The ultimate Mahler bargain: Bertini conducts the complete symphoniesThe ultimate Mahler bargain: Bertini conducts the complete symphonies

The Gramophone Choice

Marianne Haggander, Krisztina Laki, Lucia Popp, Julia Varady, Maria Venuti sops Marjana Lipovsek, Florence Quivar mezs Anne Howells, Gwendolyn Killebrew contrs Ben Heppner, Paul Frey tens Alan Titus bar Siegfried Vogel bass

WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne / Gary Bertini 

EMI 340238-2 (12h 54’ · DDD) Buy from Amazon

Gary Bertini’s 1984-91 Cologne Radio Mahler cycle is the most consistently satisfying on disc, in terms of its lovingly idiomatic and world-class performances, plus robust, realistic engineering that truly replicates the dynamic impact and spatial depth that these scores convey in the best concert halls.

A colleague aptly and accurately likened Bertini’s emphasis on the proverbial big picture to Rafael Kubelík’s DG Mahler cycle, although Bertini’s Cologne musicians operate on an altogether higher level of first-desk refinement and chamber-like sensitivity to the composer’s extraordinary palette of orchestral colour. The strands of the Tenth’s Adagio’s pulverising climactic chords are powerfully yet clearly delineated to the point where you can take dictation from what you hear.

The brass sail through the Fifth’s difficult writing with equal aplomb to stare their he‑man Solti/Chicago colleagues in the eye, while the soft woodwinds and exposed strings create a haunting atmosphere in the Eighth’s second movement to gently joust with Tennstedt or Nagano for top position. At the same time, Bertini’s fervency sometimes gives Leonard Bernstein’s magnetism a run for its money, as one readily hears in the First’s klezmer tinges, the Seventh’s rollicking coda and the most rabble-rousing moments of the Ninth’s inner movements. By contrast, Bertini turns in one of the few very slow readings of the finale that rivets your attention in every bar.

Bertini also benefits from terrific singing, highlighted by a tightly knit ensemble in the Eighth (baritone Alan Titus especially stands out as Pater Ecstaticus), plus Ben Heppner and Marjana Lipovsek on ringing, communicative form throughout Das Lied (both this and the Eighth stem from live Tokyo performances). And in the Fourth’s finale, the late Lucia Popp surpasses her EMI recording under Tennstedt. To be certain, earlier reviews pinpoint weak spots, such as the Sixth’s relatively clunky first movement or the Second’s finale’s fleeting inaccuracies, but these are nitpicks in face of so much excellence elsewhere. For cost, convenience and quality, there’s no better Mahler deal on the planet. 

 

DVD Recommendation

Contents as above

Sheila Armstrong, Judith Blegen, Edith Mathis, Edda Moser sop Dame Janet Baker, Agnes Baltsa, Christa Ludwig, Ingrid Mayr mezs René Kollo, Kenneth Riegel ten José van Dam, Hermann Prey bars

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra; London Symphony Orchestra; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Leonard Bernstein

Video directors Humphrey Burton & Tony Palmer 

DG DVD 073 4088GH9 (13h 24’ · NTSC · 4:3 · PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 · 0). Includes a bonus disc of rehearsals. Recorded 1971-76

Between 1971 and 1976 Humphrey Burton directed filmed concerts of Bernstein conducting the nine Mahler symphonies, along with Das Lied von der Erde and the Adagio from the unfinished Tenth. Previous VHS and laserdisc incarnations suffered from uneven sound and occasional discrepancies of synchronisation between screen image and audio. Happily, DG’s new DVD edition not only corrects these problems but also refurbishes the soundtracks in vibrant 5.1 surround sound.

Little can be added to the many words written about Bernstein’s intense affinity for and ardent advocacy of Mahler. Indeed, the musicality and specificity of Bernstein’s body language often seem to create parallel universes to each score’s emotional peaks and dynamic valleys. One doesn’t have to turn up the volume to sense the exultation and drive with which Bernstein inspires the huge forces in the Eighth’s first part or the Second’s final pages, gauging the protracted climaxes as he clenches his baton with both hands in long, agonising downward strokes. Watch, too, how Bernstein’s eagle eyes and decisive hands anticipate tricky entries and tempo-changes in the Fifth’s second movement and the Seventh’s first with unshakeable authority, or how he instantaneously adjusts dynamics and aligns rhythmic vagaries (the Fourth’s opening bars, the Third’s percussion).

Yet for all of Bernstein’s podium choreography, he also knows when to stand back and simply let the musicians play, casually passing the baton back and forth between his hands, as in stretches of the Third’s and Ninth’s final movements and the Tenth’s Adagio. And, like a benign sovereign, he frequently shoots his players and singers encouraging glances, with plenty of smiles to reward the Vienna Philharmonic’s first-desk soloists, as well as their counterparts in the LSO (No 2) and the Israel Philharmonic (Das Lied). Burton’s visual style works hand-in-glove with Mahler’s orchestration and dynamic game plans, saving close-ups for quiet passages and quick inserts that underline instrumental entrances.

In general, Bernstein’s filmed Mahler interpretations represent a centre-point between the raw excitement characterising much of his pioneering 1960s CBS/Sony cycle and his riper, often more expansive late-1980s remakes. On balance, the video Fourth, Fifth and Ninth are Bernstein’s finest performances of these works. The Fifth is faster and more incisively shaped than his 1987 traversal and the Vienna players get better as the performance progresses. Edith Mathis looks as radiant as she sings in the Fourth’s finale. The Vienna Ninth is notable for the other-worldly stillness and delicacy of the final pages, while the central movements bring the sort of abandon he shows in his 1960s Ninth.

A bonus disc provides additional and valuable context. ‘Four Ways to Say Farewell’ combines rehearsal and performance footage of the Ninth as a backdrop to Bernstein’s narration, where he fancifully if plausibly likens the first movement’s long-short rhythmic motive to Mahler’s irregular heartbeat. Rehearsals of the Fifth reveal an even more balletic, gesticulative conductor than the public usually saw, along with important insights into the music’s character (at one point Bernstein cajoles the brass to play ‘like in Italian opera’, pinpointing the influence of Verdi on Mahler that most critics gloss over).

A Das Lied rehearsal shows Christa Ludwig haggling over the breakneck tempo Bernstein sets in the ‘Von der Schönheit’ central section. Then there is Bernstein at the piano, chain-smoking, giving an informal discourse on the work’s symbolism and chamber-like orchestration (‘You have to prepare an entire orchestra as if it was a string quartet’).

In an age when Mahler’s symphonies are ubiquitous, it’s fascinating to witness the missionary zeal of Bernstein in the 1970s, claiming how his ‘acting out’ the music rather than merely beating time helps him to convince his orchestras of its greatness. With Bernstein at the helm, one doesn’t take Mahler’s greatness for granted.

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