This review is not intended to convert any of the legion who denigrate all of Levine's work-it is intended for the open-minded and admirers of this artist who want to experience what is for me one of the most, if not THE most life affirming and moving readings of this great symphony. I have always admired Levine's Mahler, collecting his cycle on LP and recently again on CD-and I was glad to be able to fill in at least one gap with the excellent Israel Philharmonic recording-but this new release from Orfeo is in a different league. The first movement is tauter with Levine starting not as aggressively as some but builds up the tension and drama to a shattering climax, the second is just as languid but a shade more forward moving, the third is simply the finest performance I have ever heard, the Divine Christa delivers as moving an Urlicht as can be conceived-and the finale is stunning. The recording is of a single live performance in August 1989, so has not been patched from rehearsals etc, and is remastered from an original ORF DIGITAL recording. There are one or two minor slips in the brass-this was a morning concert, and in the heat of Salzburg in August, the air in the Grosses Festpielhaus gets very dry, making it notoriously difficult for wind players, especially those playing the unique horns and trumpets of the VPO-but they are few, minor and to my mind do not matter a whit. The recording is astonishingly good-spacious, bright and very detailed-the VPO sound glorious, justifying the booklet comments that no other orchestra sounds as "right" in Mahler. The playback level is set low, and to gain the full impact a high volume setting is needed-but as the dynamic range is very wide, climaxes "lift the roof off ". This is fine with me! Try the unison brass entry in the St. Antoni movement-wow! I have never heard the Vienna Tam-Tam so clearly recorded, as it is their style to blend it into the aural fabric, but in this recording it is loud and proud time after time. Strings are seductive, with ample portamento when apt, and the woodwind are sublime. The soloists are placed in a realistic balance, and surely the soprano part can never have been sung so affectingly and beautifully as it is by Kathleen Battle. Hearing Christa Ludwig again reaffirms my belief that she retired too early-she is perfect. The chorus is supremely beautiful-but there does need to be a word about the balance. The listener is very definitely in the "Parkett" close to the orchestra, and this very definitely results in an orchestral work with chorus, rather than a choral work, in other words the chorus is placed backwards compared to some recordings. The result is a more organic climax with more orchestral detail than normal rather than it being swamped, or artificially tweaked in the studio. If you prefer the colossal effect of say the recent superb Rattle BPO account, you may think these last pages are underpowered. In fact they are just as colossal, but differently balanced-detail is still clear, and it is in fact a very natural concert effect. The offstage effects are wonderfully realised, and Levine's finale has more impetus and even more drama than on the Israel recording. Though he starts the choral section very slowly, he soon picks up the tempo. In no way is this is a slow reading in the manner of Maazel. Audience coughing and spluttering is occasional (it WAS August) and of minimal impact. I have more recordings of this work than I have years on the planet, and I am 61 (today 11/10!) at the time of writing. I love performances as diverse as the Klemperer express, Bernstein NYPO and LSO, Kaplan's first LSO recording (but NOT his VPO drudge) , Abbado's Lucerne Festival , Rattle's BPO and astonishingly for me, Boulez with the VPO to name but a few-(I even love the aforementioned eccentric Maazel which I think along with Maazel himself makes two of us!), but I can say that no recording has moved or satisfied me as much as this one. If you must have the "hi-est of fi's," then Rattle Berlin or Boulez are your best bets. If, however, you want the most moving and stirring of experiences in excellent sound-a real concert experience-then this set from the Orfeo treasure house and costing a pittance is an overwhelming recommendation. Unlimited stars. Stewart Crowe.
Given that devotees of Levine's Mahler have had to make to with his excellent but incomplete bargain RCA box set from the 70's, we have since been on the look-out for supplementary recordings of the "Resurrection" and the "Symphony of a Thousand". These have now been forthcoming: two live recordings of the former both from 1989 and for the latter a download of limited availability of the recording of one of the more recent Boston concerts.
Fellow-reviewer and co-admirer of Levine's Mahler Stewart Crowe details in his fine and enthusiastic review why he so admires this performance and is of the opinion that it eclipses his Israeli version. While I agree with and endorse virtually everything he says in his review, I am not so sure that one is clearly better than the other; in fact I see them in parity.
Timings and interpretation are very similar indeed - hardly surprising for two live recordings made within a few months of each other. Both share Christa Ludwig who, it seems to me, is either slightly better recorded or in marginally better voice in February for the Israeli recording and both have excellent soprano soloists although Kathleen Battle has a more shimmering, glamorous star-quality to her voice for Levine in Salzburg. The sound in Israel is richer and fuller but afflicted by a hiss, for all that it is a digital recording; however, the Salzburg recording has been made at too low a volume and is rather distant in comparison but still crisp and defined when you crank it up a bit.
Surprisingly, there is not so much to choose between the VPO, one of the world's premier outfits, and the Israeli band who play as if their lives depended on it. Mr Crowe has remarked upon a few blats and blips in the Salzburg brass but the Israelis have more flaws in their intonation. There is greater transparency and subtlety in the Vienna sound but the Israelis manage to create great warmth and heft. Both choirs are superb. I agree that the cumulative tension of the last movement is perhaps better paced and slightly more mysterious in Salzburg but on both occasions Levine creates magic and his audience respond with wild applause.
I have come to the assumption that some of the small determined clique of Levine-bashers derive their anitpathy for him from the fact that they are also Karajan-haters and Levine was one of the few conductors he admired and advanced. More fools they; they are allowing an irrational, unaesthetic prejudice to deprive themselves of a proper appreciation of a truly great Mahler conductor.
Buying this Sony double CD set on Amazon Marketplace seems currently to be the only affordable way to get your hands on these two great performances. This live "Resurrection Symphony", recorded in Ely Cathedral in September 1973 and "patched" with a session at George Watson's College six months later, is also available on DVD. It is generally the one of the three Bernstein recordings of this symphony which gets overlooked, though I think it is markedly superior to either the earlier (Sony) or the later (DG) New York versions, by virtue of its extraordinary intensity and also because it features the best soloists of all in Sheila Armstrong and Janet Baker. Armstrong soars over the chorus and Baker intones "Urlicht" like one of Michelangelo's sybils.
The snag for some is the reverberant acoustic of the cathedral, but I think the engineers have tamed it well and allow the whole thing to emerge with enormous grandeur. Lenny takes risks with daringly etiolated tempi, but there is a spiritual intensity about the occasion which I find wholly convincing. The chorus are wonderfully responsive and energised, managing an impressive gamut of dynamics and singing like souls inspired; similarly the LSO sound like a virtuoso Mahler orchestra, clearly totally engaged by Bernstein's magnetism.
As if that were not sufficient, as a "filler" - some filler - we have Janet Baker's "Kindertotenlieder". Many consider her collaboration with Bernstein and the Israel Philharmonic to be more expressive, nuanced and better vocalised even than the famous Barbirolli recording - and I agree.
The Sony Classics issue I have has a different compilation from this one under review. It consists of the "Resurrection" plus two invaluable bonuses - and here I quote from the Santa Fe listener's review of the earlier "Resurrection: ..." a moving live performance of the Adagietto from the Mahler Fifth at the funeral service for Robert F. Kennedy in St. Patrick's Cathedral, and a riveting "Veni Creator spiritus" from the Mahler Eighth, a live performance to celebrate the opening of Philharmonic Hall in 1962."
In whatever form you can get hold of any, some, or all of these various Bernstein performances - do it.
Getting this CD was a bit of a miracle! I recorded the performance live off the radio from the Salzburg Festival in 1989 and I have always cherished the performance. I have virtually every major recording of this symphony and I am very fussy, especially with the First Movement. Mahler, a very great conductor himself, made the last movements almost "conductor -proof;" I never heard a performance of the last movement that fails to lift off.
So I had a cherished cassette and, as with all cherished cassettes, "Sod's Law" operates and the tape got chewed and so that was the end of that. The performance would live only in my memory. But now it is back again. Did I have stars in my eyes ? Is it as good as I remembered it ? Yes !
Obviously, since 1989, the competition has increased enormously so has an early Levine performance been left behind ? No, it was performances like this that put Levine on the map and got him the job at the Metropolitan Opera. He was also one of the very few conductors to penetrate the "inner sanctum" of the Karajan Empire, the Salzburg Festival.
There is something very "special" about this: Salzburg, the Vienna Philharmonic (Mahler's Orchestra), two wonderful soloists! It is moments like this that music lovers live for. Levine had always been passionate about Mahler and this must have been a dream come true.
I have another tape recorded live from the Salzburg Festival (if anybody from Orfeo is reading) which I dare not play (in case it gets screwed up) and that is the by far the finest performance of Mahler's Sixth Symphony that I have ever heard by Herbert von Karajan, of all people! "Well, he recorded it so buy that !" The two performances are so different as to be unrecognisable. There was always a difference between "smooth" Karajan in the recording studio and "dangerous" Karajan on the concert platform and never more so than in Mahler's Sixth. And the difference seems to spread to Levine's Mahler 2.
Levine's Mahler recordings were very highly regarded back in the '80's but seem to have fallen from view, at least this side of the pond, in the intervening years. This is a pity because his renderings have all the authority of Bernstein's without the wild exaggerations.
Most of Levine's Mahler recordings recently became available in a boxed set- very nice too- but the 2nd symphony was not included, which collectors can now remedy without hesitation. This Salzburg recording is of marvellous quality with a well-behaved audience (quiet) but oodles of 'ambience'. The quality of the cast is also excellent so this disc moves close to the top of my preferred versions (a crowded field as this is probably my favourite symphony but one which can cruelly expose both soloists and orchestra).
This is an outstanding recording which should feature in any Mahler-lover's collection- almost the equal of Klemperer's famous classic.