Notes and Editorial Reviews
"No one in my experience put his life on the line in concert or on record like Leonard Bernstein. No one communicated Mahler’s inner conflict and spiritual striving more vividly than Leonard Bernstein...[This] third cycle reflects Bernstein’s penchant for slower tempos in his later years and the insights of a lifetime with these works." -- Sedgwick Clark
Gramophone reviews of some of the original recordings which make up this set.
Symphony no 1
This is the performance I have been waiting for. Twenty years separate it from Bemstein's earlier account with the NYPO (CBS, now mid-price)— and if you feel as I do, you'll view it as a 20-year rehearsal period to bring the reading to full maturity. Bernstein's basic view of the piece has undergone very little change in the interim. Fundamentals such as tempos remain more or less consistent (I still don't see eye to eye with him over the opening of the third movement—more on that anon), though certain phrases have naturally filled out and the expression is appreciably freer and easier now. In a sense, the piece sounds newer, and that's quite an achievement after 20 years. How acutely Bernstein still hears Mahler's early-morning silence. The rising sixth for two oboes in bar 15 is like a deep intake of breath from this rapt observer; the richly harmonized horns some bars later are truly espressivo, their dreamy reverie broken only by the sudden if pizzicatos (like a startled animal) which Bernstein points up so vividly a bar later. I love, too, the way in which the chiming harp really tells as we move into the uneasy middle section (pity about the thump in the orchestra at this point): the chilling entry of tuba and bass drum at fig. 13 casts an appropriately long and ominous shadow across the proceedings. All this is most beautifully and subtly chronicled by the Concertgebouw players. How warmly and generously their strings phrase the wayfarer's music: it takes a great Mahler orchestra and a great Mahler conductor to imply so much suppleness and freedom within the bar without actually labouring the rubato. Their exhilaration in the coda (the euphoric explosion of brass fanfares is hair-raising) is second to none, and again it is the way in which the phrasing spontaneously sings that proves so uplifting.
Happily Bernstein hasn't re-thought his heavy, ungainly tempo for the scherzo. The trenchant accenting is what makes for the rhythmic vigour here: just listen to the second violins, violas and cellos at fig. 7 (1'59") with basses stomping heavily on the downbeat. Needless to say, Bernstein gilds the proverbial lily somewhat in the trio: 'Viennese' isn't the word, and he obviously believes (and why not?) that Mahler simply felt it unnecessary to mark in all the portamento—the opening violin phrases being one case in point. As I hinted earlier, I briefly part company with Bernstein over his quickish pacing of the Huntsman's funeral procession. Parody it may be, but Mahler does specify "grave" and "ceremonious" and these are not words that would readily spring to mind were I making my first acquaintance with the piece. Admittedly Bernstein is able to convey a convincing air of naivety at this tempo and his doublebass soloist has no chance of producing too beautiful a sound, as some players and conductors are wont to do. The seedy, cadaverous complexion of the solo is caught to perfection. As indeed are the tawdry colours of the gipsy-cumcafé music in all its corny schmalz. I particularly like the brassy, slightly flattened trumpet sound.
But I reserve my greatest enthusiasm for the finale; I've never heard an account like it. Masterly control and abandon (such as could only happen in a live performance) go hand in hand: the ferocious onslaught of the opening pages, the touch of rhetoric in the brass declamations of bars 6 and 19, the intense energy in the strings at fig. 11 (2'40"). And then, in repose, the lovingly attended second subject where Bernstein's light and shade in phrasing and dynamics is uniquely affecting. In the spare, expectant bars that follow, the tonal pallor he conveys is extraordinary, the sudden crescendo (in tremolando strings) from p to fff (so often something of a damp squib) absolutely electrifying. And so on to the tumultuous conclusion. I'm going to turn a deaf ear to the added timpani and bass drum on the final crotchet. This is a great performance of Mahler's first brave symphonic essay, impressively caught on the wing by DG's production team. I'd say it was an almost impossible act to follow." (3/1989)
Symphony no 4
"Had Benjamin Britten, a great admirer of this work, ever recorded it, he might have thought of using a boy soloist; but he didn't and so, in the absence of any pre-emptive strike by the Aled Jones Road Show, it has been left to Bernstein to make the break by signing up a remarkably assured chorister from the famous Tölzer Boys' Choir, Helmut Wittek. He is a fearless vocalist with a generally clean top register and a bottom B that puts most of his soprano rivals out of court. [Often showing a healthy boyish disregard for pernickety shadings of tone and rhythm, he concentrates on giving a fresh, extrovert, musically confident account of the Wunderhorn verses, helped by good diction and some nice wordpointing. "Who have you cast for the soprano solo?" asked Mahler in 1904. "She must be capable of singing with a naïve, childlike expression, and with particularly good diction!" Wittek has both; and the engineers, possibly fearing some lack of presence in his boyish tones, have recorded him fairly prominently where sopranos often have to put up with balances that give them little more than solo instrumental status. As a result, the text is communicated with unusual clarity on this new recording. Throughout the finale, Bernstein's tempos are uniformly sensible, nearer to Mahier's own, if transcripts of the 1905 Welte Piano Roll are to be trusted, than the rather slower, creamily beautiful Maazel version with Kathleen Battle on CBS.
In the earlier movements Bernstein's reading has mellowed and settled since the late 1960s when he recorded his aggressive, erratic, over-the-top CBS account. Of course, no orchestra plays Mahler's Fourth better than the Concertgebouw. For simple cogency and grainy clarity of utterance they have no equal; and yet, unlike the Vienna Philharmonic, they don't impose their reading on the conductor. This is recognizably Bernstein's own newly-refined but intensely vivid reading; and it is very different from Haitink's, or, going back in time, Solti's, van Beinum's (both Decca), or Mengelberg's (Philips). The only similarity with the CBS record is the relative closeness of the microphone placing, designed to give the woodwinds maximum impact. Bernstein is at what some will take to be his most mannered in parts of the scherzo, but here and everywhere else in the symphony his conducting tellingly arbitrates between energy and leisure; and there is an agreeable congruence between Mahler's written tempo directions and Bernstein's own inevitably personal feelings about the music's pulses. In fine, this is Mahler shrewdly and sympathetically conducted by a fellow composer. "Don't overlook the thematic relationships that are so extremely important both in themselves and in relation to the idea of the whole work", wrote Mahler, three months before his death, to Georg Gbhler. Bernstein, whose reading is fresh but deep-felt, long pondered but marvellously delivered at the moment of performance, would have needed no such prompting. The performance of the slow movement is a special joy, not least because it is touching and profound without being unduly slow. Let me commend to you this original, unginimicky, musically searching performance as a worthy addendum to any Mahler collection." (8/1988)
Symphony no 5
"Best of all is Bernstein himself, here at his exciting best, giving daemonic edge to the music where it is appropriate and building the symphony inexorably to its final triumph. Thanks to a very clear and well-balanced recording, every subtlety of scoring, especially some of the lower strings' counterpoint, comes through as the conductor intended. As in the case of Sinopoli's underrated recording of this symphony (also DG), one is made aware of the daring novelty of much of the orchestration, of how advanced it must have sounded in the early years of this century. But whereas with Sinopoli this emphasis was achieved at the expense of some expressive warmth, that is far from the case with Bernstein. We get the structure, the sound and the emotion.
The Adagietto is not dragged out, and the scrupulous attention to Mahler's dynamics allows the silken sound of the Vienna strings to be heard to captivating advantage, with the harp well recorded too. It seems to me that Bernstein is strongest in Mahler when the work itself is one of the more optimistic symphonies with less temptation for him to add a few degrees more of angst." (8/1988)