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Landmark Mahler- and Bernstein,
This review is from: Gustav Mahler: The Complete Symphonies & Kindertotenlieder (Audio CD)
Leonard Bernstein's New York cycle of Mahler Symphonies was a landmark. It was the first released commercial recording of all Mahler Symphonies (excluding the Tenth) and perhaps, Bernstein's greatest recording achievement from his New York period. These recordings are also important in my appreciation of Mahler. I was given them many years ago on LP. As I replaced them with CDs, I bought the symphonies individually, often from Bernstein's later DG cycle Mahler: The Symphonies as it unfurled.
The LPs suffered from CBS then habit of keeping microphones too close to the orchestra which created a harsh sound. This Sony remastering has cleared this up giving a cleaner, more natural sound which makes the orchestral detail so much clearer, showing just subtle Bernstein was in this area even his approach was dramatic. Each CD is in a reproduction of original LP sleeves, though reading them is difficult without a magnifying glass. There's also a booklet with photographs of Bernstein at the time, plus essay exploring his close, if idiosyncratic, identification with Mahler. My one complaint with this set is that there is no libretto for some of the Symphonies. That said, at bargain price, this set is an attractive package, not least because the performances are outstanding. I rate them as follows:
-No.1 (5 Stars). The New York performance is brilliant and charismatic, though, astonishingly, Bernstein's later DG performance (Mahler: Symphony 1) is even better (the best I've ever heard).
-No.2 (5 Stars). My LPs had a fine, later, performance with the LSO. But the one here with the New York Philharmonic is more spontaneous. Bernstein's best recording of the work.
-No.3 (5 Stars) remains my favourite performance of the work.
-No.4 (4 Stars) I have felt Bernstein's to this symphony needed more lightness of touch. The remastering corrects this. Bernstein also has female singer which works better than the boy soprano in the DG recording.
-No.5 (3 Stars). This performance is OK, but it's completely superseded by the later DG recording Mahler: Symphony No.5 with the Vienna Philharmonic.
-No.6 (5 Stars). Possibly the best recording of this set, and more intense than Bernstein's later one Symphony No.6, Kindertotenlieder again with the Vienna Philharmonic, which I wouldn't want to be without either.
-No.7 (5 Stars). Bernstein holds this schizophrenic work together as well as anyone. The later version was a fine performance, but the generally faster tempi in this version have more dramatic tension and so give the earlier performance the edge.
-No.8 (5 Stars). I know no version of this symphony that is so physically exciting.
-No.9 (5 Stars). The New York performance is less idiosyncratic than the later DG set, though I also have a strong partiality for Bernstein's Berlin Mahler: Symphony No.9 which is available separately.
-No.10 (4/5 Stars). Bernstein only ever conducted the Adagio from No.10. From the performance here, one can only wonder what he might have made of the work as a whole.
-Kindertotenlieder (5 stars). As a "filler" to go with the Adagio from the 10th Symphony there is a wonderful performance of this song cycle with the great mezzo Janet Baker.
Coming back to these performances, I have been pleasantly surprised at how outstanding these recordings are. The enhancement of the sound works in their favour. Though there are great recordings in Bernstein's later DG cycle, the earlier performances are often more exiting, hence I rate more of them higher. Indeed, with two exceptions, I would go as far as to say none of the later recordings supersedes what is here. I would be more than content if this New York cycle remains my sole recording of Mahler's Symphonies.
The obvious drawback of this set, as with those by great Mahler conductors of the same generation (e.g. Haitink, Kubelik, Solti and Tenstedt) is the need to purchase a separate disk for a complete version of No 10. Despite Deryck Cooke's "completion" of the work being more authentically the composer than in many similar projects, these conductors strangely refused to perform it. Simon Rattle's brilliant Berlin performance of Mahler: Symphony No.10 shows there is no longer any excuse for this, and is my recommendation to supplement this omission. None of this, however, should detract from the achievement here: it's an outstanding monument to Bernstein's conducting and well as Mahler's music.