MAHLER: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor “Resurrection”; CONSTANT: 24 Preludes for Orchestra – Berthe Montmart, soprano/Oralia Dominguez, mezzo-soprano/Choeur de la RTF/Orchestre National de la RTF/Leonard Bernstein – Radio France

by | Jun 7, 2009 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

MAHLER: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor “Resurrection”; CONSTANT: 24 Preludes for Orchestra – Berthe Montmart, soprano/Oralia Dominguez, mezzo-soprano/Choeur de la RTF/Orchestre National de la RTF/Leonard Bernstein

Radio France FRF002, 2-CD 49:50; 48:03 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

The public concert from the Theatre des Champs-Elysees 13 November 1958 features Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) at his impassioned, dramaturgical best, in the Mahler he championed with a ferocity few others brought to the podium. Mahler himself led the Second Symphony in Paris on 17 April 1910, conducting the Orchestre Colonne, raising mixed reactions from the French, who simultaneously blasted his “hypertrophy of spirit” and praised his “strange, interesting evocations of the grandiose genius of Berlioz.” Listening to Bernstein’s inflamed reading of the C Minor Symphony, I am convinced that we are close witnesses to what Willem Mengelberg, that selfsame flamboyant megalomaniac, would have conjured musically for us had we been present for his Resurrection.

Brisk tempos, fierce slides, unwavering attention to Mahler’s rhythmic niceties, and always a monumental sense of the grand texture mark every inch of this self-indulgent, self-proclaiming, musical experience. The desire for both Eternity and Immanence, as embodied in the soprano’s Wunderhorn song, “Urlicht,” captures the divine, terrible paradox of Mahler’s vision, his Blake-like desire to marry Heaven and Hell.  If Montmart’s voice does not have the natural, aerial sweep of Stich-Randall or Schwarzkopf, it does communicate the earthbound desire for transcendence that defines Mahler’s tortured spirit. Coming hard on the heels of the eccentric, macabre Scherzo, the Urlicht wants to be a balm to the sin-sick soul.

The monumental Finale presents its apocalyptic intervals at the outset, later to become grandiose, mystic, the individual colors weaving and inflated toward the few lines of Klopstock, augmented by Mahler’s own text, celebrating the aerial spirit of Man in pursuit of eternal truth, eternal light. The Dies Irae of the first movement, herein augmented with polyphony, turns upon itself: like a moment in John Donne, “Death, thou shalt die!” Each of  the chorus’ soft, a cappella verses leads to an instrumental interlude of diaphanous, religious fervor. At “O Schmerz!” soprano and alto engage in a fervent duet in A-flat on Pain and Death, Dominguez delivering some shattering high notes. We can hear Bernstein’s urging and imploring his French players, the brass–trumpets, trombones, tuba–especially, to meet Mahler’s demands, the long urgent progression from F Minor to E-flat Major by way of “the Great Summons” in G-flat. For better or worse, the miking captures–occasionally in muffled sonics–as much audience coughing as it does musical glory. But that spasm to transcendence cannot be denied, Bernstein and Mahler having reached a creative conjunction of the highest order, the audience immediately erupting into bravos of equal voluptuousness.

Marius Constant (1925-2004), the Romanian composer, will forever be remembered for his theme-music for Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.  His 24 Preludes were to have had their premier under Monteux, but it is here with Bernstein that they first debuted. Lasting fourteen minutes, they are described by Constant as “essences” without tonality but having a “pivot-sound,” lasting a few seconds to a minute, often embracing the spectrum of five octaves in 61 different sounds, poly-rhythmically. A real “etude” for orchestra in tone-clusters, the music–in the manner of Berg, Schoenberg, and Ligeti–jars our sense of space and time, the eighteen first violins sometimes playing eighteen separate parts. A distinct reference to Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps asserts itself some ten minutes into the score.  The piece concludes with the sound of carillon-like, fluttering strings, quietly dispersed, the kind of sound in which Bernstein’s predecessor at the New York Philharmonic – Dimitri Mitropoulos – would revel.

–Gary Lemco

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