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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
The Complete Symphonies
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein (1-7; 9-10)
London Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein (8)
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein (DLVDE)
rec.1960-68. ADD
full listing at end of review
SONY CLASSICAL 88697-45369-2 [12 CDs]
Experience Classicsonline

When a company announces a re-mastered reissue of an old favourite the temptation is to dismiss it as a marketing ploy just to sell the same back catalogue all over again. When it's a second reissue and a second re-mastering the feeling is even stronger.

There will be new buyers of the works on the discs to be considered, of course. But how are the people who own a previous incarnation to react to what is trumpeted as improved sonics? Should they throw out - or sell on e-bay, if they can - their old version and invest in the new? Or should they console themselves in the belief that the differences between the version they have and the version now being offered are so minimal that they needn’t give the matter another thought? For most of the time I’m of the latter persuasion because for most of the time such differences are minimal even on high end equipment. Occasionally, however, there are exceptions and I will tell you now that this reissue of Bernstein’s first Mahler cycle is one of those exceptions. By going back to the original multi-track masters and remixing them on a custom built analogue desk the team at Sony have rendered a real service to admirers of Mahler and Bernstein. The improvement in sound is striking right through and so if you already have this cycle then I really do advise you seriously to consider replacing it. If you do not have any of these recordings then now is the time to change that. Bernstein is always an absorbing, informed and entertaining guide to Mahler. He seemed to have absorbed the scores into his very being. In fact I am sure he wished he had written them himself. He certainly conducts them as if he thinks he did. Whilst it is the case that there are individual recordings of these symphonies that I prefer over those by Bernstein, as a complete set this is a wonderful achievement and should be on the shelf of every serious Mahlerite. 

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 effect in the USA where it was recorded by CBS and released between 1960 and 1968. At that time Mahler’s music was going through a renaissance assisted by the widespread acceptance of LP and stereo recording. The advocacy of Mahler by such a high profile conductor was potent to its success 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 outside the United States. Mahler’s music was forging paths under other conductors anyway, some of whom were recording and broadcasting, and in some countries Mahler 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 had to wait years before they were even issued in Europe; in one case as late as 1971. When the later released ones did appear in Europe it was alongside other new recordings by conductors such as Kubelik, Solti, Haitink and Klemperer, so their impact was not quite as great as it had been back at home when they first came out. There are two exceptions to this. 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.

The First Symphony was recorded in late 1966 but was not released in Europe until 1968 when it faced competition from new versions by Solti and Kubelik. Hearing it again I am more convinced than ever that Bernstein’s later DG recording has unfairly eclipsed this one which I much prefer. As with the Third and the Seventh in this set there is that wonderful air of discovery and surprise here that cannot ever be repeated by a conductor in a remake. The exuberance is not forced and the tension, when it is needed, is genuine. Comparing Bernstein’s two recordings 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 well here in the earlier recording is accentuated in the second to no good effect. In the first movement in this earlier version listen to the lovely violin slides in this passage with no suggestion whatsoever of forcing an effect into the music [CD 1 track 1 07.40-7.59]. Then hear the beautiful balancing of parts by Bernstein and his engineers in this passage [CD 1 track 1 11.47-12.22]. In the later remake, passages like these were all too contrived sounding. The tempi for the middle movements are a further case in point in favour of this version. In 1966 both tempi are distinctive and add interest: rugged and trenchant in the second movement, moving forward in the third. In the second movement you can hear how he takes the tempo down further in the Trio to wonderful effect [CD 1 track 2 04.24-04.51]. In the third movement the double-bass solo is as creepy as you could wish for [CD 1 track 3 00.00-00.30] and Bernstein does not force the cafe band music just to ram home points he later makes about its “Jewishness” in his TV film about Mahler. In 1966 he just lets it all emerge quite naturally and it is so much the better for that [CD 1 track 3 02.09-02.52 There are other examples weighing in favour of this earlier recording. 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. Bernstein’s treatment of the transition from the stormy opening into the big theme is well-nigh perfect, keeping the movement together [CD 1 track 4 02.56-03.40] and notice the dabs from the violins in the next passage as evidence of how good is the recorded sound [CD 1 track 4 06.30-06.53]. There are passages that I have always felt Bernstein drives just too quickly but there is no denying the sheer thrill that this performance can bring. 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, adding a bass drum thwack at the end of a stadium finish [CD 1 track 4 18.17-end]. In 1966 this extra drum-stroke 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 and the new re-mastering only adds to its lustre. This re-mastering gives us a wide stereo spread and, as you have heard, great detailing. I suppose it is still just a touch bass-shy but nothing to worry about and nothing that you would not find today.

The recording of the Second Symphony in this set is, as it should be, Bernstein’s first one from 1963. I mention this because when CBS or Sony have reissued Bernstein’s Mahler in the past they have often used a 1970s performance with the LSO in Ely Cathedral made for TV. 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 over Walter’s. Though Bernstein is not as extreme as Scherchen, for example, in the explorations of contrasts of tempo and dynamics possible in this work, 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. Since I believe that the first movement should press forward I enjoyed the performance very much. Listen here especially to the careful articulation of the cellos and double-basses. Every note tells in a passage too often rushed but here is real weight and movement [CD 2 track 3 00.00-01.00]. You can hear the great contrasts Bernstein can bring in the next two passages. First in the way he floats the glorious ascending second subject theme [CD 2 track 3 06.45-07.31] and then the sheer frantic power of the great crashing climax chords at the close of the development, clean and overwhelming in this recording with superb brass playing from the NYPO [CD 2 track 3 13.43-15.56]. Before turning to the great last movement I cannot resist including the wonderful solo trumpet in the central section of the third movement and ask how often do you wish that other versions sounded like this with so much character and nostalgia [CD 3 track 2 04.12-04.50]. In the end I do suspect, though, that Bernstein himself became dissatisfied with this recording since, in his later recordings, he would again carry his interpretative mannerisms to greater limits, especially in the last movement, nearly compromising the structural integrity of the piece by striving for greater effect. In 1963 the whole massive parade hangs together extremely well from the vivid opening [CD 3 track 4 00.00-01.33] and the mounting fanfares [CD 3 track 4 07.00-08.17] through the march of the dead. This is paced beautifully, neither too fast nor too slow [CD 3 track 4 10.00-10.38] building to a climax that leaves you shattered, just as it should. The “Grosser Appell” is beautifully recorded too [CD 3 track 4 16.46-17.47] and the end is genuinely liberating whereas later Bernstein would pile on the emotion with a shovel. [CD 3 track 4 30.48-end]. The Second challenges even the most modern of digital recordings. But this one started out as a very good recording even in its time. John McClure had again had the experience of recording this work once before as producer with Bruno Walter and so the new re-mastering is a real improvement on what we have had before. There is a feeling of slightly greater security in the sound, especially when full out in the climaxes and you will have heard the wide dynamic range. Even the choral peroration at the close shows only minimal signs of overload. 

This first Bernstein recording of the Third Symphony, the second work in the set to be recorded, has always been the one that I preferred of Bernstein's. It’s broadly the same interpretation as his later recording for DG but the playing of the NYPO in 1961 has far more of a sense of discovery, wonderment, drama and bright-eyed eloquence as was the case with the First. This was still relatively new music to these players so they seem to be making extra effort to get it right. In the later recording I always sense a touch of complacency. I also think the sound recording here, though analogue, is a better sonic picture. Bernstein is so much alive to every nuance of the score but largely lets the music speak for itself and doesn't force or impose himself; something you do not hear said of his conducting often. Don’t misunderstand me, though. This performance is replete with distinctive and memorable qualities, not least in the first movement. At the beginning there’s a definite feeling of the outset of a long journey. The unison roar of the horns has an extraordinary atmosphere of latent energy beneath [CD 4 track 1 00.00-02.08]. This is an impression that will persist right through and suffuses the great up-rushes from the lower strings in the opening pages projected with superb attack. Following the big trombone solo Bernstein slips into the main exposition material with ease, reinforcing the feeling that this is a one-take recording, as good as anything “live”. The march of summer finds Bernstein in exuberant mood: Fifth Avenue on St. Patrick’s Day to the life, and good on Bernstein for that [CD 4 track 1 12.21-13.00]. The forward projection of the march means the central episode comes off splendidly, almost frenziedly, with a definite sense of danger. But listen to the wonderful poetry in repose Bernstein can bring to the movement too [CD 4 track 1 27.46-28.20]. The coda then has grandeur and excitement. Some could think Bernstein’s exuberance over the top. But this music is “over the top” and I think Mahler knew it too [CD 4 track 1 32.32-end]. More attention to detail can be heard in the second movement. A real sense of flight in the quicker passages also. Structurally Bernstein realises that this movement is a prelude to what follows and so there is no sense of relaxation. The same can be said of the third movement that finds a more relaxed tempo than usual. Woodwind especially convey great charm by articulating every note and a real swing to the more animated passages [CD 5 track 2 00.00-00.50]. The rollicking brass should also bring a smile. All this and still there is the post-horn solo where Bernstein does not let us down. The solo is sweet and mellow, proving Bernstein can relax [CD 5 track 2 06.18 -07.00]. Around the second appearance of the post-horn the strings bring a magical aura. Then when nature rears up the effect is as big-boned and sexy as anyone could wish. In the fourth movement there is rapt playing and a Brangane-like Jennie Tourel. The fifth movement with the boys and the women comes over remarkably restrained for what we might expect from Bernstein after which he takes the last movement slowly and with dedication. But he can deliver the broad tempi approach in this movement without flagging because he never overloads it with too much pulling about. This music has plenty of emotion built in and, at this stage in his career he was able to leave it at that [CD 5 track 5 00.59-02.00]. The attention is held from first bar to last and a crowns a performance in a triumph that is natural and solid and one to return to again and again [CD 5 track 5 23.19-end]. The fact that this recording has been such a favourite in the catalogue for so long should tell you that it does so much right. You would never know from this re-mastering that this was the second earliest of all the recordings in this set. The slight recession of the balance allows for all details to be heard beautifully and I can recommend it warmly.

The Fourth Symphony from 1960 is the earliest recording here, though it would be as late as 1971 before it was released in Europe. As a statement of Mahlerian intent, if that is the way it was perceived at the time, this 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 in 1946. The first movement under Bernstein is certainly sassy and sharp in its pointing up of every small detail, woodwinds especially cheeky, and is a sparky realisation of Mahler’s happiest music. You really do have the impression that Bernstein and his players were having a great time that day. Though I think the development section is a shade too fast I can compliment the NYPO for holding on so well [CD 6 track 1 09.22-10.18]. This does betray what sounds like impatience on Bernstein’s part, though I’m sure that is not what he meant. Is this the right mood for this music, though? I don’t think so. 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 and this new re-mastering must be the best that this recording has ever sounded. The woodwind players of the NYPO are really given every opportunity to show how good they are as soloists and a section and I did enjoy this movement very much [CD 6 track 2 00.00-00.48]. The third movement starts serene and becomes volatile at all the right points and only occasionally strays beyond the tasteful, though I am always left with a feeling of surfaces skated over here. It’s a delicate balance that has to be achieved and, this early in his career, Bernstein seems a little unsure where to pitch things. But full marks to Bernstein and the orchestra for the snappy tempo they adopt in the last movement. That must have sounded more controversial then than it does now. Reri Grist has a distinctive enough timbre as soloist in the work, but I cannot escape the impression that she doesn’t really know what she is singing about or why. I think she hadn’t really entered into the Mahler spirit [CD 6 track 4 1.44-02.34]. When Bernstein recorded the work many years later for DG he used the services of a boy treble and that didn’t work either. Casting a soloist in the Fourth is always difficult and it must be a real challenge for the singer herself. Such apparently simple music and yet so deep in its profundity for all that. The glowing acoustic of this recording is well brought out by the new re-mastering.

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 always such a disappointment. The hall’s acoustics were problematic and it is as if the engineers really struggle to cope with them. This never really sounded like the New York Philharmonic with a sharp, brittle sound making their contribution a genuine trial. But the new re-mastering does improve things quite a lot with more air around the orchestra but nowhere near enough to these ears. There remains an innate artificiality about the sound which I don’t think a whole rack of the latest technology will cure. It falls short of the range and spread that you can hear on other performances in the set. 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 in his career on this evidence. The orchestra probably took their cue from him adding to the feeling of unease in their general ensemble. Reconciling the extremes contained within the work’s 75 minutes makes this surely Mahler’s most difficult work to bring off and only the greatest can do it. The first movement is poorly executed with the funeral march rhythm seeming to stutter and the trumpet solo sounding odd [CD 7 track 1 00.00-01.08]. Even the great leap forward at the centre of the movement is more of a startled jump [CD 7 track 1 05.05-06.02]. The second and third movements contain some coarse playing in the louder passages and a general feeling that the conductor isn’t really yet sure where everything else fits. The feeling is of “run-through” too many times. The start of the second movement needs more trenchancy than this [CD 7 track 2 00.00-00.35] and the chorale climax is rather an empty vessel [CD 7 track 2 11.26-12.38]. The third movement starts well enough with nice solo detail [CD 7 track 3 00.00-00.44] but I could have done with a little more repose in the horn solo [CD 7 track 3 05.13-05.55]. The Adagietto fourth movement is a slow and treacly eleven minutes and then the last movement is far too fast, sounding even faster after such a slow Adagietto and not seeming to mean anything at the end of such a long and complex work [CD 7 track 5 08.39-09.25]. 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 [CD 7 track 5 12.24-end]. This recording is the one clear case in Bernstein’s Mahler discography where his later recording for DG is to be preferred. There the playing of the Vienna Philharmonic is assured right through. Also, whilst Bernstein remains as interventionist as ever, in his later Mahler Fifth all of this comes off triumphantly with no impression of forcing a view top down. The New York recording is a work-in-progress in comparison then. I regret being somewhat negative over this recording but it remains, even in this re-mastering, a relative disappointment. Anyone owning the set would do well to add the Bernstein DG recording of the Fifth to it.

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 always had doubts as to the conclusions Bernstein reaches, even though I can admire the way he reaches them. This is indeed a formidable, searing performance that comes out spitting fire with a quick-march opening movement that sets the tone for the most “hyper” version of the Sixth ever recorded this side of Hermann Scherchen [CD 8 track 1 00.00-01.44]. But this first movement is surely too quick for it to make the necessary impact and returning to it after a long time I am even more convinced of this. More weight, more down force, really is needed which Mahler’s subsidiary marking actually demands and which Bernstein seems to ignore completely. Alma’s theme takes off with great “schwung” but not even she can escape giving the impression of having inhaled something rather potent [CD 8 track 1 02.23-03.00]. This hyperactivity carries into the Scherzo too, placed second here, where again I really feel that weight is being sacrificed for energy no matter how well the orchestra plays [CD 8 track 2 00.00-00.42]. The balance between them is wrong again. Bernstein is very good in the “old fatherish” sections, though [CD 8 track 2 02.01-02.34]. I certainly admire the passionate questing nature of the third movement even though a slight lack of base in the sound recording brings a rather brash quality that even this new re-mastering cannot quite take away, though it is better than before with the new sound. Here at the climax of the movement is a good illustration of this [CD 8 track 3 11.08-12.12]. The last movement is certainly an experience to be reckoned with also but surely provides final evidence of what I have often suspected lies behind the ultimate honourable failure of the whole of Bernstein’s first traversal of the Sixth. It is that Bernstein was too greatly influenced in his interpretation of the Sixth by that of his mentor Dimitri Mitropoulos. The recordings of the Sixth left by Mitropoulos seem to be the Mahler Sixth template towards which Bernstein is working at this point in his career - fast, driving, searing, dramatic. By the time he came to record the work again for DG Bernstein had decided on a much more personal interpretation, a little more crucial weight, a little less drive, more periods of repose in episodes and the result is more telling and more persuasive and represents him better in this work. So in the last movement again 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 takes place. The build-up to the first hammer-blow is always a good example to use when illustrating a recording of Mahler’s Sixth. You should hear the horns slicing through the texture and the violins riding the brass. That is certainly the case here, though perhaps there is still some bass lightness. But under Bernstein here the moment does not quite make the soul-destroying impact it can make [CD 8 track 4 10.16-11.50]. But if you think the Sixth should be the place where Mahler is “in your face” for the entire time, then Bernstein in 1967 is certainly for you. Here also is an opportunity to hear the third hammer-blow, left out by Mahler but included by Bernstein without shame [CD 8 track 4 25.19 -26.23]. The re-mastering has improved the brashness of this recording from previous versions greatly. It is still very sharp in the high frequencies but a little more air does not lessen the punch of the sound or the stereo spread, so much better straight after the Fifth. 

Bernstein was always a great exponent of the Seventh Symphony. This recording, genuinely the first of the modern era of sound recording and, like the Third, never out of the catalogue, is a real classic of Mahler recordings. Though he recorded it again with the New York Philharmonic for DG it’s this first recording from 1966 that I prefer. As with the earlier Third there’s a sense of discovery about the playing here that is missing in the remake. Bernstein negotiates Mahler’s tempo changes in the first movement particularly well. Notice the clear-sighted vision during the first return of the march with its reprise of oar-strokes that unlocked Mahler’s creative block [CD 9 track 1 02.19-03.07]. Here, and at the very start, the tenor horn has a real al fresco quality which is surely right also. It’s refreshing to hear Bernstein holding back a little in the second subject, allowing the idea to develop a bit before he allows release, indicative of Bernstein’s care for Mahler’s detailed markings which he doesn’t cover up with his own. The development section is one of Mahler’s greatest imaginative creations, and Bernstein unfolds the huge vistas with unforgettable style [CD 9 track 1 11.27-12.59]. The recapitulation finds Bernstein striking the right contrast with what has gone as if to say we are back to earthly things. He mixes the elements with the most superb sense of structure married to imagination. The open quality of the recording and the close balances help delineate the colours of the opening of the second movement with its horns calling each other [CD 9 track 2 00.00-01.06]. Then I like the porky gait Bernstein adopts to another march. The first Trio has warmth and lightness of touch, the second a close balance to the harp. All in all, this is a great recording to follow with a score, so sharply is each detail recorded, ideal for domestic listening. This very much applies to the third movement scherzo with its shrieks and bumps and I do especially like the way Bernstein suggests dance is never far away in every bar. Though there are some porky blasts from his tuba to unsettle us [CD 9 track 3 07.28-08.18]. Throughout the whole symphony the playing of the NYPO is a model of poise and virtuosity, not least in the fourth movement where Bernstein relaxes and maybe indulges himself just a little more. He certainly maps every section superbly with the guitar and mandolin beautifully balanced [CD 9 track 4 11.34 - 12.18]. In the last movement Bernstein pulls together the threads of the piece with a sure touch, especially in the recall of the main theme from the first movement and takes us into the light as well as any conductor has done and better than most [CD 9 track 5 16.38-end]. The main complaint you used to hear about this recording, especially in the LP era, was that it was balanced far too closely and so was robbed of atmosphere. Now it sounds perfect. In fact if I had been played it blind I do believe I would have concluded it was made this year. The orchestral sound-picture in front of you has spread, detail, substance and weight. Perspectives are ideal. This is now a top recommendation for this symphony.

The Eighth Symphony was recorded at Walthamstow Town Hall in London following "live" performances at the Royal Albert Hall in 1966. The LSO are the orchestra, along with a host of British choirs. Firstly it has to be said that the sound is showing its age even in this re-mastering. There's still a tendency for it to become pinched and crowded when compared with more recent digital versions and there is an air of artificiality about it. The organ especially sounds constricted. I suspect that this will be the best that we will ever hear this recording, however. A really great performance could override all this but Bernstein's is some way short of that. He seems to be trying to recapture the excitement of the "live" experience which I praise him for even though the results vary. What he does in Part I is take the music by the scruff of its neck and shake it vigorously. The opening is marked Allegro impetuoso and Bernstein projects that but his subsequent changes of tempi come over as too extreme making a "stop-go" affair [CD 10 track 1 00.00-0.41]. The first passage for soloists, "Imple superna gratia", is too slow, as is the early short orchestral passage [CD 10 track 1 01.27-2.04]. This gear-shift feeling persists through Part I and spoils any momentum that must be built up as the piece progresses. The central double fugue is far too rushed to hear everything clearly. In fact, "hysterical" is more the word that comes to mind in Bernstein's superficially exciting, but unsatisfying, account. The reprise of the opening "Veni creator spiritus" certainly needs to be broadened, as Bernstein does, but the effect is just bombastic here [CD 10 track 1 15.13-17.04]. Not the grandeur this passage can deliver, and the coda is rushed again, but an experience all the same and, I suppose, that is what Mahler wanted. Part II suits Bernstein far better. There's something of the operatic about the way he interprets Mahler's setting of Goethe. The LSO is on great form in the Prelude, though there are times where I find Bernstein's warmth innocuous for the landscape being depicted. The first choral entry has the right degree of raptness, especially at the end prior to the entry of Pater Ecstaticus and Pater Profundis [CD 10 track 2 09.48-10.30]. There's a fine team of soloists too, though I feel the women sound too much alike. They are balanced realistically for the concert hall, which is not always the case, which I like very much. The choruses have their sticky moments and more rehearsal or retakes might have helped. Doctor Marianus is John Mitchinson and he's the best of the singers. His entry praising the Queen of Heaven is prepared for by some very childlike voices in the choir but I don't believe Bernstein does any more than skate over the surface. The arrival of the Mater Gloriosa, the lovely passage for strings, harp and harmonium, finds Bernstein at his most syrupy [CD 10 track 2 29.57-30.38]. There are some who will love this, I do realise. But no complaints from me about John Mitchinson's central role in this section where he brings every ounce of his experience and is very moving. As he is also later in his other great solo "Blicket auf", parts of which he even manages to darken [CD 10 track 2 43.38-44.28]. Bernstein closes with a "Chorus Mysticus" and coda that sums up his approach overall in the work well. The recording lets him down in that the volume of sound threatens to overload, but Bernstein maintains a fine sharpness of focus [CD 10 track 2 52.30-end]. This recording is a good example of the inspirational approach to the Eighth, so some parts come off, some don't. I think something more consistent will satisfy over the longer period but this is Bernstein at his most Bernstein.

Bernstein recorded the Ninth Symphony in the same week as the Seventh but it would be 1968 before a European release was made when collectors by then had available recordings by Barbirolli, Klemperer and Solti, as well as Walter’s CBS recording from 1961. One of the reasons why the recorded sound on this Bernstein recording is so good must be 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. The sound for the Ninth is now, along with the Seventh, the best in the whole cycle, rich in detail and immediacy and the re-mastering only enhances it further. 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 very differently. In the first movement Bernstein has a much greater sense of the Andante comodo tempo than Walter does by his old age. This allows Bernstein to keep up a sense of movement even through the passages between the great climaxes which themselves emerge clean and clear against a good stereo spread [CD 11 track 1 17.23-19.03]. He also stresses the darker colours, darker than Walter’s, and the more forward-looking aspects of the work. Though he misses somewhat the sense of an elegy that is so important and which Walter had in spades. The middle two movements are superbly played and recorded by the NYPO, a touch brash perhaps, 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 [CD 11 track 3 11.34-end]; still formidable, still challenging, though. The last movement gets an absolutely searing account that gains from being quite simply presented with no imposed emotion. Though, again, perhaps the elegiac quality that other conductors find, Walter notably, is absent, there is still a huge eloquence that is so persuasive and adds distinction to this set [CD 11 track 4 06.03-07.40]. This recording remained out of the catalogue for too long and it is good to have it back now, especially as the re-mastering, in fact quite discreet on a recording that always good, keeps it sounding current.

Bernstein never gave Deryck Cooke’s performing version of the material left behind by Mahler of his Tenth Symphony. 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 he rejected such scores. What he would have done if Alma Mahler had asked him rather than Eugene Ormandy to conduct the first USA performance of the Cooke version we will never know. Surprisingly, when you consider his views, he did perform and record the Adagio first movement of the Tenth in what was his last Mahler for CBS in 1975. He certainly 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. That would have been worth hearing on the evidence of this single movement. The recording here is rich in depth and detail reflecting Bernstein’s apparent complete identification with this music in spite of his feelings and is one of the best single movement recordings available [CD 1 track 5 18.04-19.15]. It is interesting to compare the recording in this Tenth with that on the Fourth since they are separated by fifteen years. It is a testament to their original engineers and to the re-mastering engineers that they sound so similar. 

The set is completed by Bernstein’s 1972 recording of Das Lied Von Der Erde made in Tel Aviv with the Israel Philharmonic. This was never a real contender for main recommendation among the many great recordings of this work. Bernstein himself had already made a superb one in Vienna for Decca. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this one. It is just that for a recording of this work to be outstanding everything has to work, nothing must be under par. For me the orchestra here struggles to convey the amazing colours of Mahler’s scoring, especially those passages of chamber-like concision. The sheer beauties of this score seem beyond them. There is also the question of the soloists. René Kollo is a real fish out of water here as he was for Karajan and hearing his opening salvo [CD 12 track 1 00.00-01.03] made me long for Wunderlich or King to bring some character. Christa Ludwig also sounds ill at ease as she was also with Karajan. Listen to her in this passage from the fourth song where she has great difficulty in even keeping up. More rehearsal might have helped [CD 12 track 4 03.08-04.02]. I regret having to end on a negative note. It is a pity that Sony could not have come to an arrangement with Universal to include the Decca recording of the work under Bernstein as that would have been the best of all possible Mahlerian worlds. However, this version completes the musical story presented in this remarkable box and you may like the recording more than I do.

The set also includes the welcome return to the catalogue of the full 71 minute version of the remarkable radio documentary “Gustav Mahler Remembered” in which men who played under Mahler’s baton and who knew him in his late New York years give us their memories of him. They were recorded in California at one of the old Mahlerthons staged by the Mahler Society there. The late Bill Malloch is an excellent interviewer knowing when to just stay silent and listen. At the end of the feature, Anna Mahler’s recollections of her father are unforgettable too. Her description of his face is haunting.

I remain convinced that the best way to acquire a set of Mahler symphonies is to buy individual versions by a number of conductors. 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 (463 738-2) reviewed elsewhere he reaches an impressive level of consistency even though there are aspects I disagree with. In contrast with Kubelik, Bernstein is much 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.

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 (DG 459080)? You will not be surprised to read that 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.

In spite of reservations, hearing this music played by this orchestra under this conductor at this time is thrilling and, as I said at the outset of this review, the newly restored sound for this issue is the real clincher. Do not miss this even if you already own previous versions. This new re-mastering is truly something special.

Tony Duggan

Mahler: Complete Symphonies, Song Cycles
New York Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein 
Disc 1
Symphony No. 1 in D major ("Titan") [52:48]
Symphony No. 10 in F sharp minor (adagio) [26:22]

Disc 2&3
Mahler Remembered
Symphony No. 2 in C minor ("Resurrection") [84:41]
Collegiate Chorale, Jennie Tourel and Lee Venora

Disc 4&5
Symphony No. 3 in D minor [99:49]
Martha Lipton, Schola Cantorum, Stuart Gardner, John Ware and Boys Choir from the Church of the Transfiguration

Disc 6
Symphony No. 4 in G major [55:00]
Reri Grist

Disc 7
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor [69:20]
James Chambers

Disc 8
Symphony No. 6 in A minor ("Tragic") [77:55]

Disc 9
Symphony No. 7 in E minor ("Song of the Night") [79:47]

Disc 10
Symphony No. 8 in E flat major ("Symphony of a Thousand") [78:53]
Finchley Children's Music Group, Highgate School Choir, Donald Hunt, Gwyneth Jones, Leeds Festival Chorus, London Symphony Chorus, Donald McIntyre, John Mitchinson, Norma Procter, Anna Reynolds, Erna Spoorenberg, Hans Vollenweider, Gwenyth Annear, Sheila Mossman, Vladimir Ruzdjak and Orpington Junior Singers

Disc 11
Symphony No. 9 in D major [79:45] 

Disc 12

see also Tony Duggan's synoptic survey of the Mahler Symphonies



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