on 18 October 2009
The pinnacle of his earlier CBS cycle, Bernstein has always had a special way with Mahler's Third and he has lost none of his control or vision over the years.
He dispatches the first movement with an elemental power and almost reckless virtuosity, with no attempt to 'civilise' the rabble as 'Summer marches in'; he revels in it, in fact. The second and third movements are full of charm and vivid characterisation with alert and colourful playing from the NYPO. The fourth movement Nietzsche song is as lost to the world as it should be, with the legendary Christa Ludwig an unsurpassed soloist, and the morning bells chorus of the fifth is lively and bright with a good balance between the ladies and the rather feisty sounding boys. Bernstein then unfolds a sumptuous and deeply romantic account of the great adagio finale, with wonderfully fervent string playing and rich, glowing brass. The cumulative power of the orchestra in the final bars is magisterial and incredibly satisfying.
In fact, the playing of the NYPO throughout is the great glory of this set. It was the last time they recorded Mahler with Bernstein (he died before recording the Eighth with them to complete his second cycle) and it is a superb tribute to a remarkable musical partnership.
DG have improved on their earlier handling of Avery Fisher Hall's difficult acoustic although it still sounds a little unnaturally rich and resonant.
Nevertheless, this is still as fine a Mahler Third as you could hope to find.
This is one of the broadest and grandest recordings of this symphony in the catalogue. The sound is very fine if occasionally just a little coarse and tubby but it captures the concentration of a live performance and the balance of instruments is excellent. There is virtually no extraneous or audience noise, apart from a little grunting from the Maestro. This was a favourite symphony for Bernstein and he chose it for his farewell concert 25 years after his debut as Music Director of the orchestra here.
It is weighty but never ponderous; the Scherzo is especially released and exuberant and the Brooklyn Boys' Chorus is almost unruly in its attack, which creates a robust effect far preferable to the prissiness which affects some renderings. The playing of the New York Philharmonic is especially commendable and if anything superior to the earlier, 1961 recording, just as Christa Ludwig is preferable to Martha Lipton.
Bernstein's noble restraint in the opening of the finale pays off as he keeps his powder dry for the cataclysmic climax; this builds and builds through 28 minutes. Only Maazel takes as long in what is for me an almost equally recommendable recording with the VPO and certainly other outstanding performances are less overtly affectionate, starting with Tennstedt's searing, but comparatively brisk live account, Sinopoli in Stuttgart, Mehta and Abbado's earliest recording with the VPO. These are all wonderful recordings as this symphony has been fortunate on records but there is no denying Bernstein's ability to generate a special kind of intensity. Alongside the First and the Ninth this is probably the finest and the most typical of his recordings in the second cycle.