Reissue of Bernstein's 1960s Mahler cycle sounds great, includes invaluable reminiscences
I've been bemoaning the lack of time and funds that kept me from spending 12 days in New York to hear the complete symphonies of Mahler performed at Carnegie Hall by the Staatskapelle Berlin. That cycle, which featured Pierre Boulez and Daniel Barenboim alternating at the podium, wrapped up on Sunday. Although the performances drew a mix of so-so and glowing reviews, the opportunity to experience all of that Mahler in less than two weeks had to be terrific.
I did find a consolation prize of sorts, thanks to Sony Classical's well-timed re-release of the storied recordings from the 1960s of the nine Mahler symphonies conducted by Leonard Bernstein, mostly with the New York Philharmonic. It's always good to be reminded of Bernstein's rare flair for getting to the heart of this composer, and this boxed set, arriving only eight years since the last Sony Bernstein/Mahler reissue, comes in freshly updated sound. It's not that Bernstein's interpretations necessarily displace everyone else's, but that he is never less than persausive and involving. He went on to re-record the symphonies, and in some cases, surpassed his own previous standard for insight. But his first Mahler cycle will always hold a place of honor in his discography.
Even though I retain a deep fondness for the way that ...
Making the new package from Sony all the more worthy is the inclusion of a recording that hasn't had as much circulation over the decades as the Bernstein-led performances -- interviews with musicians who played in the New York Philharmonic (then called the Philharmonic Society of New York) for the short period when Mahler himself was conductor, 1909-11. These reminiscences are supplemented by those of musicians who worked with him in Vienna, including illustrious film composer Max Steiner, and some endearing remarks by Mahler's daughter Anna. If you've never heard this archive, you've got to get this set for that reason alone.
It is riveting to hear first-hand from players who, more than 50 years after Mahler's death, talk so precisely about his "disorderly” hair and peculiar walk. When one of the men says there was "something saintly about Mahler -- this you felt," or when another recalls a 1908 performance at Carnegie Hall of Schumann's Spring Symphony where the outburst in the first movement was achieved so masterfully that he "never heard such a sound like that in my life," it communicates in a way that scholarly biographies can't quite match. And it's just too cool to hear a musician talk about Mahler trying to whistle to demontrate how he wanted "the boids" to sound in Beethoven's Pastoral. When you think about guys with Brooklyn accents playing in Mahler's Philharmonic, the conductor/composer's brief American period seems closer, more real somehow.
The stories about Mahler's cruel streak, especially picking on an elderly bassist (“You should be playing in the back room of a saloon,” the conductor told him), are as fascinating as the anecdote about Mahler inviting the entire orchestra to have a post-concert snack with him after they finally gave him the "volcanic" sound he wanted in Beethoven's Fifth. It's also revealing to hear the musicians make comparisons between Mahler and Toscanini that aren't as flattering as you might expect to the Italian. And one of the best moments is when a player sings the portamento that Mahler wanted in his own Fourth Symphony, a portamento that most conductors shy away from today (Mengelberg's 1936, portamento-rich recording is decisvely vindicated by these remarks -- not that I ever doubted it).
Didn't mean to go on an on about all of this. But hearing these personal connections to Mahler on the same CD set that preserves, in state-of-the-art remastering, Bernstein's personal approach to Mahler's music makes the set a double treasure.