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May 18, 2009

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 ...

some other conductors have delved into these symphonies -- Mengelberg with No. 4, and Barbirolli with No. 6, to name a couple of my all-time favorite discs -- the Bernstein '60s recordings could easily pass the desert-island test if you could only bring one complete set along.

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.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:54 PM | | Comments (1)


You know, I often wonder how Mahler would possibly enjoy himself in this age of sampling and synthesis. As an orchestrator, he was "one in a billion," with an amazing ear for nuance and detail. He composed both the notes _and_ their roles in the unfolding drama. (His copious performance directions in his scores firmly nudge us toward what he actually heard in his mind.) In truth, he really knew how to concoct "special effects" from conventional instruments, with splendid results. Literally one to throw everything into his work, including cowbells and the "boids" (ahhh, think of the swirling flute lines in the finale to the 2nd symphony!!!), he managed to accomplish this without the slightest hint of gimmickry or facade. He was a true wizard of the sonic palette.

(The orchestral parts to the finale of the 4th symphony are testimony enough for his pure wizardry!)

One also needs to hold him close, because he didn't live back in the seemingly-ancient age of the Bachs or Mozart; really, he was right around the corner from us. Sure, we lack recordings of him conducting, but that was an unfortunate coincidence -- he died just a "moment" too soon. And his influence, a core part of his legacy, is tremendous through our own times; musicians from all walks of life know, admire, and love his symphonies and songs.

As usual, I couldn't agree with you more. Thanks for the comments.TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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