on 26 August 2009
I must have nearly every Mahler 5 ever issued - both on LP and CD. But, while there are quite a few 'very good' performances, two really stand out from the crowd - Barbirolli's HMV, and this one by Bernstein.
In their very different ways, Barbirolli and Bernstein seem to define the work - fully encompassing the lofty breadth of Mahler's vision. Each stands like a Himalayan peak - above and apart; incomparable and unique.
Although Bernstein's earlier NYPO Columbia/Sony version has it advocates, his DG Vienna remake is significantly better - a weighty, mature, and very serious performance, that has immense power and strength. Lasting about 75 minutes, it's one of the slowest on record - indeed, if memory serves me correctly, it was the longest CD ever issued by Polygram at that time (1988); the first to go beyond the 74 minute mark.
The orchestral playing is trenchant and concentrated, and Bernstein's interpretation carries total conviction - great music-making caught on the wing. DG's recording is superbly rich and sonorous, with excellent detail and clarity - still sounding impressive despite the passage of 20 years.
At this late stage of his conducting career, Bernstein was capable of performances that were literally life-changing; this is one of them.
on 17 October 2009
Although I'm a huge Mahler fan, I've always struggled a little with the Fifth and the Seventh; the unusual, slightly cranky book-ends to the mighty Sixth. They both require an orchestra and conductor of impeccable Mahlerian pedigree to really 'sell' them and, despite his ability to polarise opinion, Bernstein was one of those conductors and the VPO was (and remains) one of those orchestras. When they joined forces, the results were rarely less than memorable and this recording is no exception.
I find the argument over Bernstein's tempos tiresome. Yes, he does push the envelope on occasions, notably in the Second and Ninth of his DG Mahler series, but his knowledge and experience of these scores is legendary. I think of him as a gifted driver with the keys to a fantastic sports car: do you take it round the block a few times at 30mph and get out thinking "that was quite nice" or do you head for the open road, explore its handling and power, kick the tail out a little and get out with your pulse racing and a grin on your face? Mahler's symphonies are big enough and brilliant enough to accommodate many different interpretations but it is usually a Bernstein that I pull down from the shelf first.
This account has been a leading recommendation since its release twenty years ago and I have never found another that surpasses it. Bernstein captures the many difficult changes in mood and tempo and moulds them into a coherent narrative. The VPO put on another virtuosic display, especially in those stormy, surging passages of the first two movements which have a thrilling power and razor-sharp precision. Bernstein does perhaps gild the lily of the Adagietto, ever so slightly. I find it haunting and beautiful and he certainly isn't the longest on record: the Karajan version (often held up by Bernstein critics as an example of how it 'should' be done) is actually longer. Crowning the performance is a truly blazing account of the Finale which is worth the price of this disc on its own.
The recording was made live in Frankfurt with a rich, full and clear orchestral sound, a natural balance and a warm acoustic (better than some from the Musikverein, in fact). Audience noise is negligible.
For beginners or collectors, this recording should be snapped up.
In many ways it is possible to recycle the same argument about Bernstein's interpretative choices with regard to a good many of his recorded performances. What for some sounds wilful, disjointed and self-conscious is for others exceptionally fluent and flexible. To some, Bernstein is constantly hovering on the brink of virtual stasis; for others, he achieves a timeless intensity of expression. I must say that listening to the way he attacks and develops the stormy, "Streng" section of the first movement nine minutes in, I cannot agree that the music lacks passion or momentum; I find myself swept along by the grandeur of the playing by the peerless Vienna Philharmonic. Bernstein knows what he is about and finds more drama in every phrase; the playing is always weighty, detailed and marvellously precise.
The sound is wonderfully full; the audience must have been bound and gagged throughout or simply as spellbound by what they were hearing as were the audience I was in last night when Gergiev and the LSO held us rapt in the closing minutes of the Ninth. I swear that his peculiar trick of imposing his personality on Mahler's music sometimes makes me hear a kind of American jauntiness emerging through the folksy Ländler in the Scherzo. Of course he theatrical Bernstein understood how to manipulate the subtle rhythms of a Viennese waltz to create charm and tension; metronomic regularity is kicked into touch but the orchestra follows his every nuance. The Adagietto ("little Adagio", not by any means "slightly slowly") is by no means so etiolated compared with many another celebrated version; it is a more passionate and warm-blooded take on the score which capitalises on the capability of the Vienna strings to emit a burnished glow rather than another of the "suspended animation" variety whereby the music just hovers in the ether. The last movement is just one great, arching, bustling burst of contrapuntal energy. Every time I think Bernstein is on the brink of indulgence, the music takes on an intensity and drive that disarms my criticism.
This is by no means the only way to play this music; safer, and in many ways just as satisfying, "straight" recommendations might be Shipway's or Barshai's bargain accounts (see my reviews) but Bernstein was a master Mahlerian whose interpretations were always valid unless you are a modern "Mahler lite" devotee.
on 10 July 2009
This performance has some good qualities - eloquent playing from all sections of the orchestra, atmospheric interludes in the scherzo, a magnificent conclusion to the finale - but as so often Bernstein ruins things with appallingly self-indulgent lingering. He wildly exaggerates the tragic elements of the first two movements, adding layer upon layer of tearful grief onto music which, when conducted with more wisdom and restraint, conveys everything it needs to. Listen to Simon Rattle (BPO) and Bruno Walter (NYPO) for a more measured and far far more effective approach. Worst of all, Bernstein stretches the Adagietto out to the point where the music completely fails to hang together - it becomes a series of incoherent sighs and sobs and totally falls apart, the musical line destroyed by the conductor's ghastly exaggerations. No: taken as a whole this performance will not do. Rattle and Walter allow the music to speak for itself by drawing out, with maximum effectiveness, what is there, and heaping nothing further upon it. Their honesty and care do the music fuller justice than Bernstein's outrageous excesses, which insult both the music and the listener.
on 20 March 2013
I think Mahler must be an acquired taste. This is the first time I have sat down seriously to listen to him, and I felt the music was an assault on my brain. It was like encountering abstract art for the first time after being used to only figuraitve art. I was confused. I will listen again sometime, see if it grows on me.