GUSTAV MAHLER: The Complete Symphonies Nos. 1 – 9 with Adagio of No. 10 & Das Lied von der Erde + “Gustav Mahler Remembered” – Soloists/New York Philharmonic/Israel Philharmonic (Das Lied)/ Leonard Bernstein – Sony Classical (12 CDs)

by | Jun 19, 2009 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

GUSTAV MAHLER: The Complete Symphonies Nos. 1 – 9 with Adagio of No. 10 & Das Lied von der Erde + “Gustav Mahler Remembered” by associates and musicians who played under him – Soloists, incl. Jennie Tourel, Lee Venora, Gwyneth Jones, Christa Ludwig/New York Philharmonic/Israel Philharmonic (Das Lied)/ Leonard Bernstein – Sony Classical Carnegie Hall Presents 12-CD Boxed Set *****:

Although both Bruno Walter and Dmitri Mitropoulos had performed Mahler symphonies in an effort to increase appreciation of the composer, it was the championing of the composer by Leonard Bernstein in the 60s and 70s that reintroduced the Austrian composer’s rich scores to the world, especially due to Bernstein first Mahler cycle for Columbia Masterworks in the late 60s. Bernstein proved that Mahler was worth recording in the first place, and followed up on the recordings with one of his superb essays on the subject in High Fidelity Magazine (reproduced in the note booklet to the set). Today it would be rare for any symphony program not to include at least one Mahler symphony each year.

Sony Classical has used the same box and disc sleeve design as their Original Jacket series of reissues, and the whole dozen-CD set is offered at the most bargain price it has ever carried. Plus, for the first time the discs have all been remixed and mastered from the original multi-track analog tapes.  (It’s too bad they couldn’t be released in SACD versions as well.) These recordings have been reissued many times (most recently in 2001), but the sonics now are generally more detailed, brighter-sounding and more transparent thruout, like the proverbial veil has been lifted.  Occasionally when one of Mahler’s tremendous orgiastic climaxes hits, there is a bit of overload distortion or an opaquing of the sonics that is not heard on earlier releases, but the additional clarity at all other times wins in the balance, and there is great dynamic range than ever before. And the new remasterings are far superior to the execrable sound on the original Columbia LPs.

The Sony reissue set captures Bernstein in his youthful prime.  There is a verve about these performances that makes his later set for DGG – no longer available as a complete set but divided into three albums totaling about $130 SRP – sound like he is sometimes half asleep on the podium. Some critics in the past have leaned toward that later discing, with the Concertgebouw, Vienna Philharmonic, and New York Philharmonic, and done when Bernstein was filling the role of a distinguished older conductor rounding off some of Mahler’s challenges a bit for European audiences.  The earlier New York Philharmonic on the Sony set plays elegantly and accurately, and is not afraid to push some of the highly emotional points in the scores to the limits demanded by Bernstein. This set strikes me as making the composer sound more of a modernist than the generally more tame versions recorded later for DGG.

I won’t go thru the nine symphonies one by one, there is considerable materials on that online and elsewhere.  I don’t feel there is a dud in the bunch, and the Third, Seventh and Ninth are landmark recordings of those symphonies. Bernstein reported that he sometimes got into a trance-like state conducting the symphonies; it is almost as if he was channeling the spirit of Mahler. And there is an added gem included in this monumental set – never before issued on CD:  a 1967 radio documentary made for the Pacifica Foundation by musicologist William Malloch. It is fascinating to hear living musicians (at that time) who actually played under Mahler in the New York Philharmonic talk about him.

These historic performances have been the standard for Mahler recordings for many years now, and they have never sounded better nor been more reasonably priced. It may sound elitist, but one reviewer observed that you can’t call yourself culturally literate about music unless you have digested the Mahler symphony cycle.  And this is the set with which to do it.

 – John Sunier

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