Berkshire Review Archive
Art & Architecture
Food & Drink
Berkshire Artsblog
Berkshire Artsnet
Berkshire Bookshop
About Us
Sierra Club


Music: Recordings

Leonard Bernstein’s Mahler – The Composer as Cataclysm

Huntley Dent October 28, 2008

Veni creator spiritus.


Leonard Bernstein turned Austrian Mahler into American Mahler overnight, and this unlikely metamorphosis was one of those rare events, like Beethoven’s dedication of the ‘Eroica’ to Napoleon, that merged music history and world history. The night was September 23, 1962, at the opening concert of Philharmonic Hall in Lincoln Center. Bernstein, New York City, and America were at an apex of cultural triumph. It was a prophetic choice to begin the concert, not patriotically with Appalachian Spring, Rhapsody in Blue, or even Bernstein’s own West Side Story suite, but with the ecstatic outburst of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. Thanks to a nation-wide broadcast on CBS television, the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ became a symphony of millions. At a single stroke, countless more people heard this music than had ever heard the Eighth in concert, perhaps more than had ever heard all of Mahler’s symphonies in concert.

Over the  next decade, as cultural triumph turned to catastrophe, Mahler became the signature for a cataclysm. When he famously said, “My time will  come,” he may or may not have realized that such a time had to be roiled by war, assassination, riots in the streets, and generational convulsions. Can any of us imagine what it’s like to create a tidal wave? Mahler did, personally, and then history did, collectively. On that night in 1962 the same forces that suppressed Mahler in is lifetime—anti-Semitism, hidebound conservatism,  and, most toxic of all, indifference—were still at work. The cognoscenti were sharply divided between a handful of Mahler worshippers like Bruno Walter and Dimitri Mitropoulos, and the vast bulk of Mittel European centrists who lumped him in with Bruckner and sniffed suspiciously at their hypertrophic symphonies. 

Revolution was good to Beethoven, and cataclysm has been good to Mahler. His music never changed, but we grew to fit it, our taste shaped by disaster, cynicism, nostalgia, idealism, horror, despair and optimism. His great theme was conflict; so was ours. It was inescapable, and Bernstein threw himself into the raging storm. Sadly, cataclysm wasn’t good to him. But in his long, slow slide from the mountain top, he seized on Mahler as the companion of his soul.  By the end, a generation of young listeners for whom Bernstein was classical music had to gaze upon his withered relic, doomed by emphysema and haunted by psychosexual forces that even his outsized personality couldn’t control. 

I will always love him, yet when I want to hear the best of Bernstein, I turn to his Mahler recordings, which are redemptive of conductor and composer both. There are two complete symphony cycles, available at bargain price from Sony, current owners of the American label Columbia Records, who recorded all of Bernstein’s Mahler in the formative Sixties with the New York Philharmonic, and DG, who captured his later Mahler, largely in the Eighties, as he wandered through the music capitals of Europe. (Outside this latter cycle there’s a one-off Mahler Ninth, live form Berlin, that marks Bernstein’s only appearance with the Berlin Philharmonic—he couldn’t forgive Hitler quite that far.)


Most buyers aren't in the market for a complete Mahler cycle by a single conductor, but if they were, the two from Bernstein are seminal. It’s strange that a beloved protégé of Mahler’s like Bruno Walter couldn’t seem to face the Third, Sixth, Seventh, or Eighth symphonies.  These, his most turbulent works, became high points of Bernstein’s accomplishment.  But even Everest is surrounded by summits nearly as lofty.  It’s worthwhile to give a sense of the strongest and weakest parts of each set, keeping min mind that nothing is less than impressive.

Cycle #1 (Sony):

By general consensus the New York performance of Symphony #3 is one of the glories of this cycle and perhaps the most inspired Mahler conducting Bernstein did on disc. It has all the freshness of discovery--LB was in the first flush of infatuation with Mahler in 1961. Sony's 20-bit remastering makes the original analog sonics sound quite good. In fact, there's no need to fear the sound quality of these New York Philharmonic recordings, none of which are bad. Expect the deep stage and wide stereo separation that Columbia Records favored at the time.

Bernstein also put his personal stamp on Symphony #7 in such a way that no one would ever hear it the same again. Previously, 'The Song of the Night,' as this work was dubbed—it has two mysterious movements entitled Nachtmusik—had almost no life on disc or the concert stage. Not only did LB prove that this was coherent music, which critics doubted, but he made an unforgettable drama out of it. This is his signature recording of the work.

Two other great performances stand out: Symphony #2 and #4, each rendered with amazing imagination and a huge range of emotions. The accusation that LB went over the top in the Second is unjustified--he is often tender and delicate--but there's no doubt that he takes an apocalyptic view of the finale. Whatever you think about his approach, he single-handedly revolutionized the way that the Resurrection Symphony was played. In Symphony #4 the classic recording was by Bruno Walter, but LB added more depth, imagination, and excitement. Lyric soprano Reri Grist has come in for a good deal of criticism in the vocal finale, but I think she fits beautifully into LB's overall conception.

In the middle of the pack we get LB's readings of Symphony #1 and #9. He went on to conduct greater readings of both works, especially the Ninth. In person LB's First (the only one I ever heard him conduct) was a standing-ovation showpiece, but somehow Sony/Columbia's sonics are not up to the conductor's vision. In the case of the Ninth, the New York version would qualify as an outstanding performance if there weren't so many truly great ones from Karajan, Bruno Walter, James Levine, and Barbirolli, among others. Bernstein himself would add two of the greatest, both on DG.

I find a few problems with Symphony #5, #6, and #8 in the first cycle. For many critics all three are great recordings. For some reason, I have never warmed up to either of LB's versions of Symphony #5, where for once (as his detractors drum into our heads) he does manipulate and exaggerate to the point that the soul-torn spirit of the work seems lost in histrionics. Symphony #6 is too brisk in the first movement to let the score expand to its visionary potential, and in the other movements Bernstein seems less expressive than he could be. The Eighth is unmatched in the excitement and joyousness of Part 1, and for some listeners the whole symphony remains on that exalted level. I find that LB is too studied in Part 2, and my attention wasn't held. He does elicit very beautiful singing and playing, however. It should be noted that this performance is with the London Symphony and a host of fine English singers.

To the end of his life Bernstein resisted Deryck Cooke's completion of the posthumous Tenth Symphony, agreeing to conduct only the shattering Adagio. which Mahler had finished in full score. Bernstein's reading with the New York Philharmonic is one of the most searing accounts this magnificent fragment has ever received, equaled by his later live reading with the incomparable Vienna Philharmonic On DG.

Cycle #2 (DG):

It should be said right off that DG's digital sonics are in a different league from what LB got in New York. Even though several venues were involved (Vienna, Amsterdam, New York), and many recordings were made under live concert conditions, the DG engineers triumphed time and again. As for the interpretations, with a few exceptions--the most prominent being Symphony #6--Bernstein did not drastically change his views from the first cycle, and in some cases the readings feel nearly identical (Symphony #2 and #7, for example).

The most compelling interest centers on the works where LB clearly outdoes his younger self. At the top of the list I would put Symphony #6 and #9. In the former he achieved one of the classic Mahler recordings of the modern era. His Sixth has slowed down by 2 min. in the first movement, giving the music room to expand properly. The Andante is heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. The finale is an explosion of genius on Mahler's part that LB resonates with perfectly. Almost the same can be said of the Ninth, where the conducting reaches deeply moving areas of expression. The finale is drastically slow (as is Levine's on RCA/BMG, to similar devastating effect), which some critics find excessive. But it's a truism that no tempo is right or wrong; everything depends upon being convincingly drawn into the composer’s world. LB achieved a great Ninth but would surpass himself with the live performance from Berlin in 1979, also on DG but with no better than FM radio sound.

Almost as great is Symphony #1, which receives a flawless performance packed with excitement. I'm not sure that LB's reading actually changed, but the superlative sound and the spine-tingling playing of the Concertgebouw weren't matched in New York.

The next thing to ask is where Bernstein fell short of his earlier versions. The Symphony #2, #3, and #4 from New York were one of a kind, representing LB's most exciting explorations of Mahler's world. Their counterparts on DG are also strong, but I don't think they rise to the heights he achieved earlier. The only sharp criticism I have is with the use of a boy soprano in the finale of the Fourth; musical as he is, a boy is too undeveloped to capture what Mahler intended. Yet, if the earlier New York versions didn't exist, the later Second, Third, and Fourth would be rated as outstanding performances.

I feel much the same about Symphony #7, where LB's first recording set a standard that only two or three rivals have come close to, but his DG remake, which was a return to the New York Philharmonic in concert from Lincoln Center (as are Symphony #2 and #3), feels fractionally less overwhelming. It's in better sound, however. The one symphony I can't enjoy is the Fifth, which doesn't satisfy in either cycle. However, some critics call this Fifth unsurpassable.

That leaves only Symphony #8, which Bernstein didn't live to record for commercial release. DG reached into its vaults for a live 1975 radio tape from Vienna, and although it has flaws in execution, including some rough singing in Part 2, LB's conducting is superlative, more compelling than the one from London. Paired with this symphony is a 1974 reading of the Adagio from Symphony #10, also with the Vienna Philharmonic

How to sum up? If money were no object, I'd own both cycles for the pleasure of Bernstein's inspiration. If I had to pick and choose, I'd take Symphony #2, #3, and #4 from New York, Symphony #8 from London, and the rest form the DG cycle. It’s a bit dry to catalog CDs in their plastic sleeves like so much grocery goods, but if a CD is capable of exploding with life, these are.



Ed.'s note:

When Huntley says that “Leonard Bernstein turned Austrian Mahler into American Mahler overnight, and this unlikely metamorphosis was one of those rare events, like Beethoven’s dedication of the 'Eroica' to Napoleon, that merged music history and world history,” he is touching on an important point. When Bernstein conducted the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral at the funeral of Robert F. Kennedy, he made the Mahler’s music into official music of state in America, and gave the movement a funereal association, which it had previously lacked in its life-affirming context in the symphony’s four movements.

Leonard Bernstein conducts the final bars of Mahler's Ninth Symphony (with Bernstein's commentary)
Search The Berkshire Review for the Arts
Mahler I: Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon
Mahler II: Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon
Mahler III: Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon 3
Alltop, all the top stories
The Berkshire Review for the Arts © 2007-09 Michael Miller. All rights reserved.
Privacy Statement