestre-National-de-Lille-Jean-Claude-Casadesus-Kindertotenlieder-R%C3%BCckert-Li/release/2149452

    • Harrumph says:

      He has exactly the right gravitas for singing Mahler.
      That recording he made of “Ich bin der Welt…” for _Le maître de musique_ is supernally beautiful. I don’t care if his German diction isn’t perfect.

    • Bruce says:

      A beautiful, beautiful recording. I count it as one of my 3 or 4 favorite vocal recordings, and I’m not even especially a fan of Mahler.

  • Sibylle Luise Binder says:

    Thomas Allen? I’ve gotten the “Wunderhorn” with Mackerras, Allen and Ann Murray and I love it. I definitely prefer it to FiDis “Wunderhorn” which I once heard live (shows what an old cow I’ve become) and which was – for being honest – rather “dry”.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    “Singers are generalists nowadays and Mahler is just another composer on the schedule.”
    Couldn’t that also be said about Christa Ludwig and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau? Except that they had few equals and no superiors in most of their repertoire, and still do.

  • We privatize your value says:

    Absolutely no wonder that Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was “lacking any positive feeling for the composer”. She joined the German Nazi Party (NSDAP) in 1941, Schwarzkopf did: https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/schatten-der-vergangenheit.691.de.html?dram:article_id=55924

    • M McAlpine says:

      She also married someone said to be Jewish!

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Maybe just a question of sensibility from Mrs Legge’s part. In a sense I understand why some singers do not want to sing Mahler’s work, and why some conductors avoid his music. Note that even Bruno Walter refused to conduct Mahler 6, since he felt it was too sick.

      Maybe the question of what I call sensibility can be illustrated by describing “my” Mahler: Mahler 5, 7 and 9 are wonderful music, as well as Das Lied von der Erde. Mahler 1 is big fun but it belongs to the entertainment business. Now-a-days I avoid the rest of the vocal works. I could never bear Das irdische Leben (from Des Knaben Wunderhorn), I cannot stand the Kindertotenlieder and most of the Rückert-Lieder, and Mahler 4 is a very sad story.

  • a Mahlerian singer says:

    Lucia Popp/Klaus Tennstedt !

  • olivia nordstad says:

    am intrigued by the fischer-dieskau/horenstein and fassbaender couplings. Have a very extensive Mahler collection and must never have seen the coupling on any list . Can Mr. Lebrecht enlighten me as to where performances with such singers and conductors occurred.

  • Alan K says:

    There is a wonderful Ruckert lieder with Irmgard Seefried and Manuel Rosenthal.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    You mention Maureen Forester with Walter but what of her and Richard Lewis with Fritz Reiner and the CSO in Das Lied? I think that is her top Mahler recording. You list Lisa della Casa with no conductor – does that refer to her Mahler 4th with Reiner ? Not sure I would concur.

    Since I have mentioned Reiner, personally I have always enjoyed his 78s with the Pittsburgh Symphony and Carol Brice in the Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen. Perhaps not the best but Brice made too few commercial recordings for top labels.

  • Todd Schultz says:

    Have listen to Alfred Hodgson in Das Lied von der Erde, conducted by Horenstein. She was exception in everything she sang, but the color of her voice and gorgeous use of language are nearly unparalleled in the Mahler.

  • Roberto says:

    I am not sure about the “Top 10” list. But Edith Mathis should be mentioned somewhere. I am very fond of her voice on Bernstein video of #4.

  • barry guerrero says:

    Unfortunately, Vickers recorded “Das Lied” quite late in his career. Just an opinion, but I think Jessye Norman is incredible in that recording. I saw her do “DLvdE” in San Jose, of all places. Her recording of the “Kindertotenlieder” with Ozawa/BSO is pretty darn good too. Don’t forget her contribution to both the Abbado/VPO and Ozawa/BSO recordings of Mahler 3.

  • waltraud becker says:

    Where is Hampson? One of the very best Mahler singers at all!

  • AndrewB says:

    Surely Norma Procter deserves a mention- her symphony number 2 with Kubelik ( staggeringly beautiful Urlicht stands along side the best) number 3 with Horenstein , Das Klagende Lied etc.
    I haven’t found a recording of Kindertotenlieder with her yet or Das Lied Von Der Erde although very likely that she sang both I should think.

  • Amos says:

    Judith Raskin for her Mahler 4th with Szell/CO in 1964. Supposedly after she finished GS put down his baton and walked off the podium. Everyone remained in the hall assuming he went to the control room to listen to the playback. Eventually he was located at home having lunch. When informed of the situation he was reported to have said something to the effect that if people don’t know perfection when they hear it ….

  • JFDP says:

    …and let us not forget Lorraine Hunt Lieberson

  • Bruce says:

    I’d put Gerhaher and Quasthoff on a list of “Singers Who Are Wonderful At Mahler,” but trying to make a list of the “Ten Best” is like trying to limit wonderful Mozart (or Strauss) singers to a “10 best.”

  • Cracowskismok says:

    Have you forgotten Heinrich Rehkemper or Alfred Poell who were very fine singers.

  • Ed says:

    Barbara Bonney?

  • aj says:

    A best the exercise is meaningless ,it is only one
    individuals taste.

  • ArtsAgentNYC says:

    Thomas Hampson…Jessye Norman…??

  • Deal says:

    Regarding Vickers, I suggest listening to this live recording from 1970 with Maureen Forrester and the BSO conducted by William Steinberg. The sound is not the best, but Vickers clearly had the chops for the demands of ‘Das Trinklied.’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9YbP3KugsU.

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