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on 3 June 2015
Bernstein and Mahler were kindred spirits bound by ethnicity/religion and music, naturally. Both shared a peculiar sensitivity - call it a heightened sense of otherness. This, in my opinion, allowed a symbiotic relationship which few conductors/composers develop... an understanding through sheer primal instinct and the collective unconscious. Bernstein understood Mahler, not just the notes on the music paper. Bernstein delved beneath the psychology and he revealed that Mahler was driven by a desire for the spiritual - the spiritualization of inanimate matter. Evolution and transcendence were the things Mahler desired; he constantly strove to distance himself from his humble origins and his symphonies constantly echo the experiences of his youth - the tavern and his father's brutish nature. But Mahler would walk in the mountains, swim in the lakes and breathe in all of Nature, cleansing himself, a purification ritual - catharsis!

Bernstein reveals the essence of Mahler in performances which shall forever remain the truest expression of Mahler's art.
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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.
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VINE VOICEon 11 October 2006
Not my words, actually - rather those of Edward Seckerson on BBC Radio 3's "Building a Library" classical CD programme, after choosing Lenny's Mahler 1 with the Concertgebouw as his top recommendation.

To hear Bernstein conduct Mahler is tremendous; to see him is positively wonderful. No-one could accuse him of not giving his all to realising the composer's intentions and these testaments to the art of real conducting show the blood, sweat (plenty of that in evidence) and tears that Lenny willingly gave to bring Mahler's compositions to life.

Bernstein cajoles the VPO (who, let us not forget, at this time in the late 60s/early 70s still regarded Mahler as a third rate composer), caresses them, summons up the creepy and often downright sinister Mahlerian aural landscapes and in climaxes sets a torch to the orchestral sound with such commitment and involvement the viewer really cannot sit dispassionately by, but is forced to join conductor, singers and and orchestra on their voyage of discovery.

DG have worked wonders on the image and the DTS sound is excellent (especially given the age of some of the films).

The bonus disc covers Lenny in rehearsal and is a fascinating document covering Das Lied von der Erde and the gut-wrenching 9th symphony and he talks absorbingly (swathed in cigarette smoke - marvellously un-PC!) about what Mahler meant to him and how he approaches the music.

If you love Mahler and don't buy this wonderful set while it's still available, you need cranial surgery.

Recommended wholeheartedly and without a moment's hesitation. Marvellous!
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on 14 November 2006
Until this set of DVDs was released last year, those wanting to hear Bernstein's Mahler had the choice of the 1960s studio performances on Sony Classical or the 1990s live performances on Deutsche Grammophon. These Vienna performances, recorded between 1971 and 1976 are more consistent than the Sony and DG recordings and in some ways combine the best features of both sets. In particular, the DVD collection contains two of the best ever performances of the 8th and 9th Symphonies.

The 8th Symphony gets off to an electrifying start and continues in this vein all the way through to the conclusion of the work. In between, Bernstein is sensitive to every mood of the symphony. This is undoubtedly a great performance. The DG set on CD includes a performance from Salzburg given around the same time, but this Vienna version is more polished - probably because it is edited from more than one concert. It is interesting to watch how Bernstein marshals the large forces. I was also amused to see Bernstein's autograph on the front of the organist's score, seen right at the start of the first movement.

The 9th Symphony, recorded in Berlin in 1971, is very compelling, with an almost unbearably intense performance of the final Adagio. The camera focuses rather closely on Bernstein's expressions here and I must admit I was tempted to shut my eyes and just concentrate on the music. However, it is interesting to see the string players as they watch Bernstein carefully during the very slow coda.

The 6th receives a very fine performance, especially in the finale. This was the last symphony to be recorded, in 1976. Incidentally, Lenny is sporting a beard here, making him look bizarrely like Sean Connery.

The 7th Symphony is one work that Bernstein performs consistently well in all three sets. If I marginally prefer the version from the DG set, it's because it's the version I grew up with. However, it's good to hear the Vienna Philharmonic playing this music and it is a benefit of DVD that one can see the large variety of expressions Bernstein uses to encourage the players' performance in the mercurial finale.

The 4th Symphony receives an excellent performance, and the 1st Symphony is not far behind. In fact, I prefer this recording of the 1st Symphony to the DG one (which I think is overrated).

For me, the least interesting performance is probably "Das Lied von der Erde". Although the contralto is the excellent Christa Ludwig, Bernstein seems to be working very hard to encourage the Israel Philharmonic and not getting much in return. I felt similarly about the 5th Symphony, a work I do not respond to very often.

The 2nd symphony, filmed in Ely Cathedral with the LSO, is visually arresting but for me the music lacks sufficient intensity. Bernstein's 1963 performance with the NYPO is much better, I feel.

Finally, I was expecting much from the 3rd Symphony, given the excellent of the 1961 recording. Much of the Vienna performance is very good, including a suitably craggy first movement. But the posthorn solo in the 3rd movement lacks atmosphere and the final movement is rather plain, with some poor playing from the brass players near the end.

I don't wish too much of these issues, as all Bernstein Mahler performances are of interest. However, I do have an issue with the sound recording. I've not seen anyone else comment on this issue, but it sounds as if the volume levels were trimmed in the 1970s to keep the dynamic range suitable for a TV broadcast. The result is that solo instruments and voices are often artificially loud while orchestral tuttis are often rather dimished. An example is the 4th Symphony, where a volume setting appropriate for the 3rd movement climax then results in Edith Mathis's vocal sounding far too obtrusive in the final movement. I imagine that correcting this problem would have required a lot of guesswork on the part of the engineers as to what the volume levels were supposed to be. However, the result is that I found myself having to adjust the volume level quite regularly to appreciate the music fully. This is unfortunate, as the sound is otherwise clear and well balanced.

There are no such problems with the visual interpretation. Humphrey Burton's directing is sensitive and imaginative throughout the set. There are some interesting documentaries as well, although annoyingly there are no subtitles for the rehearsal sequences in German.

Despite the problems with the sound, I have no hesitation in giving this set 5 starts. No other set of the Mahler symphonies is as consistently interesting or powerful, and at least half of the performances here are as good as any recorded.
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on 23 April 2013
I have long intended to listen to all the Mahler Symphonies in order and in a reasonable time frame to hold them together as a cycle and see how his music develops. Finally, I created the opportunity last autumn (2012) and though I do have a number of CD recordings already, I decided that it might be better to listen to them as performed by one conductor. Leonard Bernstein is among my favourite Mahler interpreters (there are others I may prefer in individual symphonies) and this set is good value when compared with the costs of equivalent CDs, so I went for it and I was not disappointed (listening also to the song cycles from his companion DVD Mahler: Songs (Leonard Bernstein) [DVD] [2007] in and among the symphonies). Apart from the 9 completed symphonies this set includes Das Lied von der Erde and the Adagio from no.10, but none of the completed versions of the tenth, which Bernstein never recorded (nor I suspect conducted). Also (sadly) missing from either DVD is the early choral work, Das Klagende Lied.

The DVDs are from live performances given in the 1970s and the picture shows its age in places, though the sound is very good for its vintage. This was probably Bernstein's golden age: the fiery young man had matured, but not to the level of some of the extended tempi that spoiled some of the recordings from his last decade. It is also worth noting that these performances were not conceived as a complete cycle, so were not performed chronologically, nor are they all with the same orchestra, though the Vienna Philharmonic has the lion's share. That they were not a noted Mahler orchestra at the time (despite the composer having been their conductor when he wrote most of these) is remarkable, that they did not initially respond to Bernstein's sometimes heart on sleeve way with Mahler is well documented, but in the end he won them round and the performances are mostly at least very good.

The 2nd is the famous performance from Ely Cathedral (with the LSO), shown at the time on British television. The setting does compromise the sound recording, but this is more than made up for by the fact that Bernstein is one of the few conductors to observe Mahler's instruction at two points in the finale for the soprano soloist initially to be part of the chorus, only later `softly standing out', rather than being a soloist from the start. Mahler meant this and wrote it in the score, and it works so much better when it is observed.

It is a shame that the 7th is given with its internal movements in the order scherzo - andante rather than the other way round but this was quite common at that time, albeit now largely discredited. There is also a visual problem in the 9th (from Berlin) which was obviously recorded at more than one performance. Given the conservative dress of the average concert goer this is not usually noticeable, but here there are a few people in the audience with rather obvious bright red t-shirts, but then they aren't there, they return and vanish again! Perhaps my mind should be on higher things, but I found this slightly distracting. But leaving aside these minor niggles, on the whole I could live with this cycle of Mahler Symphonies, and seeing (rather than just hearing) Bernstein conducting them makes the whole thing that much better.

The bonuses are well worth having too. Bernstein is a natural teacher (see also his TV lecture on Mahler Leonard Bernstein: The Little Drummer Boy [DVD] [2007]) and gives excellent talks on Das Lied von der Erde and the 9th Symphony, one of them a talk of an hour more or less off the cuff in a break between rehearsals, and wreathed in his signature cigarette smoke. But it is a great shame that the rehearsal sequences (where Bernstein speaks in German) are not subtitled.
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on 15 May 2009
Once you start wathing any of them you can't stop anymore, they are so amazing and they all come in DTS format as well. This is not just a performance - it's a piece of history of music or rather a milestone on a route of bringing the music closer to audiences who missed the live performances.
Indeed, a unique diamond among many other ordinary titles.
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on 19 January 2015
Absolutely superb. This set of recordings from the late seventies have probably captured some of the finest performances of Mahler at a time when he was immensely popular. Many of the recordings are with the Wiener Philharmoniker, and as always the rendering of the 8th symphony is remarkable. The rendering of the sixth I also found very pertinent and definitive. There is a rather unusual setting of the 2nd in Ely Cathedral in the UK, with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus.
The filming is very lucid, showing sections of the orchestra and soloists as they deliver various parts of the music. Leonard Bernstein conducts each Symphony with vigour and emotion, and he explains on the bonus disc of rehearsals that unless he does this, for him he would feel that it had not been a good performance. He explains also in depth the sections of Das Lied Von Der Erde, which he regards as the definitive Masterpiece of Mahler's music.
Christa Ludwig turns in a beautiful sympathetic and magnificent Contralto performance in Das Lied Von Der Erde, and Rene Kollo,Tenor, gives also a formidable performance in this Symphonic Song Cycle with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra recorded in Tel Aviv.
All the recordings are in front of live audiences, and the sound is very clear in 5.1 DTS Surround Sound. This is a landmark collection, and now a part of history which thankfully has been preserved.
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on 8 February 2006
Some of these recordings go back 30 years. Not flawless in (video, audio)quality but I wonder who or what and when someone is going to be able to surpass these long awaited treaures. Thanks to all producers in charge, thanks for colours corrected and courage in releasing this monument.
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on 24 March 2014
Bernstein was small in stature, but great in musicianship.I cannot fault these live performances, and both visually and in sound quality they are as good as one got in the 1970s. I will not offer a learned exposition of each symphony, basically because I can't, but they gave me a lot of pleasure, and I shall no doubt return to them from time to time. If I had to find a quibble, it would be that Das Lied did nothing for me - it seemed a dull interpretation, and the Eighth turned into a bit of a shouting match when all the soloists were in action, but this is often the case anyway, Definitely a good buy.
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on 23 July 2013
A fitting memorial to one of the greatest of Mahler conductors
I would recommend this to anyone who loves mahler and to those
approaching Mahler for the first time
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