How much is too much?

The greatest and worst Mahler 3 in the world?

Yesterday, I took an aural stroll through a recording I hadn’t listened to in awhile, the BBC Legends Mahler 3 conducted by Barbirolli (the one with Kerstin Meyer). Overall, it’s a noteworthy performance (prominently featured in Tony Duggan’s enlightening survey of Mahler recordings, which is a completely awesome must-read for anyone who likes Mahler or clear, focused writing), and Barbirolli really goes for broke with the rough edges of the piece. But, God forgive me, I had a hard time getting past some of the technical foibles by the orchestra, and it got me thinking: at what point does a recording (or a performance) shift from “amazing in spite of…” to “if only…” to “I can’t take this shit anymore.”?

Sticking with the Mahler 3 theme, no recording better encapsulates this quandary than the famous Horenstein recording on Unicorn. Few conductors are as capable as Horenstein of making sense of the monstrous sprawl of this symphony, and the sense of direction is really quite good. The last movement is beautifully handled, with gorgeous lines and terrific control of pace. It lacks the reckless abandon of the Barbirolli (and Bernstein and a host of others), but I have little bad to say about the interpretation overall.

The recording comes us short everywhere else, though. The sound quality is fine, certainly not horrible, but obviously not of the caliber of more prominent labels of the time. But the playing of the London Symphony ranges from acceptable to downright horrible (is there any chance this was the symphony from London, Kentucky and no one told the maestro?). Missed notes? In bunches. Dreadful intonation? Lots of it. Poor balances? In spades. I imagine that if we could transport Horenstein to our time and give him a week of actual rehearsals with a top-notch band, the results would be tremendous, and we would have something of note. But as of right now, I flat-out can’t listen to the recording; it’s that grating.

But what’s the cutoff point? I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand here, Dude. Across this line, YOU DO NOT…! The easy answer is that it’s different for everybody, and that’s true. I know many listeners with standards different from my own. Some people will not collect any digital recordings that are not in lossless formats. Some will not even collect digital files at all. Some can tolerate a thousand mistakes from the performers, some can only handle a minor flub here and there.

As someone who incessantly rates things, I have no problem psychologically placing a value on these elements, even if I can’t concoct a scoring system for them. In the case of the Horenstein recording, for example, the question essentially boils down to “am I missing so much interpretively by listening to Bernstein (or whoever) that I will sacrifice superior playing and sound quality?” In this case, the answer for me is a resounding no. But these questions can always be asked.

One of my favorite Mahler recordings is the Mahler 7 conducted by Kiril Kondrashin on Tahra, quite possibly the greatest recording of the symphony out there. It is by no means perfect; there are some intonation issues, some missed notes, and the recording quality, while certainly very good, doesn’t rate compared to the finest the digital age has to offer. But am I missing so much interpretively by listening to Boulez or Abbado? In my opinion, yes. The Kondrashin is a magical performance, and the limitations are not enough to detract from it.

I’m sure most anyone who would read this has a thought or two on some recordings that walk this fine line between listen- and unlisten- ability. Where do you draw the line?

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