Pros & Cons of Sony's Latest Bernstein Mahler Box

Bernstein_MahlerLeonard Bernstein, et al.
Mahler: The Complete Symphonies (Sony Classical)

Bernstein, like his early mentor Dmitri Mitropoulos, was a strong advocate for Mahler before audiences had accepted the Austrian's epic works, and it was Bernstein's persuasive, emotional 1960s interpretations that finally "sold" the American public on Mahler. Bernstein began recording this cycle in 1960, Mahler's centenary year. When Symphonies Nos. 1-9 were issued together in 1967 in a 15-LP box, it was the first set of the completed symphonies by one conductor; it remains a most attractive traversal with some still-unsurpassed peaks.

Eight years ago, Sony used remasterings done for the Bernstein Century series for a 12-CD set. This new set is largely similar, though with some crucial differences. One is that this time around Sony has gone back to the original multi-track analog tapes. The occasionally muddy sound of these recordings was long problematic, though the Bernstein Century versions had improved things; here they are still not state of the art, but sonic definition is better. This pays particular benefits in dense textures and vocal movements; the finale of No. 2 is now even more luminous, and Nos. 7 and 8 are vastly improved.

Bernstein recorded two complete Mahler cycles, actually. This, his first effort, in general is fresher, more spontaneous, and more energetic, while the later cycle for Deutsche Grammophon is more lushly played, a bit less detailed at times, and often slower.

The 1966 recording of the Symphony No. 1 "Titan" is somewhat controversial, as some observers feel that the emotional extremes of Bernstein's reading are not suited to this early work (his later version is less feverish). However, many collectors nonetheless appreciate the vividly varied moods of the slow movement and the undeniably thrilling finale.

Bernstein recorded the Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection" twice for Columbia; the 1973 one using London forces is inferior to the powerful 1963 New York "Resurrection" included here, which also trumps the sluggish DG recording. The '63 take is infinitely more emotionally shattering -- manipulative, perhaps, but gloriously so. The layout has been improved this time out by putting the break in this multi-disc work between the first and second movements, as Mahler requested.

The six-movement Third (Mahler's longest), with children's choir and mezzo-soprano soloist (here Martha Lipton in an effective outing that nonetheless can't match Christa Ludwig in Bernstein's DG version, though otherwise the Sony is preferable), also receives an earth-shaking reading. The 1961 New York Philharmonic's virtuosity is impressive, especially the brass -- so crucial here. Nearly hitting the 100-minute mark, Bernstein consistently opts for slow tempos. In the prayerful finale he's a bit over 25 minutes where, for instance, Klaus Tennstedt brings it in well under 21 minutes, but Bernstein wrings more drama and heartfelt emotion from its multi-faceted moods than any other conductor has. This performance belongs in all Mahler collections

The Fourth was Bernstein's first Mahler recording. Neither of his CD Fourths is entirely successful (there's a concert DVD tha's best). This one is rather bland in the first movement, but is otherwise commendable, with Reri Grist (the soprano soloist in the finale) appropriately light-voiced, though perhaps more unpolished than most listeners would like -- but Mahler didn't want polish applied to this deliberately naive text. The DG remake, with a much better opening movement, turns off many collectors with Bernstein's eccentric use of a boy soprano in the finale. Despite its problems, the first version will be preferred by most listeners, but there are many better readings. The Fifth, too, is not one of Bernstein's better Mahler efforts, seeming a bit self-conscious and finding the brass a touch raucous. The famous Adagietto is quite slow at exactly 11 minutes.

The Symphony No. 6 "Tragic" (which Mahler called "the sum of all the sufferings I have endured at the hand of life") is tailor-made for Bernstein's high-strung approach. Yeah, he sprints through the first movement, which bothers some commentators; taking the exposition repeat Mahler wrote in, Bernstein comes in just 15 seconds longer in the movement than Barbirolli did while skipping the repeat. But the tempo indication -- Allegro energico, ma non troppo (energetically rapid, but not too fast) is open to interpretation and nearly self-contradictory. Here and throughout this 1967 reading, Bernstein balances the work's contrasting moods well -- or rather, he engages them with an apt sense of manic-depressive mood swings. The conclusion is dramatically crushing. Another must-have.

Bernstein's colorfully dramatic approach is also ideal for the fantastical Seventh. This pungent 1965 reading is perfectly shaped, all his tempo choices quite apt. The bizarre humor of the two Nachtmusik movements and the central Scherzo are brought out fully. This classic performance has arguably never been surpassed, and the flat sound-field of earlier incarnations has been ameliorated.

The unwieldy Symphony No. 8 "Symphony of a Thousand" is in two movements, the first setting Mahler's adaptation of a ninth-century Christian hymn for the season of Pentecost, the second setting the final scene of Goethe's Faust. The complete 1966 reading here has soloists Erna Spoorenberg, Gwyneth Jones, Gwenyth Annear, Anna Reynolds, Norma Proctor, John Mitchinson, Vladimir Ruzdjak, and Donald McIntyre; the Leeds Festival Chorus, the London Symphony Chorus, the Orpington Junior Singers, the Highgate School Boys Choir, and the Finchley Children's Music Group; organist Hans Vollenweider; and the London Symphony Orchestra. It's hard to effectively convey music that seems to consist of a nearly continuous series of climaxes, but Bernstein does it as well as anyone. He zips through the first movement in a few seconds over 24 minutes, and clears the second in just over 55, but takes his time where appropriate and thus avoids sounding rushed. In a notoriously problematic work for recording engineers, the sound is not as clear and well balanced as it could be, but it's much better than it used to be.

The Ninth is a work Bernstein recorded not two but three times (and a fourth -- with the Vienna Philharmonic -- exists on DVD). The three commercially released versions differ greatly. The first, in New York, is nerve-wracking, drenched in angst; the Amsterdam Concertgebouw version seems oddly erotic; the Berlin Philharmonic reading finds a hard-fought peacefulness. It's the NY one that's here, of course, and it's one for the ages, another must-own.

The first movement of the Tenth (Bernstein never came to terms with the various realizations of Mahler's unfinished score for the other movements) receives an appropriately hyper-emotional reading of great richness.

Absent from the 2001 box, Bernstein's Israel Philharmonic rendition of Das Lied von der Erde is wisely included here. Bernstein had recorded it in 1966 with tenor James King, baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and the Vienna Philharmonic (Decca); in this set we hear a 1972 recording with tenor Rene Kollo, mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Forgive me, but I can't choose between them. I do prefer the male/female soloist lineup, which was the composer's preference as well, and while Fischer-Dieskau is justly revered and delivers a finely detailed performance, on a sensual level I'd rather listen to Ludwig's orotund tones any day, and she's no interpretive slouch either. Between Kollo and King, I lean slightly towards Kollo's voice but King's deeper reading of the text. The Israel Phil is totally outclassed by the Vienna Phil, which is no surprise and no insult either.

Alas, several items in the 2001 box are absent here. I realize that the title of this set specifies symphonies, but so did its predecessor, which also included two versions of Kindertotenlieder (one with Jennie Tourel and the NYPO, the other with Janet Baker and the Israel Philharmonic), Tourel in a selection of three Ruckert-Lieder ("Ich atmet einen linden Duft," "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen," and "Um Mitternacht") plus "Das irdische Leben" from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a 1962 recording of the Eighth's first movement alone (offering listeners the opportunity to at least hear one part of this work played by the New York Phil), and the Fifth's Adagietto as performed (rather inaptly, IMHO) at Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 funeral mass. At least some of these items -- say, all of Tourel's lieder -- could have been included without requiring an additional disc.

Somewhat making up for those omissions, this set restores the '67 box's Williams Malloch-narrated nearly 48-minute "audio documentary" Gustav Mahler Remembered, consisting of Part I, "Reminiscences by Mahler's Associates and by Musicians who played under His Baton" -- back in the '60s, there were still six retired New York Philharmonic musicians who had played under Mahler (1860-1911)! -- and Part II, "Includes Personal Recollections of Anna Mahler" (his daughter). It's absolutely riveting hearing the musicians talk about Mahler's conducting style, personality, idiosyncrasies, etc., though of course it's unlikely that most people will play it as often as any of the symphonies.

It's nice to have new essays by Erik Ryding and Tim Page, Bernstein's famous High Fidelity essay "Mahler: His Time Has Come," and texts and translations (not to be taken for granted nowadays). However, in another nit-pick, whereas the previous box included multiply-tracked movements keyed to tempo indications; for some reason, this has now been dropped, though for most people that will be of little or no consequence

Basically, what it comes down to is that for around $55-60 (around $5 per CD) one can get THE pioneering, popularizing Mahler cycle. No set with 1-9, 10: Adagio, and Das Lied von der Erde surpasses this one in excitement, and only the harder-to-find Gary Bertini set, with excellent digital sound, is arguably better. - Steve Holtje

Leonard Bernstein & Wiener Philharmoniker

Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who splits his time between editing Culturecatch.com, working at the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix, and editing cognitive neuroscience books for Oxford University Press. No prizes for guessing which pays best.

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