This Helicon release of a 1985 concert with the Israel Philharmonic brings to five the recordings of Mahler’s Ninth by Leonard Bernstein, which span his early advocacy of the composer in the 60s through to the mid-80s five years before his death in 1990. Each with a different orchestra (the others are New York, Vienna, Berlin, Concertgebouw), they became more personal, rhetorical, and expressive as he got older, the outer movements notably longer. Timings here are close to those with the Concertgebouw, recorded two months earlier, yet they don’t tell the whole story. If Alban Berg heard premonitions of death in the andante, Bernstein on these two occasions heard pain, anguish, and an almost feverish angst. Horns wail and groan, brass pierce and stab, winds shriek. With the Concertgebouw the music is anguished, tortured, neurotic; with the Israel it is anguished, tortured, and exhausted, the huge climaxes almost punishing in their weight and force, quiet passages ghostly, desolate (dynamic contrasts and shadings breathtaking). As rustic ländler become grotesque dances of death in the second movement, the lurchings back and forth between bucolic sentimentality and mocking irony are true lurchings—violent contrasts, not smooth transitions. “The death of society” Bernstein wrote in his score of the rondo, Mahler’s vision of a world hurtling toward destruction mirrored in the accelerating tempos that end in a riot of frenzy, even hysteria.
Bernstein always conducted the opening of the adagio with such white- hot intensity you wondered if he or the orchestra could possibly have anything left for later; but he always found something and galvanized his players into incandescence. Stretching the movement out to over thirty spacious minutes, his refusal to rush, his insistence that everything happen in its own, as if preordained, time, his sheer iron nerve—all result in a tour de force of sustained, impassioned lyricism without one exhibitionistic bar, the structure a succession of massive waves that subside only when Mahler takes that cool dip into the waters of Das Lied before the last shattering climax. “Have the courage to remain in eight,” Bernstein enjoined himself on the final page of his score— meaning set the pulse very, very slow, as in the reluctant giving up of life. And he did, over five full minutes, longer than any other conductor, to devastating effect.
This being a concert performance, there are the usual Bernstein foot stamps and vocal exhortations, not to mention moments of less than perfect intonation and ensemble (e.g., the end of the rondo) from this not-always-reliable band. No matter: Bernstein’s magnetism has them playing as if possessed. Sound is remarkably good for a live recording, about which there is uncertainty regarding provenance: Helicon’s Web site identifies it as Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium, but the Gramophone’s Rob Cowan, rarely mistaken about such matters, insists it’s from a tour performance in Japan (which a review reprinted in the booklet seems to confirm). Sonics suggest he may be right: I’ve never heard recordings from the rather dry Mann acoustic with this kind of immediacy, dynamics, and sympathetic resonance.
While Bernstein’s live-in-Berlin Mahler Ninth (DG) would be my desert-island companion, this new one sheds a uniquely insightful light on the music and one of its greatest interpreters.