Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer were two contemporary disciples of Mahler who gave us differing, but authoritative accounts of that composer's Second Symphony. Bruno Walter came close, but Leonard Bernstein takes us further in his first recording of this masterpiece. From the opening fortissimo string tremolo, he gradually leads us deeper into the spiritual world of Mahler, and if we are willing, he is convinced that we will be transcended like we have never been before. Purists may quibble about the liberties Bernstein takes with the score, but they are overruled when there are profound musical statements to be made.
Lenny was right! In this recording, following Mahler's capsulated description about his work, Bernstein was able to convince his musicians that they too, had to be "battered to the ground with clubs and then lifted high to the heavens on angels' wings." I was fortunate to be introduced to Mahler's spiritual world with this recording, and must admit that I had the same experience. Considering the large number of recordings that followed, none since this Bernstein document (even his later Columbia Masterworks and DG recordings) depict Mahler's musical catharsis as does this one. Unfortunately, the 1963 stereo sound now shows its age. I'm thankful that it was recorded in stereo, but sorry that digital technology did not then exist to fully convey the quite-evident shattering power that Bernstein brings forth. Indication where digital recording would have helped is the buildup in the overpowering crescendo drum roll of the huge percussion section in the final movement, seemingly much more powerful than any recording of this since made. However, it sounded great when I first heard it in the late '60's, and the new 24-bit CD transfer helps the dated sound out.
In addition to Bernstein's "man-on-a-mission" approach, the much underrated, and sorrowfully, now largely forgotten mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel, conveys every bit of her conviction as a Mahlerian on this spiritual journey. Her "Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott, der liebe Gott, der liebe Gott" in the fourth movement Wunderhorn song preceding the giant finale is the best I've ever heard, even surpassing the interpretations by the great female Mahler singers, Maureen Forrester, and Janet Baker. The Collegiate Chorale also sings their part unlike any other chorus on all other recordings of the Second that I've heard. Rather than raising the roof "shouting" the piece as loud as possible as all other choruses do in their recordings of the Second, the Collegiate actually SINGS the piece. They do it most lyrically and hymn-like, yet maintain the necessary dynamic level to not be drowned out by the huge orchestra. And at the a capella choral entrance, they properly intone the music more quietly and reverently than on any other recording I've heard.
Three cheers to Lenny and his performers for producing what will certainly go down in the annals of recorded Mahler history as one of the top Mahler documents ever made. It is this recording that I automatically think of whenever I hear the name, "Leonard Bernstein."
Other reviewers have neglected to comment on the Adagietto from the Mahler 5th played at Robert F. Kennedy's funeral in New York City's St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1968, and the first movement of the Mahler 8th for the opening of Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center in September, 1962. It was at the latter where President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy were on-hand for the festivities. All I can say is that with this performance of the 5th's Adagietto, the grief-stricken Bernstein gave a significant contribution to a very somber occasion, and his performance of the first movement of the 8th was a significant contribution to a joyous occasion. These two shorter documents can be regarded as two important happenings in what were some of the most important artistic and personal episodes in Bernstein's life. The juxtaposition of the recordings in this set is interesting also. First, is the near high of Bernstein's personal and artistic life and his involvement with the Kennedy family in the early '60's, starting with the Mahler 8th first movement. Second, is attainment of the "high" with the complete Mahler 2nd recording exactly a year later (Sept., 1963), and the start downward with the shock of John Kennedy's assassination two months later. Third, is arrival at the "low" with the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. "The Bernstein Century" is an apt title for this particular set, and the entire series.
*****2010 update: This legendary recording of Mahler's Second Symphony has been released on SACD audiophile CD format in Japan, and though costly, it now has improved sound. I have since obtained the SACD, and can truthfully say that the remastering it was given has helped this glorious performance. Get the SACD if your funds permit. I have reviewed the SACD at its proper site within Amazon.com