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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 sound!'

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!

Leonard Bernstein - Mahler - Symphony No 1. Copyright (c) Sony Music Entertainment Inc

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.

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Copyright © 26 August 2001 David Wilkins, Eastbourne, East Sussex, UK

 

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