This is an old vintage reissued gloriously. It’s far from a new
release, but it could well turn out to be one of the most significant
issues of this Mahler anniversary year. It comprises Bernstein’s
DG Mahler cycle of the symphonies (no song-cycles) in a compact
space at super budget price. All recordings are live and all benefit
Leonard Bernstein is still Gustav Mahler’s most famous and, controversially,
most significant interpreter. It was he who really popularised
the composer’s music in the USA and he invented a whole new performing
tradition for Mahler. People still disagree violently over the
merits of Bernstein’s performances: they are variously exhilarating,
infuriating, frustrating, disappointing, revelatory, cosmic, virtuosic
or perverse. However, and this is the key point, they are never
neutral. Bernstein’s Mahler forces you to take a stand. I don’t
think that anyone will love every performance in this box, but
after listening to this set I am convinced that no serious Mahlerian
will want to be without it.
Bernstein himself was famous for being a dynamo, and something
of a maniac on the podium so it is perhaps unsurprising that he
should find such an affinity with Mahler’s music. It is the conductor’s
restless energy that is immediately apparent in this set’s first
CD: right through the First Symphony’s spellbinding opening you
are on the edge of your seat, wondering what will happen next.
This gives way to a wonderfully exuberant allegro where minor
imprecisions of ensemble and a little extraneous noise don’t matter
in the context of what is going on. There is a real sense of build
towards the joyous eruption of the coda. It is entirely typical
of Bernstein that he wallows in the vulgarity of the second movement,
including ridiculous glissandi and over-the-top winds. He also
revels in the contrasts of the funeral march where the brief consolation
of the Wayfaring song clashes with the vulgarity of the klezmer
music. There is an astonishing explosion at the outset of the
finale and the utmost desolation of the opening leads to utmost
exaltation at the end. The white-hot blaze of the final bars could
have come from the baton of no-one else, and the whole performance
is helped by wonderfully clear sound, capturing the atmosphere
of the Concertgebouw beautifully.
The other most easily recommendable performance is the Fifth.
There is a wonderful sense of scale to the funeral march, helped
by slow speeds and a troublingly insistent snare-drum rhythm.
The second movement begins with, if anything, an even more vicious
attack, though it loses momentum as the music progresses. The
chorale theme, when it comes, is remarkably striking and its climax
sails out over the orchestral texture. After it the rest of the
movement seems to ebb (die?) away and the opening of the scherzo
is less manic than one might have expected. Bernstein’s Adagietto
is controversial for some, but not for me. I found it beautifully
played and recorded, and perfectly paced; no self-indulgence or
languor here. The finale begins a little slowly but picks up and
builds on a rising tide of excitement to the reappearance of the
brass chorale, sounding fantastic and providing a fitting culmination
to one of this symphony’s most successful interpretations on disc.
Elsewhere the story is more mixed, but the energy and vibrancy
of Bernstein’s interpretations won me over (almost) every time.
In the Second he adopts a steady tempo for the first movement,
setting the tone for a magisterial reading that takes its time
but finds consolation in the more tender moments. It builds to
a jaw-dropping climax at the end of the development (around 16
minutes in). The closing bars have a chilling finality to them.
The slow pace of the Andante takes a bit of getting used to, but
it’s not an invalid reading. The scream of the Scherzo is an almighty
climax followed by nothingness. The Urlicht is paced well but
Christa Ludwig is unsteady both here and in the finale where she
is matched with a radiant Barbara Hendricks. The finale begins
in a frenzy, though I thought Bernstein would make more of the
vast drumroll crescendos. The entry of the choir is truly magical
and the climax thumps with conviction. The sonic spectacular of
the final bars loses much of the detail but that’s almost inevitable
in music of this scale.
In the Third the conductor straddles the vast structure of the
first movement with confidence but he has a great ear for detail
and the individual solos are beautifully pointed, leavening the
texture very convincingly. Tongue is kept firmly in cheek for
most of the scherzo and tempi slow down wilfully (or should that
be comically?) for the run-up to the posthorn solo. Bernstein
lingers lovingly in this section, for which all is shimmery radiance.
He takes the fourth movement faster than you might expect, thus
it is less hushed and intense than you might like. Ludwig is more
focused here, however, and the orchestral colour is brightly lit.
The fifth is an abrupt jolt into the light with tremendous brightness
of mood, and the Brooklyn Boys’ Chorus sound like street urchins!
The problem comes at the start of the finale, which begins in
interminable, dragging slowness. However the intensity of the
string playing is incredible and the final pages are searing,
sweeping away any doubts I might have had.
Back in the Concertgebouw, the Fourth has wonderful recorded sound
and you can hear the orchestral detail with remarkable clarity.
Bernstein captures the innocence and quiet darkness of the first
two movements and there is gorgeous warmth in the third, but his
decision to use a boy treble in the finale is just perverse and
shows the conductor at his most wilful. The whole point of this
movement is that it is imagined innocence, and a boy’s voice just
The Sixth begins well with a march rhythm that is savage in its
intensity. There is even an element of agitation in the central
“cow bell” interlude which here brings little peace. The Andante
(coming third) pours oil on the troubled waters of the Scherzo’s
mania and, again at an expansive tempo, convinces as one of Mahler’s
most profound utterances. The opening of the finale carries great
breadth but not as much scale as I had expected, though the sense
of the epic definitely develops as the movement goes on. The hammer
blows (three of them) are devastating, as is the delirium they
unleash, though all told this symphony has a less convincing reading
than one might have hoped for.
The slow tempo for the opening of the Seventh lends bounding energy
to the Allegro when it arrives but there is a beautiful stillness
for the central interlude. The ending is clamorous and fundamentally
optimistic. The first Nachtmusik is full of light and shade with
expertly played solo contributions, and you really get the feeling
that Bernstein is enjoying himself for the first trio section.
The scherzo is dark but not especially threatening and the second
Nachtmusik has well played solos but lacks humour. However, the
ebullient, eclectic finale could well have been written for this
conductor’s personality, and the closing bars seem to embrace
the vulgarity enthusiastically.
The Eighth has long been recognised, with a degree of truth, as
a weak link. The conductor died before the planned new recording
in New York was to take place, so instead DG had to trawl the
archives to find a radio recording from the 1975 Salzburg Festival.
Too many factors militate against this recording, not least the
boxy, often foggy sound which comes dangerously close to distortion
at the climaxes. It is also here where the live-ness of the occasion
does least good and most harm, such as in scrappy ensemble or
sledge-hammer direction. The female soloists are good but the
men often sound distinctly uncomfortable, especially tenor Kenneth
Riegel. For a real glimpse into what Bernstein could have achieved
here, go to the DVD of the similar cast, recorded on DG and excellently
directed by Humphrey Burton.
Many critics have great problems with Bernstein’s 1985 Concertgebouw
recording of the Ninth but I am not one of them. True, Bernstein’s
finest recording of this work is his 1979 live recording with
the Berlin Philharmonic, the only occasion on which he conducted
them. Happily this has recently been reissued on one CD as a DG
Original and it demands to be heard, in spite of its imperfections.
Don’t dismiss the 1985 version, though: it’s far from perfect
but has a lot to recommend it. The vast Andante comodo feels expansive
and well paced, and Bernstein manages the transitions through
consolation and tragedy very effectively, though the final collapse
at the end of the “development” (if you can call it that) is not
as total as it should be. The horn soloist plays beautifully.
The swaggering clumsiness of the Ländler is unsettling while remaining
witty and the Concertgebouw trombones have a great time attacking
their lines. The Rondo Burleske crackles with intensity but has
a radiantly still central section. The finale is controversial
(“protracted and pulseless” according to David Gutman) but I still
found it utterly involving and never did I find it indulgent or
wilful. In fact the final bars moved me immensely.
The Vienna recording of the Tenth’s Adagio is a good bonus for
the hugely expansive arch of the string playing in the main theme.
The famous nine-note chord grates violently, though at the end
of the movement the tone is fundamentally upbeat.
So where does this stand in the overall pantheon of Mahler cycles?
Well, in spite of its virtues I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone
coming to Mahler for the first time. What you hear is Mahler refracted
through Bernstein. True, that is the case every time a conductor
conducts, but with Lennie this process of interpretation means
more than for most. Uniquely distinctive as these interpretations
are, they’re for people who already know and have opinions about
Mahler’s music. Only then can you really get a handle on the unique
slant that Bernstein puts on this music, for better or for worse.
He sometimes exaggerates the markings to the brink of perversity
in order to make his point, but when Bernstein gets it right he
really gets it right and the music takes off in his hands in a
way that no other conductor manages. In fact I would suggest that
the dynamism and innovation of later Mahler interpreters like
Rattle would have been much more difficult without the trail that
Bernstein has blazed. Solti or Chailly, both on Decca, remain
top recommendations for a cycle which is safe but still by turns
exciting, and Rattle’s collection of performances – not a cycle,
he insists – has fantastic things to say, but for some challenge
and excitement in this great music it is this set I will come
Many will wonder how this set compares to Bernstein’s earlier
Sony set. I found the readings to be remarkably consistent.
His interpretations seem to have changed little over the years,
save a few minor exceptions. That Sony set will always be hugely
significant being, as it was, the first complete Mahler set to
be issued, but despite the much-hyped re-mastering of the Sony
set, the DG sound is consistently far better, even in the flawed
Eighth. It also has the advantage that it is available on fewer
discs and at a lower cost than ever before and so for me it gets
an enthusiastic thumbs up. This is a hugely dynamic achievement
that deserves to be appreciated, warts and all.
Detailed contents list
CD 1 [81:10]
Symphony No. 1
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (rec. October 1987)
Symphony No. 2 (1st mvt)
CD 2 [68:45]
Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” (mvts 2-5)
Barbara Hendricks (soprano)
Christa Ludwig (alto)
The Westminster Choir
New York Philharmonic (rec. April 1987)
CD 3 [60:04]
Symphony No. 3 (mvts 1-3)
CD 4 [79:13]
Symphony No. 3 (mvts 4-6)
Christa Ludwig (alto)
Brooklyn Boys’ Chorus
New York Choral Artists
New York Philharmonic (rec. November 1987)
Symphony No. 6 (mvts 1-2)
CD 5 [79:30]
Symphony No. 6 (mvts 3-4)
Vienna Philharmonic (rec. September 1988)
Symphony No. 9 (1st mvt)
CD 6 [59:05]
Symphony No. 9 (mvts 2-4)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (rec. June 1985)
CD 7 [75:03]
Symphony No. 5
Vienna Philharmonic (rec. September 1987)
CD 8 [64:05]
Symphony No. 7 (mvts 1-4)
CD 9 [75:32]
Symphony No. 7 (finale)
New York Philharmonic (rec. December 1985)
Symphony No. 4
Helmut Wittek (boy treble)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (rec. June 1987)
CD 10 [50:26]
Symphony No. 10: Adagio
Vienna Philharmonic (rec. October 1974)
Symphony No. 8 (Part 1)
CD 11 [59:03]
Symphony No. 8 (Part 2)
Margaret Price, Judith Blegen, Gerti Zeumer (soprano)
Trudeliese Schmidt, Agnes Baltsa (alto)
Kenneth Riegel (tenor)
Hermann Prey (baritone)
Jose Van Dam (bass)
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor
Vienna Philharmonic (rec. Salzburg Festival, August 1975)