Classical Reissue Reviews

MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 in D – Israel Philharmonic Orch./ Leonard Bernstein – Helicon (2 CDs)

A shocker of a recording from an unexpected source. Mahlerians and Bernstein fans will have to have it.

Published on September 17, 2012

MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 in D – Israel Philharmonic Orchestra/ Leonard Bernstein – Helicon 02-9656 (2 CDs), 87:32 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] (6/12/12) *****:

Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and Leonard Bernstein go together like bread and butter. There has never been a conductor so attuned to Mahler’s angst and hopeful desperation as Bernstein, who in calling the composer the prophet of the 20th century subliminally considered himself the channel of the prophet. Well perhaps it wasn’t so subtle after all, because even though Mahler performance history did exist before Bernstein, the conductor didn’t think it amounted to anything until his own groundbreaking first complete set of the symphonies in the 1960s.

All of his recordings are in different ways benchmarks; his first, which some consider still the definitive account, shows the remarkable discovery of a work that was to send shockwaves through the music world, even though friends of Mahler like Bruno Walter—whom personally I don’t think had half the understanding of the composer that Bernstein had—recorded the piece early on. Bernstein’s Concertgebouw recording that came in the 1980s at the end of his second complete cycle also has many fans because of its intensity and smooth playing—the string sound has not been equaled. The flawed magnificence of his Berlin Philharmonic recording stems from the excitement of his unique Berlin appearances, and the spontaneous feeling of the recording, even though it famously has a “missed” entrance—this did not stop it from getting all sorts of awards.

Now, stuck in the archives of the 1985 Israel Philharmonic (in preparation for what was to be a very successful tour of Japan) we have this recording, the fourth now counted, and it is a stunner. Though we do have some audience noise stemming from the Mann Auditorium in Tel-Aviv, and there are passages like those found in the blazingly fast Rondo-Burleske movement, the fastest of Bernstein’s four and no doubt caused by the adrenaline flowing at the moment in an environment he loved, are not the most together, especially in the strings who are asked to play exceptionally fast, for the most part this is a magnificent reading. No one will for one minute suggest that the Israel Phil, which can be maddeningly inconsistent, is the equal of any of the orchestras in the previous recordings; but here they sound as world class as they need to be, with punctuating and roaring brass, very colorful wind playing, and strings that are obviously playing beyond themselves—as orchestras tend to do under Bernstein—to suggest a firm and strongly characterful Mahlerian sound.

The recording itself is amazing; with a depth and richness that almost matches several SACD recordings of this work. If you thought you had heard the last word on this symphony and Leonard Bernstein, think again; from the opening bars to the last cautious farewell in the final moments this is a reading that mesmerizes from first to last, and I for one will be returning to it often. Highest recommendation!

—Steven Ritter




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