Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No 9
Leonard Bernstein, cond; Israel PO
HELICON 02-9656 (2 CDs: 88:32) Live: Tokyo 8/1985
Leonard Bernstein conducted Mahler’s Ninth Symphony many times over the years, and four commercial recordings have been issued to date: with the New York Philharmonic in 1965 (released in 1967, CBS/Sony); with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1971 (DG laserdisc, 1992; now available on DVD); with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1979 (issued posthumously by DG in 1992); and with the (Royal) Concertgebouw in 1985
(issued in 1987 by DG). This new live transcription doesn’t fill any particular gap in that discography as much as it supplements the existing recordings—the 1985 Concertgebouw most obviously. There are really only two issues to consider: Is there an appreciable difference between this new Helicon recording and the performance recorded at the Concertgebouw two months earlier? Is the sound production comparable, or better, or worse?
I’ve always found the sound of the 1985 DG recording to be problematic: As vivid and full-bodied as it is, the
passages, especially in the first movement, tend to acquire a blaring coarseness that is unpleasant, and since Bernstein’s interpretation makes the most of these climaxes, the annoyance factor is high. This Helicon recording is a major improvement in that department.
The interpretation is another matter. As with many of Bernstein’s interpretations, his tempos in the outer movements of Mahler’s Ninth became more expansive; the difference in overall timing between the CBS/Sony recording and this latest installment is nine minutes. The CBS/Sony, especially in its newest remastering, is a classic of unassailable merit. In comparison, the 1985 performances suffer from a sluggish first movement. Missing are the tension and pulse that give the earlier version its emotional impact; in the later versions, there is little nuance or subtlety—gestures are overt and underlined. That said, this “new” account is somewhat less expansive than the Concertgebouw, and the Israeli orchestra follows Bernstein flawlessly; there is also more of a sense of struggle here than in the DG version.
Bernstein reportedly felt that one could never play the final Adagio slowly enough; if that is true, it wasn’t for want of trying: The versions from 1985 are
minutes longer than that of 20 years earlier, and once again much of the tension and drama of the earlier version is dissipated, this time by the overly reverential phrasing of the later ones. The Israel Philharmonic performance, however, packs a more impressive emotional punch. It may simply be a matter of empathy; by 1985, Bernstein had a far more personal relationship with the Israel Philharmonic than with the Concertgebouw.
The two inner movements had changed little over the decades; the Ländler in this new recording is more satisfyingly gauche and pompous than its cousin on DG.
I should note one confusing element in the production information: Though a note at the bottom of the program states that the recording was made at Mann Auditorium in Tel-Aviv, a newspaper clipping included in the booklet states that the venue was the NHK Hall in Tokyo, and that the concert was part of the Israel Philharmonic’s tour of Japan. Presumably it is from this latter venue that the concert originated.
While the version of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony captured in this recording isn’t my ideal version, it is, after all, Leonard Bernstein’s Mahler, and that’s not something that I dismiss lightly. I heartily recommend this new Helicon set over both the Concertgebouw and Berlin Philharmonic versions on DG, but I reserve the top spot for the CBS/Sony.
FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 9 in D major by Gustav Mahler
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Written: 1908-1909; Austria
Date of Recording: 08/25/1985
Venue: Live Mann Auditorium, Tel-Aviv, Israel
Length: 88 Minutes 30 Secs.
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