Mahler Symphony No 3

Author: 
Edward Seckerson

MAHLER Symphony No 3 – Bernstein

  • Symphony No. 3

''This is the first time I have ever heard Bernstein conduct Mahler, and I certainly hope that it will not be the last.'' So wrote the late Deryck Cooke in these pages in December 1962 of this very symphony. And the rest, as they say, is history. For me too, that particular recording made an immeasurable and lasting impression. To this day, I have regarded Bernstein's handling of the last movement alone—that majestic D major hymn to life and love—as the model against which all others must be measured. The courageous breadth of line (only Abbado on DG has since taken a comparable overview), the sustained intensity, the nobility, the inwardness—this is quite simply one of the finest pieces of Mahler conducting in my recollection. So here we are, nearly 30 years on, with Bernstein no less, if anything more, in awe of the movement, communicating still an overwhelming sense of its transcendental reverence, and coming, what's more, to within five seconds of his previous timing over a duration of some 25 minutes. That in itself is remarkable. Remarkable, too, is the orchestra that makes it all possible: the New York Philharmonic. They have always surpassed themselves in this movement, this symphony (after a decade-plus at their helm, Bernstein chose it for his final concert as Music Director—so it is significant).
They do so again here. If I might single out the 'final paragraph' from fig. 25 (CD2, track 9) where the solo flute seems to levitate above the orchestra and three trumpets and one trombone (in the most exquisitely blended sound) softly voice once more the noble hymn, right through to the big release at 5'19'' of track 9 with its ecstatic brass harmonies (as fine an example as I know of consonance through dissonance). This is marvellous.
Of course, one has to contend here with the somewhat thankless acoustic of Avery Fisher Hall, and DG have once more attempted to divert attention from its lifelessness by taking us in close to the action. I do miss the spacial perspectives of the old CBS sound, though arguably the reverse was true in that case and one craved a degree or two more impact from the flabbergasting sonorities of the first movement. One certainly gets that here: the dark grainy colour of low horns and contra-bassoon just after the opening summons, the dry rattle of bass drum triplets, the hollow oscillation of the woodwinds, the dramatic upsurges of cellos and basses as nature stirs, twitches from slumber. Bernstein injects great urgency into these seemingly involuntary impulses. Where Mahler marks bewegt (with mobility), one really feels movement in the phrasing. No one profiles the advancing march quite as zealously as Bernstein (piccolos, glockenspiel, trilling horns et al): the chaotic climax of the development, the passage Mahler himself dubbed ''the mob'', is given the full 'fife and drum' treatment, while the euphoric coda is precisely that, with Bernstein making even more now of those panoramic chords as summer sunshine floods the scene with light. A word, too, for the trombone soloist whose long solos progress so eloquently from primitive severity to melancholic regret.
As for the inner movements, Bernstein is possibly a little more relaxed and spontaneous of manner in his earlier account of the charming 'flower' minuet. One is marginally more conscious now of the rubato—the little nudges and hesitations—to say nothing of the puckish contrasts of the trios. In the 'animal' frolics of the third movement scherzo, there is little to choose between the two readings. Both are boldly characterized, Bernstein and his uninhibited New Yorkers revelling in the rough and ready polka rhythms and raucous bird calls. The magical post-horn obbligato of Mahler's second trio is as far-off and misty-eyed as it is possible to be without actually blurring clarity; perfect. My only serious disappointment concerns the Nietzsch ''Midnight Song'' setting—nothing, I hasten to add, to do with Christa Ludwig, who is fine, but a question of dynamics. The recording (surely not Bernstein?) never allows us a true pianissimo, leave alone the pppp marked at the close. The profound darkness, the inky misterioso of the opening page is all but lost here the murmuring cellos and basses (much too loud), and then muted horns, do not steal, as it were, into our consciousness.
But then, other contenders have their draw-backs too and none quite matches Bernstein's unique aura, not least in that wonderful last movement. I very much like the Tennstedt (EMI) Inbal (Denon), and—most of all—Abbado (DG) recordings. But even Abbado, for all his insight and sensitivity (his is unquestionably the most sheerly beautiful of current options), must yield to Bernstein in the matter of Mahler's elemental and uncompromising sound world. Tennstedt, too, scores heavily in this respect. If pressed, I might confess to having a slight preference for Bernstein's earlier CBS account (now on CD coupling the Ruckert and Jungendzeit Lieder), but tonally-speaking, the newcomer is not surprisingly the more vivid and opulent of the two. Either way, Bernstein's Mahler Third is special—and that cannot be overstressed.'

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