Bernstein and Mahler, Just Brilliant Together

By Joe Banno
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 12, 2006

Was there ever a more perfect musical match than composer Gustav Mahler and conductor Leonard Bernstein? Mahler's symphonies -- with their giddy fits of nostalgia, their fevered visions of a radiant afterlife -- were the perfect vehicles for Bernstein's more-is-more aesthetic, and his openly emotional way on the podium. Bernstein was born seven years after Mahler's death in 1911, but these aesthetic twins might as well have been separated at birth.

Bernstein recorded two complete cycles of Mahler's nine symphonies, and the adagio movement from his unfinished 10th. The first -- a propulsive, unbuttoned set of performances from the early 1960s -- did more than any other recordings of the composer's once-marginalized music to reestablish him as a god of the concert hall. The weightier, more mystically expansive second cycle Bernstein recorded shortly before his death in 1990 became a sort of last will and testament for the music he loved most deeply.

But in between those two audio recordings came a cycle -- shot on video by the German company Unitel during the 1970s -- featuring Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in every work but the Second Symphony (which was played by the London Symphony), and the symphonic song cycle "Das Lied von der Erde" (played by the Israel Philharmonic). Preserving an ideal mix of Bernstein's youthful and elder interpretive approaches to the symphonies, these recordings have at last been issued on DVD by Deutsche Grammophon (available in a single box with three bonus documentaries, or separately, without the documentaries). They boast a gorgeously remastered image and DTS 5.1 Surround Sound that opens up the once-limited audio into a thrillingly spacious soundstage.

Those raised on the less overtly demonstrative conducting of Mahler that one tends to find today might find themselves bewildered by Bernstein's extroverted podium manner -- the stabbing thrusts of the arms, the groaning singalongs, the rocketing leaps, the hip-swaying "Lenny Dance," the two-fisted grab and baseball-bat swing of the baton. But the skeptical need only look past the big personality to see how scrupulous his cueing is, how sure his stick technique, how precise his attention to nuance at the service of the music's dramatic arc. Then they need only close their eyes to hear how every go-for-broke gesture has a quantifiable result in the white-hot, edge-of-the-abyss playing of the musicians.

And after all, who wants well-behaved Mahler? In one of the documentaries, Bernstein muses on whether it would be better to just stand there and beat time, and let the complexities of the scores speak for themselves. He concludes that he must conduct Mahler "on a parallel with the extremes that are written into the score. . . . I feel so deeply identified with it. . . . I have to act out what I want to hear." That total-immersion conducting, it seems, isn't just a choice but an imperative. "There's no way to play three bars of Mahler without giving your all," he tells us. "Every pianissimo is as intense as every forte. . . . Everything has to be done at full intensity."

Amen. And that intensity is stamped into every bar of musicmaking on these DVDs. Dive in anywhere in the set, and you'll find revelatory details. The contrast between the manic jangling of sleigh bells and the wafting gentleness of the soprano solos in the finale of the Fourth Symphony; the way the most gargantuan moments in the Eighth Symphony sound airborne and luxuriantly beautiful without a loss of epic power; the whip-crack accents and brutal speed that transform the Sixth Symphony's opening funeral march into a blitzkrieg -- every phrase bespeaks Bernstein's total identification with these scores, and his dazzling skill at musical storytelling.

Perhaps what's most to be cherished are the performances of the Second and Third Symphonies. More than any other work, the Second ("Resurrection") was Bernstein's signature piece, and this London Symphony performance at England's Ely Cathedral preserves his interpretation at its best. Just listen to the extraordinary "Last Judgment" music at the opening of the fifth movement, as Bernstein makes Mahler's possessed, apocalyptic writing so vividly pictorial, so tangible, you can hear the beating of giant wings, feel the ranks of the risen dead brush past you, and see the Dantean vistas stretching into infinity.

By the choral finale, the conductor has worked up his forces --and himself -- to such a fever pitch, you'll think he's receiving the Rapture. Ditto the final movement of the Third Symphony, where he wrings every last drop of heartache and wonder from the score -- living every tear-soaked measure along with his Viennese musicians until Mahler's music and his own experience of that music seem to fuse into a single expression. If you never experienced Bernstein live, watch him here and understand what all the fuss was about.

Yet for all the fraught emotion we can observe in those performances, watching the documentaries gives the impression that Bernstein was actually more demonstrative in rehearsal than in concert. Over and over in the rehearsal footage, we see him courting, cajoling, pleading and haranguing the orchestra for this or that effect -- play it more like a Schubert song; make it palpitate like Italian opera; what you're doing is not Mahler -- shouting words of praise or sagging like a disappointed parent before barking, "Cigarette!" at the start of each break. And, whatever it takes, he gets the results he wants.

He's a watchable, magnetic presence, and just listening to him talk about the music reveals even more of the legendary Bernstein charisma. Crouched over the piano in a stylish summer blazer, glasses perched atop his head, and chain-smoking with a continental nonchalance, he lays out "Das Lied von der Erde" with all the understated ease of the coolest professor on campus -- demystifying a complex masterpiece while giving you a hunger to hear it and find new things in it for yourself.

And you will hear new things in these performances. In fact, it's hard to imagine a set of Mahler recordings with more elemental strength, hypnotic pull, wealth of astonishing detail, or power to exhilarate and deeply move the listener. It's remarkable, in fact, just how much of the frisson of Bernstein's live performances comes across here. Bernstein's Mahler legacy is justly legendary. Deutsche Grammophon has done it proud with these splendid remasterings. I don't think it's going to Mahlerian extremes to say that this boxed set is one of the two or three most significant classical music releases in the DVD medium.

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