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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Cyberspace spawns a Mahler legend

By Norman Lebrecht / April 18, 2001

The future of classical recording will be driven by the internet

WORD of mouth, like nostalgia, is not what it used to be. In the cyber-chat age, when a girl can have a fun night out and find the intimate particulars posted on a million screens next morning, the acquisition of reputation has become a haphazard thing. Nowhere are the scales of judgment shifting more decisively than in music, the most nebulous of performing arts.

In September 1999, someone on an internet Mahler List reported a "remarkable performance" of the Fifth Symphony given by a youth orchestra, the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie, in Cologne. Nothing more was heard until last month, when word broke that the concert was scheduled for release on an esoteric US label, Laurel Record.

Two cyber-reviews appeared within a week. The first, by David Hurwitz on, acclaimed the performance as "one of the half-dozen best recordings of the work . . . right up there with Bernstein, Karajan, Barbirolli and Tennstedt". The second, by Tony Duggan on, called it "the finest recording of the Fifth Symphony currently available".

These were not nerdish rants, but scrupulous assessments by recognised Mahler cognoscenti aimed at consumers who know their gongs from their cowbells. Messages soon came pouring in from Mahlerians who had either bought the disc or been frustrated in the search. By the beginning of this week, when I tracked down the producer, the disc was in its second printing and being rush-shipped to Europe - all this before a single word had appeared about it in traditional print.

The speed and superlatives of web communications can create false legends. In this instance, the new recording fully lives up to its acclaim. It is searingly well played and uncannily well shaped, a rare blend of raw excitement and refined intelligence, with the most transcendent ending I have ever experienced.

The cover picture says it all. Neither an airbrushed image of a primping maestro, nor an art shot of undulating landscape, it portrays the T-shirted woodwind section of a youth orchestra, their instruments tilted forward and upward (just as Mahler ordered) and blown to all appearances with the last breath in their bodies.

What you see is what you get. Such plain-Janery would never have sneaked past a big-store buyer in the bad old days. Indeed, no record of this kind could ever have hit the jackpot before the internet democratised the means of distribution and dialogue.

Its conductor, Rudolf Barshai, is a known commodity. The outstanding viola player of his generation, Barshai co-founded the Borodin Quartet and later the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, which he conducted in the premiere of Shostakovich's 14th Symphony.

After leaving Russia in 1976, Barshai had involvements with the orchestras of Bournemouth and Vancouver, alongside a lively career as a guest conductor. That he should belatedly emerge as a Mahler intepreter is unexpected. But Barshai, in his late seventies, has been reflecting deeply on Shostakovich and became absorbed in Mahler as a primary influence.

Over the past year he has composed a new realisation of Mahler's unfinished Tenth Symphony, which was premiered in St Petersburg and will be toured by the JDP. In it, Barshai went further down the dissonant path than Deryck Cooke and other completionists. "This manuscript must be made to come alive," he proclaimed.

His son, a California-based lawyer, took his recent tapes to major record labels, who balked at issuing staple works by a non-star conductor and at Barshai's editorial demands. With options running out, he found a mom-and-pop label in Nichols Canyon, Los Angeles, and struck a chord with its exotic owner.

Herschel Burke Gilbert is a movie orchestrator who won two Oscars and was once music director for CBS TV. Thirty years ago, he founded Laurel Record as a hobby to issue obscure works by US composers. When Barshai's son played him the Mahler tapes, he was smitten, and for all sorts of reasons. Gilbert, who is 83 this week, graduated from Juilliard as a viola player and conductor. He was honoured to represent a master of his crafts.

Mahler Fifth is his first mainstream release. It will be followed by the last concertos ever played by Sviatoslav Richter, conducted by Barshai in Japan, along with some Russian music and probably the Mahler Tenth. "I have been involved with recording all my life," Gilbert told me, "but I have never tasted such excitement as this."

And so, thanks to web buzz, Barshai and Gilbert may enjoy a golden Indian summer and many of us will relish treasures that we would never otherwise have accessed. The future of classical recording, if there is to be one, will be driven by the internet. The question is whether earth-bound media will manage to keep pace.

Editor's Note: David Hurwitz writes in to make a clarification about the publication date of his review.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999