It seems that Gary Bertini, like Gustav Mahler, is destined to
be better remembered after his death than he was known during
his life. When he passed away in 2005, he was little known outside
Israel, Japan and continental Europe and nowhere near as widely
recognised as the glamour conductors who appear on the “major”
labels. His recordings were few and hard to find. A year after
his passing, Capriccio has launched a Gary Bertini Edition (see,
for example, review)
featuring live recordings drawn from the archives of the Kölner
Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester, and EMI has re-released his Mahler
have languished in the back catalogue for far too long. Bertini
began recording his cycle for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi in 1984.
When EMI bought the smaller label - now a Sony/BMG imprint -
the project was in full swing and EMI kept the cycle going to
its conclusion. The problem was that at the same time EMI was
in the midst of recording Tennstedt’s Mahler cycle with the
London Philharmonic Orchestra. Tennstedt was hugely popular
with British audiences and that fact, combined with his more
immediately emotional and personal approach to Mahler, probably
made his cycle seem the safer bet. Bertini’s recordings were
allowed to fade into the deletions lists. Despite a partial
revival by EMI France, they were largely forgotten.
As I mentioned in
my earlier Bertini review,
I stumbled across a copy of the long-deleted Mahler 4 from this
cycle in the City of Sydney public library a couple of years
ago, and was impressed by Bertini’s mastery of long singing
lines and fine orchestral balances. Happily, those qualities
that made his Mahler 4 special are present in every one of these
recordings, making for a remarkably consistent cycle.
There are almost
as many interpretative approaches to Mahler’s symphonies as
there are conductors who tackle them. For conductors like Solti,
they are virtuoso concertos for orchestra. For those like Bernstein
and Tennstedt, Mahler’s symphonies are a life and death struggle.
For the likes of Boulez, they are simply great works of art.
For others, like Kubelik and Chailly, Mahler’s symphonies are
great works of art depicting life and death struggle. Bertini
belongs to this last group of conductors. That is not to say
that his Mahler sounds just like Kubelik’s or Chailly’s any
more than Bernstein’s interpretations could be mistaken for
Tennstedt’s, but his general approach to the scores is similar.
There are, of course,
some distinguishing features. Bertini excels in the big elegiac
slow movements, and has a rare ability to maintain the tension
of the music at a slower pace. In his hands, the final movement
of the Third Symphony is long-breathed but rapt. He takes a
full 6 minutes more in this than his EMI stable-mate Klaus Tennstedt
- whose recording of this piece, and this movement in particular,
has always been a favourite of mine - and three more minutes
than Chailly on Decca. Similarly, the last movement of the Ninth
is, at a touch under half an hour (28:34 to be precise), similarly
expansive and even more affecting. This is not to say that Bertini
always favours slow tempi. His reading of the gentle third movement
of the fourth symphony is closer to the average, and his flowing
reading of the fifth's famous adagietto clocks in at 10:05 –
not quick, but not slow either.
The other thing
that distinguishes Bertini’s Mahler is his ability to bring
out individual details but place them within the context of
his overall conception of each symphony. There are a number
of conductors who are adept at bringing out the details in these
scores, but at the risk of losing sight of where these details
fit into the symphony. Rattle is one example. Compare the two
conductors’ approaches to the cowbell interludes in the first
movement of the Sixth Symphony, and you will see what I mean.
Bertini’s slight emotional detachment from the scores - looking
at Picasso’s Guernica rather than living it - gives him
the ability to see how the details fit as part of the whole.
He is also helped
by stunning recorded sound. The German radio engineers do amazing
things with these recordings, capturing a bright acoustic consistent
across the various recording venues and bringing out detail
without spotlighting. In which other recording of the Seventh
does the mandolin of the fourth movement emerge so naturally
from within the orchestra? Applause has been edited out of the
live recordings captured here, and such is Bertini’s success
in giving these symphonies vibrant performances that you may
find yourself tested to pick the live recordings from the studio
ones if listening blind.
Bertini is fortunate
to have a fine orchestra at his command. As much as I love Tennstedt’s
readings and as much as I admire the enthusiasm with which the
LPO responds to their beloved chief, the Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester
roundly outplays them, particularly in the brass. The strings
have more shine than warmth, but they have adequate weight where
required. They are a match for Solti’s Chicago and tidier than
Bernstein’s New Yorkers.
themselves are generally excellent and some are fantastic. The
First Symphony is fresh and invigorating, similar in approach
to Chailly’s. The wry klezmer episodes in the third movement
are superbly characterised. Chailly has the edge in the Fourth
Symphony, with Barbara Bonney in fresher voice than Bertini’s
Lucia Popp. Bertini also misses some of the grim irony of death’s
fiddler in the second movement, which Kubelik captures so well,
but the arc of his performance is very satisfying overall.
The Second does
not fare quite as well, with Bertini's cool approach taking
the edge off this most magnetic of symphonies and the clean
and clear playing of the orchestra, while revealing a lot of
ear-catching detail, sounding perfunctory in places. The Third,
by contrast, gets a monumental performance that softens and
mellows as it goes.
approach in the Fifth Symphony is very exciting. I prefer the
firmer hand and more measured tempo in from figure 7 in the
score, adopted by Boulez on Deutsche Grammophon and Barshai
on Brilliant Classics, but Bertini's approach is consistent
with Mahler's tempo marking “Plözlich schneller. Leidenshaftlich.
Wild” (Suddenly faster. Passionately. Wild.).
In the Sixth, Bertini
again reminds me of Chailly, and the honours are evenly split.
I think the Italian handles the transitions better, though Bertini's
mastery of the detail is superior. His seventh is distinguished
by apt tempi and a perfect balancing of parts, particularly
in the first movement and the spooky Nachtmusik movements that
flank the central scherzo.
This Eighth is wonderfully
exciting. The soloists and chorus do not overwhelm the orchestra
as they do in Kubelik’s recording on Deutsche Grammophon. Again
the comparison with Rattle’s recent Mahler 8 on EMI (see review)
is telling. Rattle’s performance, exciting though it is, yields
to Bertini’s energy and more powerful conception of the symphony
as a whole. The Ninth is a performance of understated feeling,
capped by a mesmerising final movement.
Like many other
Mahler conductors of the his generation, Bertini performed only
the adagio of the Tenth Symphony rather than any of the completions
of Mahler's unfinished score. While none of them is perfect,
I would be loath to be without a recording of at least Cooke's
realisation of Mahler's last symphony. Conductors who perform
the adagio in isolation run the risk of imbuing it with too
much valedictory finality, a little anger notwithstanding, whereas
the adagio is in reality only the opening movement of a symphony
that rages against the dying of the light. Interpretative critique
aside, though, this is as satisfying a stand-alone adagio as
you will find.
Capping the cycle
is a performance of Das Lied von der Erde that is
simply stunning. Bertini’s concern for balance of parts, clarity
of textures and long lines delivers a delicate performance of
this symphony which, though scored for large orchestra, is full
of chamber music textures. He points up the Chinoiserie of the
central movements and allows Der Abschied to dissolve
as it should. Orchestrally speaking, Bertini's approach to the
score sits somewhere between Boulez's on Deutsche Grammophon
and Salonen's on Sony. Ben Heppner is in fine voice, though
he sings without his latter day full Heldentenor heft. His performances
are beautifully nuanced and calculated to mesmerise rather than
terrify. Maria Lipovšek sings with real subtlety. Though she
does not quite match Christa Ludwig or Janet Baker, her performance
- which includes a moving account of Der Abschied - is
Texts are printed
in full (a plus) but the Kyo Mitsutoshi's affectionate booklet
notes focus on Bertini and rather than on Mahler or his symphonies,
which will not help beginners (a minus). EMI is clearly targeting
collectors with this box set, but beginners will find it a less
idiosyncratic guide to Mahler than Tennstedt's cycle, which
EMI does market to beginners, complete with helpful analyses
of the works.
Any other complaints?
Only one. Although it preserves the chronology of the symphonies,
splitting the Fourth Symphony across two discs is very irritating.
The cycle would still fit onto 11 CDs if each of the Fourth
and Fifth symphonies had a disc to itself and the first three
movements of the sixth were shifted to disc 4 to follow on from
the end of the third. The juxtaposition of symphonies 3 and
6 on the one CD is no more discomforting than the existing juxtaposition
of 6 and 9.
As a complete cycle
of Mahler symphonies, Bertini’s box is second to none. More
consistent than Tennstedt and Chailly, better sound than Kubelik,
less idiosyncratic than Bernstein, more human than Solti, this
is the boxed set to buy if a boxed set you seek. All of the
performances collected here have something special about them,
and a few of the performances (1, 5, 7, 8, 9 and Das Lied)
are a match for any other in the catalogue. In short, this cycle
is an essential purchase for all Mahlerians and a superb set
for beginners. Seek this out in the post-Christmas sales.