'... stunningly committed performances ...'
Some thoughts on Bernstein's recordings of the Mahler symphonies -
by DAVID WILKINS
I don't see this as an opportunity to rehearse details of the oft
told tale of all the similarities between Gustav Mahler and Leonard Bernstein.
In summary, then : the conflict between composing and conducting; the Jewishness
and sundry other bits of prejudice; Vienna and New York as significant centres
of influence and intrigue; overwork and self-neglect as contributions to
an early death. All of that, and more, is easily available from other sources.
What does spring to mind, though, is one of my favourite Bernstein stories.
It's buried deep in Ned Rorem's published diaries and goes something
like this : -- Both musicians, not unfamiliarly well into their cups in a
late-night loft session somewhere. Lenny sprawls on a couch, cigarette and
scotch close to hand, while Rorem plays through some obscure songs by Paul
Bowles. Something stirs the Bernstein synapses. 'Gee, Ned,' he asks without
the merest hint of camp or disingenuousness, 'that's so wonderful!
Remind me : I just can't remember. When did I write that?'
The idea of the great performer as surrogate creator is a bit of a, 'How
can we know the dancer from the dance?' red-herring and an easy critical
cliché. When it comes to Bernstein's Mahler, however, I believe
we simply have to lay scepticism aside and accept that some degree of spooky
identification came into play. For better and worse (I'm no gushing
apologist here -- it was, sometimes, for worse), this conductor -- for the
duration of a performance -- might genuinely have felt that he was as much
writer as realiser of the music before him. A nervous laugh for the absurdity
of the idea, a knowing and sophisticated shrug for the famed egotism but,
I suspect, the likelihood of a spine-chill or two at the sheer persuasiveness
of the results.
Copyright © 25 August 2001
David Wilkins, Eastbourne, East Sussex, UK
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