ALBUM TITLE: Mahler
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4; Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 6; Symphony No. 7; Symphony No. 8; Symphony No. 9; Symphony No. 10 ; Das Lied von der Erde
PERFORMER: Soloists & Choirs; LSO, Israel PO, Vienna Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein
CATALOGUE NO: 073 4088 (NTSC system; dts 5.1; 4:3 picture) Reissue (1972-77)
The music-making on these DVDs is timeless, of a passion and a precision that are unique and unsurpassable. Yet the visuals, captured in vigilant detail by Humphrey Burton, come very much from an era when, from the orchestra’s point of view, showing your feelings was anathema (and many of these players had seen where excess displays of emotion might lead). As a telling rehearsal of the Fifth Symphony reveals, Bernstein’s extreme expressionism, a mirror of Mahler’s own, met with some scepticism from a dour, nearly-all-male Vienna Philharmonic; yet in performance, the frightening intensity etched into the conductor’s sweat-drenched face finds its way into the sound and style of these unsmiling players.
Bernstein’s approach, never loosely self-indulgent, is unpredictable: the Fourth Symphony is as fast and light as the Third is slow and heavy. For Bernstein, the more energetic the tragedy, the more he relishes it: broad smiles abound as he conducts with his shoulders in the lightning marches of the Sixth or as he bounces in the grim waltz at the centre of the Seventh – perhaps the most electrifying performance of all, and certainly the one in which Viennese warmth brings the biggest gains, winning over both Bernstein’s New York recordings on CD. Outstripping all else in lacerating expression, though, is the finale of the Ninth, where the VPO visits Berlin and a young, if sporadic, audience, replaces the fossilised crowds of Vienna’s Musikvereinsaal.
The harsher sound of the Israel Philharmonic gives us a tough Lied von der Erde lit by the incandescent emotion of Christa Ludwig. Janet Baker’s very different poise in the Resurrection Symphony communicates religious awe in Ely Cathedral, with the LSO burning for Bernstein and camerawork soaring heavenwards to the octagon. Not everything is perfect: dodgy Vienna brass intonation sours the Fifth’s finale and the Eighth features a disastrous mezzo among an otherwise world-class solo line-up (Unitel’s Salzburg alternative is preferable). But Bernstein’s disciplined genius makes everything, whether or not you agree with it, compelling viewing, and his talks – including a brilliant impromptu session on Das Lied von der Erde, fags in hand – are equally mesmerising. David Nice