Some thoughts on Bernstein's recordings of the Mahler symphonies -
by DAVID WILKINS
<< Continued from yesterday
In neither set did Bernstein record the Mahler symphonies in chronological
order but, for most listeners, that would appear to be a more accessible
way of considering their merits. I would contend that in the first three
symphonies, Bernstein yields nothing to any competitor in matters of advocacy
or insight. If you choose to begin the listening adventure with the Symphony
No 1 in the 1966 Sony version, you immediately encounter the freshness
and the concentration that are sustained throughout the cycle. You, also,
hit head-on the slightly febrile virtuosity which marked the New York Philharmonic
in the 1960s and the familiarly direct nature of the original CBS recorded
sound. Paul Myers, himself a CBS producer for many years, explains the situation
very well : 'American recordings were not popular in Europe in the
late sixties / early seventies because the sound was somewhat different
and rather bright and there was a lot of what the magazines call spotlighting.
You could say that in the sixties, European recordings always sounded about
ten feet too far back, and American recordings sounded about ten feet too
far forward. Over the next decade or so, the Americans moved back five feet
and the Europeans moved forward five feet and so we got a kind of universal
Despite the remastering, all of these Sony recordings are definitely
what we often tend to call 'in-your-face' and that's apparent
from the bright trumpets and forwardly placed woodwinds that fanfare and
chirrup their way over the wonderfully suspenseful string harmonics that
begin this work. Actually, I have little if any problem with this. The ear
quickly adjusts, there's a degree of additional excitement and, hey,
surely a bit of brashness never did Mahler any harm!
The onward-flowing optimism of the material from the Wayfaring Lad
Songs is deliciously frisky and the 'wonder at nature' episodes
are finely poised [listen -- Sony disc 1 track 2, 0:00-0:59].
On DG in 1987, the Concertgebouw Orchestra -- recognisably more recessed
in the sound picture -- play more beautifully and with less tension. Bernstein's
'take' on youthfulness has become a touch more relaxed but the
substance of the interpretation has hardly changed at all.
Bernstein is, predictably, at his most persuasive in the sinister little
funeral march of the third movement. There is more parody in 1966, more
schmaltz in 1987, astonishing control and attention to detail in both performances.
Only the benefit of more modern sound makes the Concertgebouw's peroration
at the work's end preferable. Both orchestras play their hearts out
for their conductor and you would be pleased to possess either.
Copyright © 26 August 2001
David Wilkins, Eastbourne, East Sussex, UK
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