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The Ghost of Bernstein: Mahler 4

available at Amazon
Mahler, The Complete Symphonies, L. Bernstein

(released on April 14, 2009)
Sony Classical 88697 45369 2
When it comes to Gustav Mahler, I always defer to Jens Laurson, who is running an excellent and definitive overview of recordings of the Mahler symphonies for WETA's Mahler Month at the moment. He has already written about this new remastered re-release of Leonard Bernstein's cycle of the Mahler symphonies, and as usual he is right on the money. The presentation of this 12-CD set from Sony is impeccable, with clear and elegant arrangement of the volumes, liner essays from Tim Page (new and laced with LP nostalgia), Bernstein himself (a reprint of the famous essay "Mahler: His Time Has Come"), and Erik Ryding, as well as plenty of photographs of the vivacious conductor. The audio engineering of the new set began with locating the original master tapes of the recordings, digitally mixed to get the best possible result while staying as faithful as possible to the sound of the original sessions. At a price of a little over $5 per disc, anyone who does not already own some version of the Bernstein cycle should find this re-release very attractive.

There is no need to rehash the advantages and disadvantages of Bernstein's Mahler, as few would argue the historical importance of these recordings (all but the eighth symphony with the New York Philharmonic). Sometimes Bernstein is terribly off the mark, but he never fails to make Mahler sound damn exciting. His is rarely the version I would turn to first, but in preparation for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's performance of Mahler's fourth symphony this weekend -- I was at last night's performance (review forthcoming) and there are two more on November 7 (8 pm) and 8 (3 pm) -- Bernstein's reading of that happy work has provided a pleasant listening contrast to the most recent version in my ears, David Zinman conducting the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, released last year. Zinman seems unwilling to leave his own brush marks on the canvas, while Bernstein slaps paint at it like Pollock.

Mahler once described the fourth symphony as a series of children's dreams (see this cogent analysis by Henry-Louis de La Grange), culminating in one of Mahler's most guileless settings of the poetry from the Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection. The last movement gives the poem Die himmlische Leben to a soprano soloist, whom Mahler advises to sing with child-like simplicity. This is a disarmingly naive but nonetheless compelling of vision of heaven, where the blessed dance and sing like happy children, with mighty saints living like jolly villagers, serving as shepherd, butcher, fisherman, and cook. Deer and rabbits run down the streets hoping to serve their flesh, the angels bake the bread, and fish swim up to be eaten on fast days.

Bernstein's fourth makes me rethink the many details of the score, which it struck me again last night come out completely only in live performance. The only downfall is the last movement, because Bernstein's soprano soloist, Reri Grist, is not the ideal of vocal clarity. Zinman's choice, the Slovakian soprano Luba Orgonášová has the right kind of voice, but perhaps a little too early music treble in color. Marin Alsop's ongoing Mahler cycle with the BSO (no. 1, as well as the excised Blumine movement, no. 5, and no. 9 so far) has not been stellar, but you will want to hear her soprano soloist, Susanna Phillips, who lived up to my expectations about as well as she could have.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performs Mahler's fourth symphony this evening at 8 pm and tomorrow afternoon at 3 pm, only at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore.

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