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Bernstein had a special relationship with the Ninth Symphony. He was the first to suggest that the rhythms of the very opening echoed the dysfunction of the composer's heartbeat. He spoke about the piece at length in his Harvard lectures. There are many reports that a performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra during his last months was revelatory. You can read reports from hardened Israel Philharmonic Orchestra players about the emotional impact of performing the work under his direction. It was the only work that he ever got to conduct with Karajan's Berlin Philharmonic (still available on DG). He, persuasively, argued that the end of the finale was as close a representation of the act of dying as could be imagined in music. Rarely, if at all, can a work and an interpreter have been so obviously meant for each other.

Bernstein - Mahler - CD 5 Volume III. Copyright (c) Deutsche Grammophon GmbH

The Sony performance is exciting and trenchant enough for its first three movements. But, as he told Helena Matheopoulos, he was never content with the restrictions imposed on him when he came to record the finale: 'Take the last page.... nobody plays this page slowly enough. Except me. But sadly, not on my record, because my recording producer and everybody else in the control room persuaded me that I couldn't do it as slow as that on disc which makes everything sound even slower anyway.... Stupidly, I fell for it, and as a result I heartily dislike my record!' Well -- he patently found a more sympathetic and adventurous producer for the Concertgebouw recording on the DG set and stuck with courage to his convictions. The finale, alone, is some seven minutes longer -- a triumph of near-impossible orchestral concentration and, as must always be the case in such examples of individuality, either bizarrely self-indulgent or profoundly convincing [listen -- DG volume 3 disc 5 track 2, 18:13-19:12]. For myself, I can only say that -- venerating this work almost above all others -- I can't avoid feeling a real disaffection at otherwise great performances that seem cravenly disregarding of Mahler's clear markings for that phenomenal last page. If you have once fallen under the spell of Bernstein's conviction here, it's very hard indeed to shake it off.

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Copyright © 28 August 2001 David Wilkins, Eastbourne, East Sussex, UK

 

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