The Complete Symphonies
New York Philharmonic Orchestra
(1-7 & 9-10)
London Symphony Orchestra (8)
Conducted by Leonard Bernstein
recording details below
SONY CLASSICAL SX12K 89499
You cannot underestimate the influence of this first complete recorded Mahler
cycle, but it would be inappropriate to overestimate it too. It had its greatest
influence in the United States where it was recorded by CBS and released
between 1960 and 1968 at the time when everywhere Mahler's music was going
through a renaissance assisted by the widespread acceptance of LP and stereo
recording in the home. The advocacy by such a high profile conductor as Leonard
Bernstein was a potent talisman and his recordings carried his name with
Mahler's, far and wide. However, in some cases these were not the first
recordings of these works to appear and outside the United States Mahler's
music was forging paths under other hands, some of whom were recording and
broadcasting, and in some countries he had always been in vogue. Had Bernstein
never recorded this set Mahler's music would still have made it to its present
level of popularity though it may have taken just a little longer, particularly
in the USA. Some of these recordings waited years before they were issued
in Europe - in one case as late as 1971. So when those appeared over here
it was alongside other new recordings by conductors such as Kubelik, Solti,
Haitink and Klemperer, so their impact was not quite as great as they had
been back at home when they first came out. There are two exceptions. Bernstein's
recordings of the, then neglected, Third and Seventh Symphonies were real
trailblazers, released almost simultaneously in Europe and the USA and their
importance can still be felt. None of which really matters to today's collectors,
of course. Historical context is interesting but all the present day buyer
really needs to know is whether this set is worth acquiring against all existing
recordings in a different world from the one that first beheld them. Many
experienced Mahlerites will have them on their shelves already, or will have
decided they are not to their taste. However a reissue like this gives the
newcomer, and those who passed them up last time, the chance to buy them
at one go as the bargain price Sony is asking makes them easily available
to all but the most trenchant of Bernstein's detractors.
The Fourth Symphony from 1960 is the earliest recording, though it would
be 1971 before it was released in Europe. As a statement of intent, if that
is the way it was perceived at the time, it must have struck American collectors
as quite a style change from this orchestra's previous recording of the work,
also for CBS, under Bruno Walter from 1946. The first movement is sassy and
sharp in its pointing up of every small detail, woodwinds especially cheeky,
and is a sparky realisation of Mahler's happiest music. Though I think the
development section is a shade too fast I can compliment the NYPO for holding
on so well. This does betray what sounds like impatience on Bernstein's part
though I'm sure that is not what he meant. The second movement is equally
colourful and helped by a sound balance that is exemplary for home listening
with only the top edge betraying age. The third movement starts serene and
becomes volatile but only occasionally strays beyond the tasteful and full
marks to Bernstein for the snappy tempo he adopts in the last movement. That
must have sounded more controversial then than it does now. Reri Grist has
a distinctive enough timbre but I cannot escape the impression that she doesn't
really know what she is singing about.
In 1961 Bernstein recorded the Third Symphony and in it the playing of the
NYPO has a wonderful sense of new paths being discovered. Not surprising
because, at that time, this symphony was seldom played and so this was a
trailblazer everywhere. Following the great trombone solos in the first movement
Bernstein segues seamlessly into the main exposition material where the march
of summer finds him in characteristically exuberant mood: more Fifth Avenue
on St. Patrick's Day than Vienna's Ring on a May morning, but none the worse
for that. This is a very exuberant performance all through but is a case
of Bernstein responding to the exuberance already implicit in the music.
The coda crowns the movement with power, grandeur and excitement combined.
Lovely attention to detail follows in the second movement with a real sense
of flight in the quicker passages. The posthorn in the third is sweet and
mellow proving, as elsewhere, that Bernstein can relax when he needs to.
The fourth movement's "Oh Mensch" brings some rapt playing and Martha Lipton,
a veiled witness to the night's mysteries. Then the fifth movement with the
boys and women comes over remarkably restrained for Bernstein though a bigger
choir might have helped so maybe this is the only movement where I feel a
sense of disappointment. Lastly Bernstein takes the final movement slowly
and with dedication to round off what, after all this time, remains one of
the best Mahler Thirds on record with sound that stands up very well.
The recording of the Second Symphony is Bernstein's first one from 1963.
I mention this because when CBS or Sony have reissued Bernstein's Mahler
in the past they have used a 1970s performance with the LSO in Ely Cathedral.
Sony is right to go back to this earlier studio version as the later one
is ruled out principally because of the problems of recording in a cathedral.
With this first recording Bernstein again competed in the CBS catalogue with
Bruno Walter. On that occasion it was with a fine stereo version that should
be in all Mahler collections now and probably was then. Once again Bernstein's
interpretation must have struck collectors as a real contrast to Walter's.
Though Bernstein is not as extreme as Scherchen in his explorations of contrasts
of tempo and dynamics possible in this work (which he demonstrated in another
contemporary recording) he certainly makes the most of his chances where
Walter was much less volatile. This does make the first movement something
of a "stop-go" affair. In fact Bernstein's first movement reminds me in parts
of Solti's 1964 version in its fierce, razor-sharp opening skirl and driving
allegros. I suspect Bernstein himself became dissatisfied with this recording
since, in his later recordings, he would carry his interpretative mannerisms
to greater limits, especially in the last movement, nearly compromising the
structural integrity of the piece. Here in 1963 the whole massive parade
hangs together extremely well and the end is genuinely liberating whereas
later Bernstein would pile on the emotion.
The Fifth Symphony was the first to be recorded in the new Lincoln Centre
in 1963 and this may have something to do with it being such a disappointment.
The hall's acoustics were problematic and it is as if the engineers haven't
a clue how to cope with them. This doesn't sound like the New York Philharmonic
with a sharp, brittle sound making their contribution a genuine trial. But
that cannot be the whole story as a great performance will surmount the worst
sound. The Fifth must surely be Mahler's most difficult work for a conductor
and I don't think Bernstein was anywhere near penetrating it at this point
on this evidence, and the orchestra probably took their cue from him. The
first movement is poorly executed with the funeral march rhythm seeming to
stutter and the trumpet solo sounding very odd. The second and third movements
contain coarse playing in the louder passages and a general feeling that
the conductor isn't sure where everything else fits. The feeling is of "run
through" too many times. The Adagietto fourth movement is a slow and
treacly eleven minutes and the last movement too fast, sounding even faster
after such a slow Adagietto. It makes no real effect other than a
shot at a cheap thrill or two and any hope of illustrating the important
thematic link between the last two movements is lost. This recording is the
one clear case in Bernstein's Mahler discography where his later recording
for DG is to be preferred.
Bernstein was always one of the greatest exponents of the Seventh. His advocacy
of it in a New York performance in 1962 and this subsequent recording in
1965 probably did more to establish this work around the world than anything
else and it's still a benchmark. He steers his way through Mahler's treacherous
tempo changes during the first movement exposition particularly well. The
development is one of Mahler's greatest imaginative creations, one of those
passages that see him forging new paths, and with what finesse Bernstein
unfolds the huge vistas: imaginative and radical, but with complete confidence
in the greatness and uniqueness, of the daring, of Mahler's vision.
The open quality of the recording, allied to the close balances, help delineate
the myriad colours of the opening of the second movement "Nachtmusik I" with
horns calling each other and the woodwind trills interspersed. As the movement
gets under way I also like the portly gait Bernstein adopts to what is another
march, albeit in the dark. Then listen to the way he suggests that the dance
is never far away. In the fourth movement "Nachtmusik II" Bernstein relaxes
into the warmth of the piece with a touch of the "Siegfried Idylls" and maybe
here he does indulge himself a little. Finally he crowns this superb performance
with a last movement that is tingling with energy, verve and abandon. He
seems to pull it off by having no doubts; an example that he set for others
to follow. This is one of the great Mahler recordings, always a joy to return
to and with depths still to explore. The playing of the NYPO is faultless
and idiomatic and, by now, the engineers seemed to have tamed Lincoln Centre
Bernstein recorded the Ninth Symphony in the same week as the Seventh but
it would wait until 1968 before European release when collectors, by then,
had available to them recordings by Barbirolli, Klemperer and Solti, as well
as Walter's CBS recording from 1961. I'm sure that one of the reasons why
the recorded sound on this Bernstein recording is so good is because the
producer John McClure was also responsible for Walter's. Working intensively
with the old man must have prepared him well and Bernstein is the beneficiary
with the sound the best in the whole cycle, rich in detail and immediacy.
Listen to the bows of the cellos grinding into the strings and you feel you
are there with them. Once again, however, it was a case of Bernstein and
Walter appearing in Mahler on the same label and emerging differently. In
the first movement Bernstein has a greater sense of the Andante comodo
tempo than Walter does. This allows him to keep up a sense of movement
even through the passages between the great climaxes. He also stresses the
darker colours and the more forward-looking aspects of the work though he
misses somewhat the sense of an elegy that is so important. The middle two
movements are superbly played and recorded but are a touch brash, not really
delving into their implications as much as Bernstein would in later recordings
where he would significantly toughen up these movements to greater advantage.
The last movement gets a searing account that gains from being quite simply
presented though again the elegiac quality found by other conductors, Walter
notably, is absent.
Economics were behind the fact that the complete Eighth Symphony was recorded
in London following a televised performance at the Royal Albert Hall in 1966.
This was the first of the "modern era" Eighths and another highly influential
recording. But there is now a tendency, especially in the thickly scored
sections, for the sound to become pinched. As I have said, great performances
can override reservations over sound but Bernstein's is a little way short
of that. The first passage for the soloists in Part I, "Imple superna gratia",
is surely rather slow, as is the early short orchestral passage. The more
episodic Part II suits Bernstein's general approach better, of course. In
fact there's something operatic to the way Bernstein interprets Mahler's
setting of Goethe's "Faust". The orchestral Prelude finds the LSO on fine
form, though there are times where I find Bernstein's warmth innocuous in
music meant to depict "ravines, forest, great crags and wilderness." That
is until Pater Profundis describes the storms where Bernstein pushes
him too much. There is a fine team of soloists though I do feel the women
sound too much alike. The choruses have their sticky moments as well. There
had been problems in rehearsals and professionals had to be brought in. Later
on, the arrival of Mater Gloriosa, the lovely passage for strings,
harp and harmonium, brings us Bernstein at his most syrupy. But his solution
is at least unashamedly romantic, Mascagni-like, and so stays in the mind
if for the wrong reasons. He closes with a performance of the "Chorus Mysticus"
and subsequent peroration that sums up his overall approach well. This recording
is a good example of the inspirational approach to this work and is a fine
achievement with parts that come off, parts that don't, and you can cherish
it for the former if you can overlook the latter.
The First Symphony was recorded in late 1966 but not released in Europe until
1968 when it faced competition from new versions by Solti and Kubelik. Hearing
it again I am convinced that Bernstein's later DG recording has unfairly
eclipsed it. Comparing them is like looking at two TV sets showing the same
movie but with one having all the colour and brightness controls turned up
too high. Everything Bernstein does in the earlier recording is accentuated
in the second. The tempi for the middle movements are a case in point. In
the 1966 recording both are distinctive and add interest: rugged and trenchant
in the second, moving forward in the third. In 1989, however, the second
movement is too slow and the third too fast. It's as if Bernstein has to
do something, anything, different from before and spoils what was fine in
the first place. There are other examples. The opening of the last movement
carries a legitimate amount of dramatic licence in 1966 within the bounds
of taste. By 1989 these same effects have become hammy mannerisms. Later
the final note in the whole work has Bernstein, possibly using a change in
the NYPO score made by Mahler in his time with them, adds a bass drum thwack.
In 1966 this underpins the close effectively but discreetly. In 1989 it sounds
like a gratuitous effect designed to bring a cheer from the crowd. So this
1966 version is a fine performance that is lyrical, exciting, dramatic and
filled with the ardour of youth. It is also excellently played and recorded.
The 1967 Sixth Symphony in this set is a favourite of many and the first
one I ever owned. In spite of that I have doubts as to the conclusions Bernstein
reaches, even though I can admire the way he reaches them. This is a formidable
performance that comes out spitting fire with a quick-march opening movement
that sets the tone for perhaps the most "hyper" version of the Sixth ever
recorded this side of Hermann Scherchen. But this first movement is surely
too quick. More weight is needed which Mahler's subsidiary marking demands
and which Bernstein seems to ignore. Alma's theme takes off with great "schwung"
but not even she can escape giving the impression of having inhaled something
rather potent. This hyper-activity carries into the Scherzo, placed second.
I do admire the passionate questing nature of the third movement even though
the marked lack of bass in the sound recording brings a rather brash quality.
The last movement is overwhelming and surely provides evidence of what I
have often suspected: that Bernstein was much influenced in his interpretation
by Dimitri Mitropoulos. Again, however, there needs to be more reflection
in some of the valleys if only as a pause for breath before the next assault
on the peaks. If you think that the Sixth should be the place where Mahler
is "in your face" the whole time, then Bernstein in 1967 is for you.
Bernstein never conducted Deryck Cooke's performing version of the Tenth
Symphony material left behind by Mahler. A number of times he even declared
that Mahler would not have been able to complete the symphony even if
he had lived and so rejected such scores. He did perform and record the
Adagio first movement, however, in his last Mahler for CBS in 1975.
He has the measure of the mixture of passionate yearning and spiky modernism
and the NYPO give the impression that they would have been more than happy
to go on and record the whole Deryck Cooke version even if Bernstein wasn't.
The sound recording is rich in depth and detail reflecting Bernstein's apparently
complete identification with this music in spite of his feelings.
I remain convinced that the best way to acquire a set of Mahler symphonies
is to buy individual versions by a number of conductors. My survey of Mahler
recordings had this belief at its core. However, there are still valid reasons
to own one conductor cycles and Bernstein is certainly one of those conductors
whose complete view is worth considering. Along with Rafael Kubelik on DG
738-2 £59.95) reviewed
elsewhere he reaches an
impressive level of consistency even though there are aspects I have
disagreements with. In contrast with Kubelik, Bernstein is more emotionally
engaged and there is frequently a "life or death" struggle that can be compelling
when appropriate, if rather irritating when not. Bernstein's love and knowledge
of these scores was always unrivalled.
One final question remains. Is this earlier Mahler set by Bernstein to be
preferred to his later complete cycle made for DG in the 1980s and now also
available as a single boxed set
£114.94)? On balance I believe it is but with my caveat
regarding the Fifth Symphony. How broadly alike Bernstein's individual
interpretations are after twenty or so years is proof of his consistency
in Mahler, but I do find the younger Bernstein's energy, sense of wonder
and discovery, as well as that of his orchestra, more compelling and rewarding,
even if at times exasperating. There are also times in the later DG recordings
where his infatuation with the music gets the better of him and leads him
to exaggerate interpretative points and tip over into mannerism. I used the
two First Symphony recordings as an example but you can find others.
In spite of all my reservations, hearing this music played by this orchestra
under this conductor at this time is still thrilling.
See also Tony's comparative review of
Mahler boxed sets
Symphony No.1: Oct 4 & 22 1966 - Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher
Hall), Lincoln Center, New York.
Symphony No.2: Sep 29-30 1963 - Manhattan Center, New York.
Symphony No.3: April 3 1961 - Manhattan Center, New York.
Symphony No.4: Feb 1 1960 - St. George Hotel, Brooklyn, New York.
Symphony No.5: Jan 7 1963 - Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall), Lincoln
Center, New York.
Symphony No.6: May 2 & 6 1967 - Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall),
Lincoln Center, New York.
Symphony No.7: Dec 14-15 1965 - Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall),
Lincoln Center, New York.
Symphony No.8: April 18-20 1966 - Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London.
Symphony No.9: Dec 16 1965 - Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall), Lincoln
Center, New York.
Symphony No.10 Adagio: April 8 1975 - Columbia 30th Street Studio, New York.