This is the point where many musicians/listeners start getting snobby. A quick look on Amazon or any Youtube video of a performance of Mahler will be filled with people voicing their opinions on what they thought was bad or how a live performance isn't as good "as their CD"…or insult other people who have different opinions (no matter how ignorant some of the banter in those comments sections may be). Ever notice how few the number of people in those comments sections are who say good things? What do any of those people likely know about music anyway?
Mahler (and all classical music, for that matter) isn't supposed to be stagnant…its not like Coka-Cola where you can get it in every country and it still tastes the same. Music is personal and every performance (even by the same artist/conductor/ensemble on back to back nights) won't be exactly the same. As amazing and revolutionary as recordings have been to the world of classical music, they also remain destructive as they allow people to become sedentary in their tastes…even to the point where some may become upset in live performances with a few mistakes because they are spoiled by touched-up studio work. You should go see as many live performances as you can (financially willing) because there really isn't anything like it.
That being said, when finding recordings…I urge you to get several if you can. I'm not saying every recording is worth listening to, because there is a lot of garbage out there, but it does mean two performances of the same piece can be very different and yet both be incredible and worthwhile. You don't have to buy complete cycles either…you can pick and chose if you prefer…because sometimes you'll find a recording you really connect with and want to listen to over and over.
Below are the complete Mahler cycles I have listened to. If I have something interesting to say about them, I will.
Bernstein/Mahler : The Complete Symphonies & Orchestral Songs (1998)
Label : Deutsche Grammophon
Who's Conducting: Leonard Bernstein, obviously.
What Ensembles: Various - NY Phil, Royal Concertgebouw, Vienna Phil
What's not included : Das Klagende Lied. Movements 2-5 from Cooke's realization of Mahler's 10th Symphony.
Special notes : When I was learning the symphonies in my first go-around with them, this was my go-to recording. This is Bernstein's second audio recording of them; his first was with the New York Philharmonic in the 1960s (which, it is worth noting, was the FIRST EVER complete cycle of Mahler ever recorded). Having some age/maturity between him and the first cycle, several of the symphonies are, in general, at slower tempos than his more youthful cycle. Is this bad? Not necessarily…though recent Mahler scholarship would frown on how long his Adagietto from Symphony 5 is. Bernstein is an emotional powerhouse…so his Symphony 3 + 6 are titanic. He also refuses to conduct (possibly on principle) Deryck Cooke's "completion" of Mahler's 10th…so don't expect to find anything past movement 1. My favorite work of the set is his collaboration with legendary Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on Das Lied von der Erde. Amazing.
10 Symphonies (1995)
Label : Deutsche Grammophon
Who's Conducting : Claudio Abbado
Which Ensemble: Various - Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony
What's not included : All the song cycles, including Das Lied von der Erde. Movements 2-5 of Mahler's 10th.
Special notes : Abbado was the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic who succeeded Herbert von Karajan and this isn't his first Mahler cycle. There's a lifetime of experience behind this. He's well known for his performance of the Sixth Symphony…and his return performance of it in 2004 that went on to win Gramophone Magazine's Recording of the Year and Best Orchestral Recording awards in 2006. That one is found here.
LSO Live : Mahler (2008-2011)
Label : Independent
Who's Conducting : Valery Gergiev
What Ensemble: London Symphony Orchestra
What's not included : Any of the song cycles, as well as Symphony 10.
Special notes: LSO teamed up with British audio giant Bowers&Wilkins to make these recordings, so all are available in SACD-DSD format and can also be downloaded as lossless audio directly from B&W. Audiophiles will rejoice about the sound quality. Symphony 5 in this cycle is highly acclaimed.
Gustav Mahler : Complete Edition (2010)
Label : Deutsche Grammophon
Who's Conducting : Various - Kubelik, Mehta, Haitink, Boulez, Bernstein, Abbado, Sinopoli, Solti, Karajan, Chailly, Ozawa, Juilini, Berio and Pletnev
Which Ensembles : Too many to list - Vienna Phil, Berlin Phil, Chicago Symphony and Boston Symphony…to name a few.
What's not included : Nothing. This box is labeled complete for a reason.
Special notes: To celebrate the Mahler's 150th birthday DG complied this box of superstar performances. You can find recordings of every piece Mahler wrote here (including the elusive Piano Quartet Movement in A minor!) and all the different conductor/ensemble pairings here have mostly good reviews. If you HAVE to have everything, this one is for you.
Mahler : Symphonies 1-10 + Songs (2007)
Label : EMI
Who's Conducting : Sir Simon Rattle
What Ensembles : City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
What's Missing : Kindertotenlieder, Rückert Lieder, a few of the Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.
Special notes : This is currently the set I'm working my way through. Admittedly, when I first saw this set I thought "what is Simon Rattle doing in Alabama?" but I quickly learned it was from Birmingham, England. (Note : They are an incredible orchestra and very sensitive…especially with concerti. Check out Akiko Suwanai's Sibelius concerto with them and you'll understand). That's good old American ignorance for you, huh? Not going to lie…this cycle is a bit of the oddball of the list so far…in that it deviates most from what listeners expect "standard" Mahler benchmarks to be. Odds are this will not agree with most people…but it is adventurous and provides alternate interpretation ideas than you'd hear in most recordings. Sonically, the first thing that strikes you is that the balance between winds as strings is much different than other recordings. They are much thinner and balanced with the winds than you normally hear. Rattle also makes interesting choices with tempo and the use of silences. Symphony 2 is worth a listen (he conducted it back in college and has a close relationship with it) followed by his version of the Seventh. I wouldn't recommend this for someone to buy if they wanted to hear them all for the first time, but if you are looking for a different take on the master, this would be it.
Mahler Feest - The World Listened (2006)
Label : Radio Netherlands Worldwide
Who's Conducting : Various. Haitink, Chailly, Abbado, Rattle, Muti
Which Ensembles: Various. Berlin Phil, Vienna Phil, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Gustav Mahler Jugend Orchester
What's not included : nothing, its all there (except the Piano Trio mvt)
Special notes : In 1995, 4 great European powerhouse orchestras met in Amsterdam along with 5 great conductors to play all of Mahler's musical output in a week and a half. This is the recording made at that festival…a tribute to Willem Mengleberg, the famous dutch conductor of the Concertgebouw who held a similar festival in the '20s. It was a monumental undertaking and if you want a piece of Mahler history…this one's for you.
The Mahler Broadcasts 1948-82 (1998)
Label : The Philharmonic Symphony Society of New York
Who's Conducting : Various. Barbirolli, Mehta, Boulez, Solti, Tennstedt, Mitropoulos, Kubelik, Stokowski, Walter, Steinberg
Which Ensemble : New York Philharmonic
What's not included: Kindertotenlieder, Das Knaben Wunderhorn, Rückert Lieder
Special notes: Collectors/mega-Mahlerites only. This collection is rare and hard to come by…but any serious Mahler scholar will want to take a listen. The last CD and a half include interviews with Walter, Stokowski, Barbirolli and William Malloch on Mahler that you'd be hard pressed to find anywhere else. Furthermore, many of these recordings were from before Bernstein released the first complete Mahler cycle recording in the '60s, so all of these before then would be free of his influence. Worth a listen for those of you who are really Mahler aficionados.