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I think it would be good to start collecting my thoughts on various classical CDs I've collected, now that I'm approaching 1,000 CDs. I'll start with a staple in any music lover's collection and a reliable favorite of mine, Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 6 in A minor, popularly subtitled the "Tragic" Symphony. Reviews will be organized in alphabetical order by conductor, and the rating system will be out of a possible 5 stars for artistic quality of performance, and 5 for quality of recorded sound. Obviously, ratings are entirely subjective, particularly in the artistic quality. I figure I'll include some of the best and worst recordings--there's really no need to review the pedestrian, middle-of-the-road recordings.


Claudio Abbado/Berliner Philharmoniker
A sentimental favorite, Abbado deservingly won the Grammophone award for this inspired reading of the Sixth in 2005. Perhaps no active conductor today nails Mahler's idiosyncratic shifts of mood and tone like Abbado. The sound quality is quite good as well, particularly in the finale. Moreover, the hammerblows at the climax of the finale have never sounder more powerful or menacing as they have here. The adagio movement is the most achingly beautiful interpretation I've heard, brisk but far from rushed.
Artistic Quality: 5
Sound Quality: 5

Leonard Bernstein/Wiener Philharmoniker
Bernstein's second Mahler cycle is legendary; his recordings of the First, Second, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth with the New York Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic are considered some of the finest interpretations of Mahler ever performed. The thing that shines about this performance of the Sixth is that Bernstein is determined to highlight the smallest details of Mahler's intricate scoring; this is especially apparent in the chilling introduction to the finale movement, perhaps the most atmospheric on disc.
Artistic Quality: 5
Sound Quality: 4

Valery Gergiev/London Symphony Orchestra
Gergiev begins both his recording career as the Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra as well has the LSO's first complete Mahler cycle with this harrowing performance. Tempos of all four movements are taken at a brisk pace; the LSO's pulsating low strings evoke menace unlike any other performance. Gergiev could perhaps slow down a bit in the finale, and the slow movement isn't nearly as well-controlled and beautifully phrased as Abbado's performance with Berlin. Overall, one of the finest Mahler Sixths available, and certainly the best of the 21st Century besides Abbado/Berlin. The recorded sound is excellent; I have the Hybrid SACD version.
Artistic Quality: 4.5
Sound Quality: 5

Michael Tilson Thomas/San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
I love Michael Tilson Thomas. I love his Mahler; his Mahler Seventh with the LSO in the 70s was utterly revelatory, the finest reading of the work ever committed to disc, and his Fifth with the SFSO is particularly fine. But this recording of the Sixth is, in my opinion, an overrated misfire. This Sixth won the Grammy a few years back, and is arguably the most successful release in the Thomas/SFSO cycle, which is a wonder considering its halting phrasing and odd tempo shifts. On the plus side, the recording values are quite good, but far from the standard of Gergiev/LSO. I also bought the Hybrid SACD version of this CD, but even in multi-channel, the sound quality failed to live up to the Londoners.
Artistic Quality: 2.5
Sound Quality: 3.5

Pierre Boulez/Wiener Philharmoniker
A disappointment, especially after reading several reviews calling this "the" Mahler Sixth. Boulez's Mahler cycle has been described as "cool" Mahler, a departure from the norm. But, honestly, if you're going to buy a High Romantic period recording of what is undoubtedly Mahler's most hyper-emotional symphony, do you want it any other way than "hot?" I think not. The finale becomes a snooze-fest...which bodes terribly for the rest of the work. Moreover, I thought the sound production values were rather terrible.
Artistic Quality: 1.5
Sound Quality: 2

Here's a fun video of the beginning of the finale, Christoph Eschenbach and l'Orchestre de Paris.

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