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If I had to choose a complete set, my choice would undoubtedly be Haitink/Concertgebouw. I seem to agree on everything with Maestro Haitink and I seem to like everything about the orchestra's playing. Surprisingly, the one set that I would choose were it not Haitink, would probably be Rattle/Birmingham. The interpretations are just so colourful, insightful and convincing, and somehow down to earth.

But if I had to choose definite individual recordings, this would be my list:

Symphony no. 1 -- Solti / London
Symphony no. 2 -- Klemperer / Philharmonia
Symphony no. 3 -- Haitink / Concertgebouw
Symphony no. 4 -- Karajan / Berliner
Symphony no. 5 -- Rattle / Berliner
Symphony no. 6 -- Rattle / Berliner
Symphony no. 7 -- Solti / Chicago
Symphony no. 8 .. Haitink / Concertgebouw
Symphony no. 9 -- Karajan / Berliner

Barbirolli and Bernstein are Mahler conductors for me to avoid. They conduct Mahler way too heavy for me, as if everything Mahler ever wrote was the wisest, greatest, most profound and most serious thing on earth. It´s too bad I started off with Barbirolli and Bernstein, and initially messed up my thoughts on the symphonies with versions I would never choose as definite now that I know what I know.
 

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A follow-up to my previous response. One thing that did bother me about Mahlerian was him telling other people how to listen to a piece of music. For example, on another forum, I posted that sometimes I love just listening to the Der Abschied movement only from Das Lied and he told me this was a wrong-headed way to listen to the work and that I must listen to the entire work in order to understand Mahler's intentions. Ummm...yeah. There isn't a wrong way to listen to any music as long as you're listening. That's what is most important.
Precisely! There are so different takes on the Mahler symphonies that for me they are even artistically different entities. Who is to say what is the definite version? For example, Bernstein´s 2nd is very far indeed from Jurowski´s 2nd.

Does anyone know if there is a Mahler tradition that would somehow be based on the way Mahler himself conducted the pieces? Could there somehow be a weighty tradition that Mengelberg, a friend of Mahler, would have established at the Concertgebouw?
 

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Regrettably, there is not. We have performances on record of the 2nd by three conductors who knew and worked with Mahler: Oskar Fried, Bruno Walter, and Otto Klemperer. They are all quite different. Same with the 4th: Walter and Mengelberg couldn't be more un-alike. The Ninth will always be a question and DLVDE, too. Walter had close contract with Mahler as they were being written, Klemperer didn't' and again they take really opposite approaches. Mahler as we all know made zillions of minute detailes in his scores and hoped to give the performers a guide as to how he wanted the music played, but as we know all too well those instructions are either ignored or interpreted a million ways. I do not believe there is a wrong or right way to play Mahler: just be honest and let the music move! It cannot be sanitized, smoothed over or be played tepidly. Bernstein really tromps all over the score markings yet somehow seems to get to the heart of the matter much more than anyone else. Then there's Boulez who does try to follow each and every marking and realize what Mahler indicated. Yet, I find Boulez' recordings quite sterile and devoid of passion - and they're just about the best played ones out there.
For some reason I prefer Bernstein´s versions on video! His live takes on Mahler and Sibelius and many others are outstanding and for some reason they SOUND better than the studio recordings. Like these two, both magnificent:


 
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