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Leonard Bernstein - Mahler - Symphony No 4. Copyright (c) Sony Music Entertainment Inc

The Fourth Symphony was chosen as a test piece for the Bernstein Conductor's Competition in Jerusalem in 1995. Listening to the competitors then, it was clear that most could make something soothing of the slow movement but hadn't the skill or imaginative wit to make more than a bland soup of the difficult, ambiguous, very Haydnesque opening. Here, I think that the earlier 1960 (the first of Bernstein's Mahler recordings as it happens) performance is greatly to be preferred. He has much more fun pointing the accents and stressing the sliding strings and the zany rubatos as a forty-two-year-old relishing the command of his American orchestra than he did in Amsterdam when approaching his seventies. Also, as brave and appropriate as it might have seemed in the abstract, his choice of a boy treble for the last movement child's vision of heaven, was a failed experiment. Mahler knew better -- as did Bernstein in 1960 when he engaged the lovely (now underrated, Mozartian) voice of Reri Grist to fulfill the role to much better effect [listen -- Sony disc 6 track 14, 1:04-2:02]. Neither is a benchmark recording (still -- after all these years -- George Szell, surely) but both have their delights and don't fatally mar the appeal of their respective cycles.

Bernstein - Mahler - CD 1 Volume II. Copyright (c) Deutsche Grammophon GmbH

About the Fifth Symphony nothing much needs to be said. The Vienna Philharmonic (DG) version is indispensable -- Bernstein's identification with the composer at its most shatteringly profound and, arguably, the best thing he ever did [listen -- DG volume 2 disc 1 track 4, 4:35-5:33]. The Sony performance is nervy and shallow in comparison and the only disappointment of the set : overly-involved, under-rehearsed, poor air-conditioning or disaffection with a New York Yankees result -- who knows? Certainly a testament to the fact that even the greatest and best-intentioned can have an off day or two!

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Copyright © 27 August 2001 David Wilkins, Eastbourne, East Sussex, UK

 

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