Oh my! A complete set of Mahler symphonies conducted by legendary Leonard Bernstein on disc! The experience of watching these cannot be anything but good. Not that he can compare readily with the self-effacing Abbado, for it is often the case that the performances on these discs are as much about Bernstein as Mahler. But there is much to see and learn nevertheless.
These performances are with the following orchestras, at the following venues, and in the following years: 1. Vienna Philharmonic (VPO), Konzerthaus, 1974; 2. London Symphony, Ely Cathedral, 1973; 3. VPO, Musikverein, 1972; 4. VPO, Musikverein, 1972; 5. VPO, Musikverein, 1972; 6. VPO, Musikverein, 1976; 7. VPO, Musikverein, 1974; 8. VPO, Konzerthaus, 1975; 9. VPO, Philharmonie (Berlin), 1971; and 10. (adagio only) VPO Konzerthaus, 1974. In addition, there is `Das Lied von der Erde', Israel Philharmonic, Tel Aviv, 1972.
Each DVD comes with its own concise notes, written by David Gutman. Through these we learn of the collapse of a crane, a bomb scare, and the squeaking of bats during the performance of the second symphony, and of the earth tremor during the fifth. There is sometimes evidence on-screen of more than one performance for the camera, as audiences and other aspects differ between movements.
The cameras are unobtrusive, virtually invisible. Indeed, the camerawork is often very good indeed, especially where solo instruments take the spotlight. Invariably the cameras are placed on the orchestra's left-hand side or facing the conductor. It was fun to see an elderly woodwind player almost nodding off during the `O Mensch! Gib Acht!' of the third symphony.
These are by no means perfect performances - witness the opening to the third movement of the first symphony, or the dodgy trumpets towards the finale's end of the third - but Bernstein's enthusiasm is infectious and carries us along. His theatrics in the last movement of the ninth are over the top, but then he did see the ninth (mistakenly) as a death-work.
All performances are worth four stars; some five (the second, and the eighth). The editing out of the applause at the end of some symphonies made me give a metaphoric standing ovation at home.
Bernstein's interpretation of the sixth (he includes the third blow in the finale) reminded me how great this work is, and I saw the seventh in a new and more positive light, feeling as if I knew the work better. As regards the eighth, I had goosebumps from the get-go. (At the end of a stupendous first part, Bernstein merely signals `OK'!)
Unfortunately, `Das Lied von der Erde' has a female alto; I prefer the more rarely-performed all male interpretation. I think `Der Abschied' is a male song, yet I must admit to here being, as usual, on the verge of tears with the performance of Christa Ludwig.
The extras include a 1971 film called `Four Ways to Say Farewell: Gustav Mahler's ninth Symphony'. Here we are presented with Bernstein's Romantic (but false) vision of the work. You can take or leave what the conductor has to say - it is, after all, only his personal interpretation - but the viewer is conveyed movement by movement through rehearsals. Strangely, Bernstein makes no mention of the quote in the ninth from `Die Kindertotenlieder'.
Other extras include films of rehearsals of the first movement of the fifth and the fourth movement of the ninth, as well as an extraordinary film of Bernstein giving a seemingly completely off-the-cuff extensive introduction to `Das Lied von der Erde'. And that was Bernstein's strength, the power to communicate directly to his audience, opening the music up to a deeper and wider appreciation of its merits.