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CD Review

Gustav Mahler

Sony 47573
  • Symphony #1 *
  • Symphony #2 "Resurrection"
Sheila Armstrong, soprano
Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano
Edinburgh Festival Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
* New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
Sony Classical SM2K47573 2CDs
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan

From a sonic point of view, these are hands down two of the least impressive recordings in the Bernstein/Mahler canon. What's more, this Royal Edition set – complete with uninspiring watercolor prints from H.R.H. The Prince of Wales – is at least two transfers behind the best-sounding release of the New York First. This may lead collectors to wonder why I own this set at all, given that Sony has lavished considerable care on so much of the Bernstein legacy.

The answer lies in the live London Symphony Second, recorded at Ely Cathedral with two remarkable soloists. Bernstein's interpretations could certainly change depending on venue and acoustic, though it must be said that he was far more consistent than his detractors like to admit. At time of writing, the easiest way to obtain this performance is a 2013 Japanese pressing. Without the First in tow, it obviously serves a purpose for hardcore collectors, but at over 30 dollars strikes me as somewhat hefty a price for a live Mahler 2. Sony has basically ignored this performance in boxes large and small, and the confusion worsens when you realize that the video rights to this concert belong to Deutsche Grammophon. They did not release it within their Bernstein boxes, either.

My friends who are vocalists tend to prefer this performance over the more famous ones. For starters, the video is thrilling. The London Symphony remains a more idiomatic Mahler orchestra than Vienna to this day, and so this unique partnership shines through most effectively. Finally, Janet Baker provides a ravishing Urlicht, easily equaling Christa Ludwig on the conductor's later recording. Then there's Bernstein himself, still healthy, excitable, and engaged. Arguably, he's at the height of his powers, and he uses the live setting and unusual acoustic to his full advantage. Tempos are more extreme than the earlier Sony version, with little of the heaviness that distinguishes the crushing DG studio account. We can hear the conductor's interpretation heading in that direction, though, and it's fascinating.

Unfortunately, I simply cannot recommend this recording as a first choice. It's largely on account of the sound, which is recorded at a very low level and turns less than appealing when cranked up. The London Symphony is occasionally swamped and details do not register as clearly as they do within the studio version. The chorus also strikes me as subpar, though that could also be contributed to the acoustics. I am not convinced that Janet Baker can redeem the performance herself, but she and Sheila Armstrong work well together. Ultimately, this is another Bernstein performance that could use some refurbishing, to say nothing of another domestic release. It makes a greater impact on DVD.

The New York First remains – along with the Fifth from the same Columbia cycle – the least convincing Mahler performance from the conductor that I have heard. It's not a bad performance, but I prefer Bruno Walter's earlier account if I want a Columbia Mahler One with this orchestra. The Royal Edition's transfer is markedly inferior to the releases that have come after it in recent years. In every respect I favor Bernstein's later recording with the Concertgebouw, a weighty and totally immersive musical experience. So despite my reservations about both performances, I do feel that it's important to alert longtime collectors about the Second, particularly if they've had trouble finding it.

Copyright © 2017, Brian Wigman