The Wall Street Journal is doing a great job commemorating Mahler's 150th anniversary. Most recently the newspaper reviewed what appears to be a marvelous study of why Mahler is important and popular, Why Mahler?: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World. One thing I learned was that Leonard Bernstein was the first to record all of Mahler's symphonies. Of course, Bernstein recorded the symphonies twice.
The difference is that Mr. Lebrecht knows not only Mahler's music but a great deal about the composer himself, having published a fine, annotated compilation of reminiscences and documents, "Mahler Remembered" (1987). In "Why Mahler?" readers will find a compelling biographical sketch of Mahler's life, from his seminal student years in Vienna through his burgeoning career as a conductor and, finally, his ever more consuming ambitions as a composer. Mr. Lebrecht stresses Mahler's psychological struggles—he was notably given to fits of despair and arrogant impatience—and his Jewishness, an identity that brought him ambivalent memories, notoriety and opposition, especially during his years as director of the Vienna Opera (1897–1907), when racialist political anti-Semitism was ubiquitous.
Mr. Lebrecht's "search for Mahler" includes a perceptive but devastating portrait of Mahler's widow, the notorious Alma, known for her many husbands (including the architect Walter Gropius and the writer Franz Werfel) and many infidelities. It includes as well an account of the author's conversations with the composer's surviving daughter, the sculptor Anna. Along the way we meet performers and friends of Mr. Lebrecht's, including Gilbert Kaplan, an avid Mahler enthusiast, amateur conductor and the founder of Institutional Investor magazine. Mr. Kaplan has put extensive resources into Mahler advocacy, helping to underwrite the publishing of books on the composer and facsimiles of his scores. [more]