Although I'm a huge Mahler fan, I've always struggled a little with the Fifth and the Seventh; the unusual, slightly cranky book-ends to the mighty Sixth. They both require an orchestra and conductor of impeccable Mahlerian pedigree to really 'sell' them and, despite his ability to polarise opinion, Bernstein was one of those conductors and the VPO was (and remains) one of those orchestras. When they joined forces, the results were rarely less than memorable and this recording is no exception.
I find the argument over Bernstein's tempos tiresome. Yes, he does push the envelope on occasions, notably in the Second and Ninth of his DG Mahler series, but his knowledge and experience of these scores is legendary. I think of him as a gifted driver with the keys to a fantastic sports car: do you take it round the block a few times at 30mph and get out thinking "that was quite nice" or do you head for the open road, explore its handling and power, kick the tail out a little and get out with your pulse racing and a grin on your face? Mahler's symphonies are big enough and brilliant enough to accommodate many different interpretations but it is usually a Bernstein that I pull down from the shelf first.
This account has been a leading recommendation since its release twenty years ago and I have never found another that surpasses it. Bernstein captures the many difficult changes in mood and tempo and moulds them into a coherent narrative. The VPO put on another virtuosic display, especially in those stormy, surging passages of the first two movements which have a thrilling power and razor-sharp precision. Bernstein does perhaps gild the lily of the Adagietto, ever so slightly. I find it haunting and beautiful and he certainly isn't the longest on record: the Karajan version (often held up by Bernstein critics as an example of how it 'should' be done) is actually longer. Crowning the performance is a truly blazing account of the Finale which is worth the price of this disc on its own.
The recording was made live in Frankfurt with a rich, full and clear orchestral sound, a natural balance and a warm acoustic (better than some from the Musikverein, in fact). Audience noise is negligible.
For beginners or collectors, this recording should be snapped up.