Both Tim Page and Erik Ryding, in their essays accompanying this Sony reissue of Leonard Bernstein’s landmark cycle of the complete symphonies of Gustav Mahler, give Bernstein pride of place in Mahler’s “rehabilitation” in the 1960s. While I don’t want to diminish Bernstein’s role in this process, I do want to point out that it was a process, not a singular event, and of much broader reach than one might conclude after reading what these two commentators have to say. (Although to give Ryding his due, he does point out that Mahler always had his champions.)
Mahler’s music had not been particularly popular for quite a long time — he’s difficult, he’s big, he’s unnerving, and he’s sometimes bizarre, particularly for an audience much more attuned to the standard repertoire, which for much of the twentieth century was Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Rachmaninoff, the occasional Mozart, and Richard Strauss, whose earlier works, at least, were much more favored. (It’s interesting to think about how tastes so easily become canalized: remember that Scarlatti, Vivaldi, and even Bach needed advocates to re-enter the mainstream.)
My own introduction to Mahler came slightly after the release of Bernstein’s recordings — but only slightly — through performances by Irwin Hoffman and later, Sir George Solti (at that time, still just “Georg”) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I don’t remember when Solti began recording his Mahler cycle — it was early on — but it became quite the thing to do: by the mid-1980s, pretty much everyone who was anyone had a bunch of Mahler recordings under their belts. This was really only the end of a long-term re-evaluation of Mahler’s music beginning in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Even conductors such as Fritz Reiner had to grow into Mahler, but when they did, they were happy to spread the news.
This does have bearing, because listening to the complete Bernstein cycle, which I have never done before, is an eye-opener. (My own library contains mostly Solti’s recordings — on vinyl.) There is a fundamental difference in approach that I find myself enjoying immensely: it’s a very different Mahler than the one I knew. (Solti’s approach was very, very serious and sometimes a little — well, stolid. It’s painful for me to say that because Solti was something more than a local hero. We finally, after a long search, had a world-class conductor for our world-class orchestra: he was close to being a god.)
The thing about Mahler that strikes me on listening to Bernstein’s recordings is that the man caught the soul of a time that was, like the century that followed, poised on the edge, and it’s a soul that Bernstein understands very well. Even though Mahler is often considered the highest of the “high Romantics,” there is something essentially modern in his outlook. His Vienna was about to disappear — there is something very Viennese about his music, even though he spent most of his career in other parts of the German-speaking world — and that’s a feeling that I think any of us who have lived since have felt. Bernstein says, in his essay “Mahler: His Time Has Come,” that Mahler pushed nineteenth-century German music as far as it could go, and I think in formal terms he’s correct. The feeling, though, is much more of the twentieth: this is music that lives on the edge. The third movement of the First Symphony (which has been my favorite Mahler since the first time I heard it) captures this very well, with the dark humor of a child’s round transposed to a minor key, becoming a surreal funeral march, broken by a sometimes manic theme based on the call of a cuckoo, and then further interrupted by interludes of a supremely sensuous and passionate waltz. It somehow summarizes the twentieth century in a way that nothing else I’ve ever encountered has (with the possible exception of the novels of Thomas Pynchon). It’s blackest irony, dreams and nightmares, collapse and resurrection, manic laughter. It’s a feeling that recurs throughout these symphonies, notably in the scherzando of the Fourth, and it’s one for which Bernstein obviously has a great deal of sympathy.
I think it’s that feeling that gives these interpretations their special character. There is a — I almost want to call it “vivacity,” and in some places it is, but it’s really a kind of energy that informs the complete cycle, a febrile tension, still agitated even when it stops for breath. It becomes noticeable in passages such as the opening to the Sixth Symphony, a kind of lilt that colors the momentum, even through the passages that often want to showcase the drama: the drama is here, but the momentum keeps the whole piece in motion.
And Bernstein understood the drama, as well. Perhaps it was his own background in writing for the theater. I’m not talking only about the big, full bore passages at which Mahler excelled, but the parts, such as certain passages in the first movement of the Seventh Symphony, in which Bernstein finds a compelling dramatic tension that draws us in and keeps us there — almost on the edge of our seats.
In the right hands, Mahler’s music is exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. The great choral first movement of the Eighth Symphony, “The Symphony of a Thousand,” is probably one of the best examples. It’s something that, left to hands that are not quite deft enough, not quite light enough, can be a trial. Bernstein displayed supreme confidence in handling this one. Again, I’m not surprised: consider the forces employed in some of his own compositions and how adroitly he handled those. And yet he makes the transition to the quiet, evocative second movement in such a way as to engage us on another level: we have left overwhelming majesty and entered a space where we can remember and reflect. Yes, Mahler provided the opportunity, but Bernstein made it an inevitability: the logic of Mahler’s writing is impeccable here, and Bernstein’s execution makes it plain.
Bernstein notes that Mahler’s music was, first and foremost, about Mahler, and that’s very much the case, as it is with any artist: the hopes, dreams, triumphs and tragedies, the quiet moments, all show up again and again in a body of work that is, as much as anything else, about transformation, about reconciling dualities, about a synthesis that allows us to continue. What Bernstein doesn’t point out is that Mahler, like any artist we pay attention to, was Everyman: he says some hard things, and he says them in ways that may give us pause, but we are compelled to listen because they are, when it comes right down to it, our own truths.
So, you should absolutely have some Mahler in your collection, right? But why this one instead of any of the others? Erik Ryding summed up my reaction better than I can: “Oh, that’s how it’s supposed to sound.”
(Sony Music Entertainment, 2009) [New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond.]