on 9 October 2009
When considering my favourite symphony of my favourite composer, I always come down to the 2nd, 6th, 8th and 9th and usually settle on whichever one I heard most recently! But the one I have always admired and respected, above all, is the 6th. Its structure, its orchestration, its narrative are evidence of a great symphonist at the peak of his powers. Mahler himself considered it very difficult to conduct and, as far as I'm concerned, only Abbado, Bernstein and Tennstedt have been capable of regularly pulling it off in recent years.
So, here we are with Bernstein's second reading; welded together (seamlessly) from several concerts in the Musikverein in 1988. I've owned this set for almost twenty years and I still consider it the greatest recording ever made of this towering work, and possibly the greatest recording ever made by Bernstein, and the VPO.
First things first. Bernstein places the Scherzo second and Andante third, which has always made the most musical sense to me. Plenty will disagree... your choice. He does not reinstate the third hammer blow but, instead, makes something truly cataclysmic of the "natural" climax to the Finale that occurs several bars before (the original third hammer blow was later in the score than many people realise). Again, the musical logic seems self-evident to me.
Of the performance itself, well yes, the opening march is pretty brisk which possibly doesn't allow quite enough contrast with the soaring "Alma" theme later on, but the confident swagger of the first movement seems to make the total devastation of the Finale even more tragic and absolute; Bernstein knows this work well enough to take the long view. The lop-sided Scherzo seems to mock what has gone before; a dance of wounded, limping giants which makes the gorgeous Andante that follows sound like the blessed relief Mahler surely intended. The Andante is solid VPO territory and, my word, how it takes wing, soaring high above Mahler's Alpine peaks with the distant clatter of cowbells far below... almost unbearably beautiful. It is one of Mahler's greatest movements and, as the music builds into the great climax and release (about 11m30s), something really special happens; it may sound pretentious but the orchestra seems to actually "become" the symphony rather than merely playing it...
..which makes what follows all the more shocking, terrifying and devastating and puts this recording into a different league to any other. The eerie, swirling "anti-matter" at the beginning of the Finale eventually assimilates and develops into music of shattering, lacerating power and the VPO don't hold back; you just can't in this movement. They really do play like their lives depended on it and the famous strings flash and flicker, swoop and soar; the brass howl, roar and snear; the bells sound like a premonition of death; the timpani pounds and thunders; the tam-tam sounds like a star imploding. When the first (tremendous) hammer blow strikes, the music reels and wails with horror; even more so at the second (heavier) blow, which comes from nowhere. Before the final cataclysm, the music seems to drag itself up from the abyss, bloodied, mortally wounded but just about standing. When Bernstein does unleash his coup de grace, it sounds colossal, unearthly even; like a rupture in the universe.
This is a staggering, harrowing, memorable, white-knuckle ride of a performance and DG have captured every bar in a rich, spacious and very natural-sounding recording. It's not for the faint-hearted, but a faint heart is the last thing this shattering masterpiece should have.
Recommended, without hesitation or reservation.
on 29 July 2009
I suspect that for most of us there's a lifetime's search for the ideal interpretation for some works, unqualified acceptance of a particular interpretation for others. For me, Bernstein's Mahler 6 has been exactly right since I first heard his New York version forty years ago, and this VPO recording is even better. I cannot imagine improvements in any respect.
His tempo for the first movement was considered controversial by early reviewers. At that time most conductors treated it as a kind of funeral march even though the marking is Allegro energico, ma non troppo. Bernstein's observation of the repeat always seemed exactly right, as does his order of movements - Scherzo second, Andante third. He stays just this side of sentimentality in the slow movement and there's a fierce grimness about the finale that avoids self-pity.
I may have listened to this work more than any other in my library, following it with score in hand dozens of times. Its ability to leave me absolutely shattered at the end, unable to listen to any other music for days afterwards, has never lessened. The VPO play as if it is the last work they will ever perform and the recording does the performance justice.
In a collection accumulated over fifty years and now numbering in the thousands there are maybe fewer than a dozen records in which, for me, performance, recording and the work itself come together as a very special, virtually ideal experience. This is one of them.
Leonard Bernstein first recorded this symphony with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra during the mid 1960s. Perhaps the most complex of Mahler's symphonies, it was not introduced into the United States until well after World War 2. Bernstein however, brings to the surface every ounce of this amazing work which even now, never fails to move devout Mahlerians like myself. The marching first movement is wonderfully paced from first bar to the last, with spacious sound. The second movement flows throughout, the music leaps and bounds, the harmonies weaving in and out. But the highlight of the disc is the beautiful Andante Moderato. This is superb. Haunting in its complexities, the music grips the emotions like no music has before. The climax is so emotive, you can sense the atmosphere of the Austrian Alps, with its snow capped peaks, the haunting horn calls from the valley below, and much more besides. The final movement which is one of the most extraordinary written by Mahler grips you from start to finish. Lasting over 30 minutes, it never flags. The famous hammer blows bring this work to a satisfying end. Overall, its a superb work, beautifully played from start to finish. Well recorded too, although might be a little too "technicolor" at times. Give it a try.
on 2 June 2006
I completely agree with the latter review. This is Bernstein at his best.
The initial march is suprisingly fast in comparison to other conductors, but it works incredibly well. After hearing the Andante with Bernstein conducting, I've come to think of it as one of Mahler's best slow movements, on a par with the Allegretto of the 5th. The finale is also fantastic. Bernstein is one of the few conductors I've heard to reintroduce the 3rd drum beat, which Mahler removed. The effect is superb; it actually feels like being beaten to the floor in 3 clean blows and then, as the orchestra dies down, you're shot in the back of the head as the orchestra returns for that final, devastating cadence.