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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Leonard Bernstein: The Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon - Collectors Edition
Bernstein’s Mahler: Box 1

CD1 [74.00]
Symphony No. 1 (1888) [56.10]
Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Recorded October 1987, Amsterdam, Concertgebouw, Grote Zaal
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1885; orchestrated 1893) [17.50]
Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded February 1990, Vienna, Musikverein, Große Saal
CD2 [64.10]
Symphony No. 3 (1896) [105.50], movements 1-3
CD3 [67.14]
Symphony No. 3, movements 4-6
Christa Ludwig (mezzo)
New York Choral Artists
Brooklyn Boys Chorus
New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded November 1987, New York, Avery Fisher Hall
Symphony No. 2 ‘Resurrection’ (1894) [93.55], movement 1
CD4 [68.45]
Symphony No. 2 ‘Resurrection’, movements 2-5
Barbara Hendricks (soprano), Christa Ludwig (mezzo)
Westminster Choir
New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded April 1987, New York, Avery Fisher Hall
CD5 [57.08]
Symphony No. 4 (1900)
Helmut Wittek (treble)
Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Recorded June 1987, Amsterdam, Concertgebouw, Grote Zaal
CD6 [57.38]
Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1892-1901)
Lucia Popp (soprano), Andreas Schmidt (baritone)
Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Recorded October 1987, Amsterdam, Concertgebouw, Grote Zaal
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 5174 [6 CDs: 74.00 + 64.10 + 67.14 + 68.45 + 57.08 + 57.38]

 

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Bernstein’s Mahler: Box 2
CD1 [75.03]
Symphony No. 5 (1902)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded September 1987, Frankfurt, Alte Oper
CD2 [53.52]
Symphony No. 6 (1904) [87.02], movements 1-3
CD3 [61.34]
Symphony No. 6, movement 4
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded September 1988, Vienna, Musikverein, Große Saal
Kindertotenlieder (1904) [28.24]
Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded October 1988, Vienna, Musikverein, Große Saal
CD4 [64.05]
Symphony No. 7 (1905) [82.31], movements 1-4
New York Philharmonic Orchestra
CD5 [41.08]
Symphony No. 7, movement 5
New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded December 1985, New York, Avery Fisher Hall
Rückert Lieder (1902) [22.42]
Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded February 1990, Vienna, Musikverein, Großer Saal
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 5181 [5 CDs: 75.03 + 53.52 + 61.34 + 64.05 + 41.08]

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Bernstein’s Mahler: Box 3
CD1 [50.27]
Symphony No. 10: Adagio (1910-11) [26.03]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded October 1974, Vienna, Konzerthaus
Symphony No. 8 (1906) [83.25], movement 1; ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus
CD2 [59.02]
Symphony No. 8, movement 2, Final Scene from Goethe’s Faust, Part II
Margaret Price (soprano); Judith Blegen (soprano); Gerti Zeumer (soprano); Trudeliese Schmidt (contralto); Agnes Baltsa (contralto); Kenneth Riegel (tenor); Hermann Prey (baritone); José van Dam (bass)
Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna Singverein, Vienna Boys Choir
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded October 1975, Salzburg, Großer Festpielhaus
CD3 [66.55]
Das Lied von der Erde (1908)
James King (tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded April 1966, Vienna, Sofiensaal
CD4 [47.34]
Symphony No. 9 (1909) [89.11], movements 1 and 2
CD5 [41.37]
Symphony No. 9, movements 3 and 4
Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Recorded June 1985, Amsterdam, Concertgebouw, Grote Zaal
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 5187 [5 CDs: 50.27 + 59.02 + 66.55 + 47.34 + 41.37]
 

The names of Gustav Mahler and Leonard Bernstein have been linked in the minds of music lovers for many years. These performances bear witness to a remarkable understanding of the work of one great composer, interpreted by another who like him was also a great conductor.

It seems hard to believe that Bernstein died more than fifteen years ago, such is the strength of his legacy and his enduring influence on the musical firmament. As a composer his stature seems to be growing year on year, while his many recorded performances rightly maintain their availability internationally in the catalogues.

In the later part of his career as a recording artist Bernstein came to prefer live performances to those in the studio, particularly when two or more could be scheduled in order to deal with any problems of editing, orchestral mistakes or audience intrusion. At the time of his death in 1990, he was well advanced into this major project to make his second set of Mahler recordings, but he did not quite manage to complete the task. Therefore three of these collected performances are of earlier provenance: Symphony No. 8, Das Lied von der Erde (courtesy of CBS) and the Adagio from Symphony No. 10.

Like Bernstein, Mahler was immensely gifted. He studied in Vienna before developing a dual career as conductor and composer. His conducting career in opera houses brought him major appointments: for example Prague and Hamburg, then at the age of just 37, the directorship of the Vienna Court Opera. This success, together with guest conducting, left him with only the summer months that he could dedicate to his first love, composition.

There can be little doubt that this enormous pressure on his time made Mahler concentrate on just two musical genres, the symphony and the song, and sometimes even to combine them. Moreover, it encouraged his sense of quest, his search for meaning, a search best explained through his own words: 'I am thrice homeless: as a Bohemian in Austria, as an Austrian in Germany, and as a Jew throughout the whole world.'

Each of Mahler's symphonies is concerned with the same issues, with the struggle between Life-force and Death-force, an extension of Beethoven's idea of man’s struggle with Fate. To encompass so powerfully expressive an end, he opted for an approach which made the symphony a world, in which all manner of images could exist in order to fully develop the project. This is why his symphonies vary so much in style, length and layout, and why the resources required are so large.

From 1907, when a heart condition was diagnosed, Mahler lived under sentence of death. Thus his final works - Das Lied von der Erde, the 9th and 10th symphonies - possess a valedictory quality. He died in Vienna on 18th May 1911, aged fifty.

This collection is nearly, but not quite, a complete Mahler collection. All the major works are here, but there are none of the early songs, the lieder und Gesang aus der Jugendzeit, nor of the cantata Das Klagende Lied or the completed version(s) of the Symphony No. 10.

In the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, the Rückert Lieder and the Kindertotenlieder Thomas Hampson is an excellent soloist. Mahler left the option of performing all these songs with either a male or a female singer, and many celebrated artists have proved beyond question that either possibility can succeed equally well, while bringing a different musical experience each time. There is no point in claiming that any one approach is better than any other. Hampson sets the standard with a beautifully shaped and direct performance of the earliest of these cycles, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), which fittingly is coupled with the Symphony No. 1, with which it has so many links of material.

In many respects Bernstein’s performance with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of the Symphony No. 1 is the jewel in the crown among this whole collection. The combination of the well balanced recording, beautiful playing, and spontaneous symphonic growth is particularly compelling. Rarely can the opening of the symphony have sounded more atmospheric, with every little detail making its telling point. The clarinet’s cuckoo calls are particularly effective, for instance. By contrast the emphatic and weighty rhythms of the second movement extend the aural experience and make a strong contrast. Bernstein does not include the original Blumine movement that Mahler cut from the final version, nor does he include it as an appendix, where it would have made a useful addition, since it is such a beautiful piece.

The third movement funeral march sets forth a rather sprightly tempo, and if this weakens the impact of the double bass solo it does enhance the symphonic cohesiveness as the movement proceeds, linking with the bizarre klezmer music when it intervenes. The finale abounds in rhetorical gestures, and here Bernstein is in his element. The opening bars set the tone and achieve a terrific impact, while as the movement proceeds there is a really compelling momentum and the triumphant ending sweeps all before it.

The famous Resurrection Symphony was recorded in the drier acoustic of New York’s Avery Fisher Hall. As with the other performances from this venue, the skills of the engineers were put to the test in coping with this problem. The results, here as elsewhere, are mixed although not entirely disappointing. The balancing of the percussion, in the last movement especially, does not always seem natural.

Bernstein adopts tempi that are slower than the norm; his interpretation is some fifteen minutes longer, for example, than Otto Klemperer’s (EMI) – so much for generalized reputations. This does occasionally result in the tension sagging as a result of the lack of impetus. Also in the Wunderhorn setting Urlicht (Primeval Light), Christa Ludwig proves a reliable rather than a radiant soloist. There is little of the radiant intensity brought by Janet Baker in her EMI recording with Sir Simon Rattle. In the magnificently visionary finale, there are some problems of balance in the recording of fully scored passages with complex textures. However, the final phase sounds just as overwhelming as Mahler intended: 'The whole thing sounds as though it came to us from some other world. And I think there is no-one who can resist it. One is battered to the ground and then raised on angel's wings to the highest heights.'

The Third Symphony also comes from New York. Bernstein’s earlier recording on CBS was always highly regarded, and it is true that this symphony finds him at his best once again. The work is an epic affair which goes to extremes, of dynamics for example. Once more the dry acoustic becomes an issue, making a genuine pianissimo elusive, and this is a problem in the fourth movement Nietzsche setting, which is wanting in atmosphere, despite the fine singing of Christa Ludwig. The finale is very broad, broader than most, except possibly Lorin Maazel with the Vienna Philharmonic (Sony). The results strike me as a touch self-conscious, and a little more flow after the approach of Jascha Horenstein (Unicorn) brings rewards. Bernstein does make his reading work on its own terms, however, and it is significant that he chose the symphony for his farewell concert as music director of the New York Philharmonic. The recording has plenty of impact, not least in the first movement, whose inexorable pulse is most compellingly drawn.

With the Fourth Symphony, the talking point will obviously be Bernstein’s decision to use a boy soprano in the song-finale, Das Himmlische Leben, the child’s view of Heaven. As such the performance is well worth hearing and it works well enough, for which all praise to young Helmut Wittek, for whom the role has presumably dropped from his repertory by now. He seems a little flat from time to time, and he is placed very forward in the recorded perspective, but generally the fresh accuracy of his voice is preferable to that of a more plummy soprano. Lucia Popp, for Klaus Tennstedt on EMI, seems to achieve the best of both worlds. In other respects the performance captures the special neo-classical world of this piece. Bernstein does tend to slow down lovingly at key moments in the first movement, but then Mahler encourages this with his emphasis on expressive phrasing.

The second, third and fourth symphonies are collectively known as the Wunderhorn Symphonies because of their links with the songs of that name that so obsessed Mahler, particularly during the decade of the 1890s. This 1987 performance from Amsterdam features Lucia Popp and the Andreas Schmidt, and was the third and last that Bernstein made. In one of the others he had been the piano accompanist. Popp and Schmidt are splendid artists for whom this repertoire seems ideal, and Popp in particular is on wonderful form, as indeed she also was for Tennstedt on EMI. The attractions include her charming rendition of Rheinlegendchen and Schmidt’s sturdy Lied des Verfolgten im Turm (Song of the Prisoner in the Tower). Occasionally Schmidt can sound a touch prosaic; for example his drummer boy (Der Tamboursg’sell) has less personality than Berndt Weikl’s with Tennstedt, or Thomas Allen’s with Sir Charles Mackerras (Virgin Classics). In this performance Popp sings St Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes, which is usually the preserve of the baritone. Although she sings well, the song surely works better with the male voice. As for the highlight of the whole sequence, this has to be Popp’s performance of Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen, if only because it is the best of these Wunderhorn songs, one of Mahler’s greatest compositions.

Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic toured the Fifth Symphony across Europe; and their Proms performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London made a powerful impact. This recording comes from Frankfurt and brings out the virtues of a work with which the conductor felt a special affinity in his later years. It remains a benchmark performance, worthy of a hallowed position alongside Sir John Barbirolli (EMI). The trumpet fanfare sets the tone of searing drama, while the final chorale is splendidly integrated and ideally balanced by the recording engineers. As for the most celebrated movement, this Adagietto could hardly be bettered. Slow-moving yet eloquent, the line has a fluid ebb and flow, with string playing from the Vienna Philharmonic that is quite wonderful.

The Sixth was one of the spectacular successes of Bernstein’s earlier New York recorded cycle on CBS. The newer performance, again with the Vienna Philharmonic, is a full twelve minutes longer; but the first movement is still energetic rather than world-weary (compare with Abbado on DG or more still, with Barbirolli on EMI). As a result of the relatively quick tempo, which has little of Mahler’s stipulated ‘non troppo’, the second subject known as ‘Alma’s theme’ is exciting but makes less impression in its context. The Scherzo is positioned second and is very fine, with spectral orchestral sounds, replete with virtuoso xylophone. On the other hand, the Andante features yet more of the Vienna Philharmonic’s wonderful string playing.

It is on the extraordinary finale that any performance of the Sixth will stand or fall. In this thirty-minute movement containing the famous hammer-blows of fate, Bernstein’s tempo relationships are most skillfully drawn. Seldom can Mahler’s desperate stringendo into climaxes have made a more intense impression. The dynamic range is thrillingly captured, and the hammer-blows certainly make their point.

The Seventh Symphony is another New York recording. The volatile nature of this music suited Bernstein particularly well, and what is most compelling of all about this performance is his interpretation of the Rondo-finale, which is taut and cohesive where in other hands it can seem episodic. Make no mistake, this is what we may enthusiastically describe as a great performance.

Alongside these ‘middle period’ symphonies Mahler composed two sets of songs on the poetry of Friedrich Rückert. The dark-toned Kindertotenlieder gains from the timbre of the baritone voice, and Thomas Hampson does not disappoint in this respect. Much of the music is gaunt and introspective, so that when the storms brew and are unleashed the effect is galvanising. The other Rückert songs form a collection rather than a cycle, but they are so well balanced as a group that they work best when performed together rather than separately. Most performances feature a mezzo-soprano, and it is true that Janet Baker (EMI) is peerless here. However, Thomas Hampson’s affinity with Mahler brings much satisfaction.

When Bernstein died he had not completed this project, and among the numbered symphonies the Eighth was missing (as were Das Lied von der Erde and the Adagio of the unfinished Tenth). With imagination and good business sense an earlier broadcast performance was found in order to fill the gap. This recording of the Symphony No. 8 comes from the 1975 Salzburg Festival, and while it is less sophisticated as sound than most of the other recordings featured here, it still succeeds both in recapturing the spirit of a special occasion, as any performance of this ambitious work will always be. The headlong attack with which Bernstein launches the symphony into action is certainly thrilling, but the precedent it sets is not without its problems later on, as at ‘Accende lumen sensibus’ towards the end of the first movement, which nearly comes off the rails. That it doesn’t actually do so might be seen as a strength, of course.

The quieter moments of the extended second part, the setting of Part II of Goethe’s Faust, are particularly atmospheric, but later on the boys’ chorus lacks definition in the aural perspective when the textures become more complex. As in the Resurrection Symphony, the closing phase of the Eight is intended to sweep all before it, the listener in particular. Bernstein is suitably compelling here.

Among the singers Kenneth Riegel copes admirably with the high yet stentorian role of Doctor Marianus, while José van Dam is a most effective and imposing Pater Profundus. This typically starry Salzburg cast also finds Margaret Price sounding most beautiful, though she rather fluffs her demanding high C. The disappointment of the performance is undoubtedly the puny-sounding organ, probably the instrument itself rather than the recording.

Recorded in 1966 by CBS and issued here under licence, Bernstein’s Das Lied von der Erde was always a top recommendation. The performance has never sounded better than in this reissue, of course, and the performance uses Mahler’s own preferred option of tenor and baritone soloists. Of course there have been many highly successful performances with tenor and contralto, including great artists such as Kathleen Ferrier, Janet Baker and Jessye Norman, among others. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau emphasises the gains that can be brought by a singer who is a natural German speaker, since he uses the words so imaginatively to enhance aspects of his interpretation. James King is also a well chosen soloist, whose heldentenor voice has the kind of sound that the Wagner-conducting Mahler must have had in mind. His performance is less subtle than Fischer-Dieskau’s, but no matter, such is the nobility of the sound. Despite the evident strengths of this pair of soloists, the performance remains very much Bernstein’s, not least in the visionary farewells in the final movement, Der Abschied.

During the 1980s Bernstein made two recordings of the Ninth Symphony, one with the Berlin Philharmonic and another - this one - with the Concertgebouw. The key to his interpretation was his stated view that the Adagio finale ‘takes the form of a prayer, Mahler’s last chorale, his closing hymn so to speak, and it prays for the restoration of life, of tonality, of faith’. Perhaps this is why the tempo for the finale is very slow, indulgently slow. Whether this works can come down to our individual responses and preconceptions, perhaps, and it is the same issue that arose in relation to the closing Adagio of the Third Symphony. This is challenging music, for players and audiences alike, and the challenge is intensified by the slower tempo, not least in the closing stages when the music becomes more restrained and inward.

At the opposite remove is the preceding movement, the Rondo-Burleske. This is edge-of-the-seat music, with hectic tempo, complex shifting textures and order challenged by chaos. Bernstein was not one to shy away from such dangers. Another conspicuous success of this performance is the second movement ländler, which abounds in the compelling observation of detail, but never at the expense of line. The first movement is introspective and indulgent, as if by turns, Bernstein’s belief in the intense imageries of the music is palpable.

Unlike many conductors of his generation and since, Bernstein declined to conduct Deryck Cooke’s completed version, or any other completed version, of the unfinished Tenth Symphony. In this regard he was at one with other notable Mahler conductors, such as Sir Georg Solti and Bernard Haitink. He did perform the completed first movement, however. The Adagio from the Symphony No. 10 was recorded in Vienna in 1974, and it has that sincerity of line and purpose that we would expect to find in a Bernstein performance. Here more than elsewhere, however, the issue of recording from a live performance comes into play. For the audience is less than well behaved, and reserves participation for crucial moments too. Therefore allowances have to be made that should not really be necessary in the concert hall, let alone on a preserved recorded performance.

This collection of recordings is a remarkable testament to one of the great musicians - maybe the greatest musician? - of the 20th century. Whatever the minor caveats, the vision of the interpretations and the execution of the playing are of a special order. Leonard Bernstein had an affinity with Mahler the musician and the man, and his performances and recordings did a great deal to change public perceptions and to create a true awareness of Mahler’s nature and of his greatness. These abundant and special strengths are strongly projected in this magnificent collection.

Terry Barfoot

 

 




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