MAHLER Complete Symphonies – Bertini
For years the late Gary Bertini’s 1984-91 Cologne Radio Mahler cycle had a shadowy catalogue existence, marked by limited availability and the frequent deletion of individual volumes not long after their initial release. True, French EMI partly made amends by bringing out Symphonies Nos 1‑5 in a budget box but it never followed up with the rest. Now EMI has released the whole cycle internationally for the first time in a budget-price, space-saving box set. By and large, it is the most consistently satisfying Mahler cycle 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, like Levine (RCA) and Giulini (DG) 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 in these pages pinpoint weak spots, such as the Sixth’s relatively clunky first movement (Gielen is similarly deliberate but elicits crisper articulation all around) or the Second’s Finale’s fleeting inaccuracies, but these are nitpicks in face of so much excellence elsewhere.
Among other Mahler symphony cycles, only Gielen’s SWR traversal (it does not include Das Lied) possibly rivals Bertini for sonic and interpretive consistency. Yet Hänssler’s relatively uneconomical 13-disc layout ultimately yields to EMI’s generously packed and sensibly programmed 11 discs. For cost, convenience, and quality, there’s no better Mahler deal on the planet. Of course, great deals don’t last for ever…