FOREWORD: A reorganized New York Philharmonic Society was the last
permanent employer of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). After his departure from
the Vienna Hopofer in 1907 following a storied decade of Absolute Musical
Authority, he was engaged for the Metropolitan Opera by the Austrian-born
general manager, Heinrich Conried. Alas for Mahler, Conried "resigned" in
February 1908, a month after Mahler's triumphant conducting debut in
Tristan and Isolde. His successor was Giulio Gatti-Casazza from
La Scala, who brought along Arturo Toscanini as a thank-you gift to the
trustees. With Artur Nikisch (who'd given the Boston Symphony its first
gold-plating, and was dually ensconced in Berlin and Leipzig), Mahler
and Toscanini were the most famous conductors in the world. A polite but
lethal clash over repertoire, with Gatti backing Toscanini, provoked
Mahler to quit the Met after one season, whereupon reorganizers of the
NYP (who included Carnegie, Mellon and John D. Rockefeller) engaged him
as music director on a season-to-season basis starting in 1909. Terminal
illness forced his withdrawal in February 1911. He returned to Europe an
invalid, accompanied by his unfaithful young wife Alma ("Almschi" intimately,
who later on had a passionate liaison with the artist Kokoschka before
before marrying Walter Gropius of Bauhaus fame, and after him the author
Franz Werfel). When treatment in Paris failed to revive him, Mahler asked
to be taken to Vienna, where he died on May 18, 1911.
His three years in New York were increasingly embattled. The critic Henry Krehbiel, from Ann Arbor by way of Cincinnati, became Kenneth Starr to Mahler's Bill Clinton analogously. Not even Mahler's death could mute the abuse, in response to which Krehbiel's colleagues denounced him, ineffectually; the old bastard lived and wrote till 1923. During Willem Mengelberg's decade-long tenure with the NYP (1920-1930; Toscanini got rid of him, too), he led a major Mahler work every season, to the exasperation of audiences, most of whom departed before the end. There had been a gap before him, and another after, until Bruno Walter came first as a guest conductor in the early '30s and then as a permanent American resident in 1940. But his Mahler repertoire neglected four of the composer's nine symphonies: 3, 6, 7 and 8. It was Dimitri Mitropoulos, starting in the 1940s as a guest and later on as music director (1950-57), who gave the orchestra its first comprehensive continuity with Mahler since Mengelberg. Bernstein was, if you examine the repertory list included with this set, a Lenny-come-lately, although he was the first conductor to record the nine completed symphonies, and thus the NYP was the first orchestra to do so.
Today, the NYP's annual Mahler performances are chiefly of Symphonies 1, 2 and 4, less often of 5 and 9, or Das Lied von der Erde (a six-song cycle the composer was afraid to call No. 9, remembering Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, and then most recently, Dvorák). Nos. 3, 6, 7, 8 and Deryck Cooke's admirable reconstructions of 10, however, are rarities. Read the literature, and decide if there was a stronger "Mahler tradition" in New York than, say, in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston or in Cincinnati -- where Mahler's symphonies 3, 5, 7, 8, 9, Cooke's 10/I, and Das Lied von der Erde, all had their American premiéres.
That said, on with the show.
For the second year running, the New York Philharmonic has spelunked in its own archives and those of numerous others, private as well as broadcast, to produce a mammoth sonic anthology. As in the case of the first collection (New York Philharmonic -- The Historic Broadcasts, 1923 -- 1987), it is superior in scope and scholarship to the compendia of any transatlantic orchestra, size irrespective, which is not backed by a recording conglomerate or a government. Neither the Vienna nor the Berlin Philharmonics, self-governing but subsidized from city and national exchequers, have produced anything comparable -- even with the Polygram cartel backing them. Neither has the now-Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, benevolently endowed by the Dutch government, nor those copious sonic encylopedias from the Soviet Union now being open-marked everywhere by Russian survivors of communism's collapse.
In addition to 13 hours of music, and another two of oral memorabilia about Mahler as a man and musician -- but mostly his last few years in Vienna and America -- the New York Philharmonic offers two chock-full booklets (246 pages each) about the music and related Mahleriana with much that is illuminating. Some entries are shallow: Kurt Masur on a reputedly unbroken "Mahler tradition" about which he's heard far more than he's witnessed; excerpts from reviews of performances, often from nondescript rather than authoritative sources, especially since the departure of Virgil Thomson, Irving Kolodin, and the best of their respective trainees from the Manhattan scene. (One could -- and perhaps will, somewhere else at some other time -- claim that The New York Times, with the single exception of Donal Henahan, has had the most undistinguished parade of chief music critics since Olin Downes arrived from Boston in 1924.) The remembrances of current players tend to be parochial, especially the ex cathedra ones. And program notes on the music, extracted or excerpted from the orchestra's pre-Stagebill program books, have been chosen with unfortunate (perhaps even spiteful) omissions. Too often they've been written by dutiful but pedestrian Edward Downes (son of Mahler-hating Olin), as if there'd never been Lawrence Gilman or Philip Ramey. Herbert Peyser's on Symphony No. 8, and Kolodin's on Nos. 1 and 6 (surely his couple of paragraphs on the two movements from No. 10 were edited down!) shine like torches in a candlelight procession.
On the other hand, there's The Good Stuff, including Henri-Louis de la Grange on Mahler in Manhattan. He takes a scrub-brush and Lysol to Alma Mahler's posthumous depictions of the husband she cuckolded in 1910. (But when, cher Maître, do we get the final volumes in a life of Mahler that started appearing stateside at least 25 years ago??) The booklets feature an excellent contribution by Howard Shanet, who is upgrading his long-valuable biography of the NYP from its beginnings. Sedgwick Clark's crypto-promotional prose about the works has a page "explaining" the absence of Leonard Bernstein, who recorded everything of Mahler, he writes, forgetting Lenny-B's neglect of Das klagende Lied, or his refusal to conduct any part of the Tenth -- either the two nearly-complete movements that Ernst Krenek edited at the behest of "Almschi," the Widow Mahler (and briefly his mother-in-law), or Deryck Cooke's two "versions" of the whole. Bernstein's 8th with the Philharmonic in 1965 was not broadcast, while "rights" to Das Lied in March 1967, with Jess Thomas and Fischer-Dieskau, "were not available."
And that leads us to the oldest but overall best performance in this collection -- Bruno Walter's Das Lied of 1948, with Kathleen Ferrier in her American debut, and Set Svanholm, the world's leading non-Melchior at the time. Implicitly, if Bernstein's all-male version had been available (a gripping performance by the way, with hysteria mostly under control), we wouldn't have this finest of Walter's now-four versions on discs. His commercial recording on London/Decca with Ferrier, Julius Patzak, and the Vienna Philharmonic followed four years later, in mono, and was excruciatingly strident sonically in its first CD incarnation. The surprise here is that the New York Philharmonic of 1948 -- freshly honed by Artur Rodzinski after Barbirolli's removal as music director -- outplayed the Viennese desk by desk, with a finesse and expressive subtlety that make it first choice among Walter's depositions. The 1936 version from Vienna with Kerstin Thorborg and Charles Kullman remains historic, and the 1952 one from there even more so, but by his last one for Columbia/Sony, circa 1960, Walter had become enfeebled, not just hobbled by mediocre singers. If Ferrier in 1952 had become a more mature artist, her voice in 1948 was already a glory (except for some random moments of fractionally off-center intonation in the upper-middle voice -- still there in 1952, but less noticeable, like the Callas vibrato when she was still very young and fearless). Wasn't it the elder Downes, by the way, who dismissed Ferrier as a "fourth-rate British church contralto," or words very much to that effect?
If Svanholm strained in the first song, by the fifth, "The Toper in Springtime," he was singing as no one I've heard -- and daresay no one else has heard -- before or since. I keep Klemperer/EMI and Reiner/RCA on the shelf, but wish I could afford to own this 1948 Walter performance, in persuasive mono sound, despite its coming right after the tonal wallop of Kubelik's Seventh Symphony finale from 1981 which has the finest sound per se in the whole collection.
The other vocal cycle has no such distinction. Fischer-Dieskau's Wayfarer of 1964 came to Mahler by way of Wozzeck, with everything over-emoted and over-enunciated, as if he were parodying Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. He seemed not to have remembered anything of his commercial recording with Furtwängler, perhaps because William Steinberg on the Phil podium was efficiently impersonal, to the point almost of not giving a damn (or was he bending over backwards not to fall into Fi-Di's trap?) This barking spaniel of a performance follows a large, mongrel bow-wow on disc 1 -- Barbirolli's First Symphony from January 1959. It offers not one insight, not one flash of intuition, hardly even an acquaintance with a style that Sir John self-admittedly had not studied, except for the "Adagietto" from Symphony No. 5, until the Manchester music-and-cricket critic Neville Cardus urged him to bone up on Mahler in 1954. He was still gnawing in 1959.
Disc 2 commemorates the NYP's 10,000th performance -- an Avery Fisher Hall performance of Symphony No. 2, a.k.a. the "Resurrection," broadcast on March 7, 1982. In both program books, this receives a good deal of praise beginning with Masur's and continuing with that of several players. Maybe you needed to have been there. No quarrel about the playing or the singing: world-class generic right down the line; or a most serviceable recording, Avery Fisher style, before Deutsche Grammophon and Bernstein brought in equipment to beef-up and cosmeticize the sound. My gripe is Mehta. If you want to know why, listen to the first two celli/cb phrases in the opening movement. Mehta conducts them identically (although the first is marked fff, the second only ff), and then covers the symphony's remaining 79:40 minutes with a whitewash brush dipped in buckets of poster-colors. How those two phrases should sound you can learn, and a lot more, on Leonard Slatkin's vintage Telarc CDs with Saint Louis forces (don't laugh; I've been sorry ever since it slipped from my grasp).
Disc 3 contains the first five movements of Symphony No. 3, from October 23, 1976 (the 21:44 finale leads off disc 4). Pierre Boulez brought to it calipers, scalpel, and a coroner's surgical hand, resulting in a performance more fittingly suited to the Arts & Entertainment channel's Silent Witness. The first movement downplayed all the terror Mahler remembered from his childhood in Iglau, and incorporated into this music. Things improved by the third movement, thanks to some wonderful offstage trumpet playing by Gerard Schwarz, the principal that season before taking up the baton. Mezzo-soprano Yvonne Minton was familiarly admirable in the fourth movement's woe-full excerpt from Zarathustra. So were the boy and lady choristers in the "Bimm, Bamm" excerpt from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, although it lacked an ominous turn in the middle section before the jollity resumed. The orchestra throughout, and continually in the final movement, played with an intonational precision not always the norm while Boulez was music director (1971-1977), and a tonal bloom perhaps remembered from Bernstein, Mitropoulos before him, and Bruno Walter from the 1940's until his retirement.
Boulez did not over-emote in the finale, to Mahler's advantage, nor did he
stretch the Langam like an infinitely elastic waistband on Jockey
briefs. By this point, the autopsy had concluded and the orchestra
returned to living concerns. What follows on disc 4 -- a pre-knighted
Solti reading of Symphony No. 4 from January 13, 1962 -- was a virtual
travesty of his muscle-buffed way with Mahler, to the composer's
considerable advantage in sprawling works like the Fifth, Sixth and Eighth
Symphonies, but crude-sounding in a faux naif piece like No. 4.
Having said that, both Solti recordings of the Fourth, but especially the
one from 1961 in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, were charming overall and at
moments downright sweet. Part of the problem with this NYP relic is the
sound itself, "derive[d] from line checks recorded by the Voice of
America [with] intermittent static, which CEDAR was able to correct. The
broadband interference in Nos. 4, 9 and 10 was processed with NO-NOISE
by Joseph Patrych to lessen its presence." Not only is there still
residual noise, sonic "presence" has been flattened, coarsened, arguably
cheapened. I heard one performance from that week's series in Carnegie
Hall, and none of it sounded the way this one does. While hardly relaxed
(Solti was scared by the NYP's reputation for bad behavior with guests,
as well as several of their past bosses), he was nonetheless painstaking
and persuasive. Irmgard Seefried's singing in the finale was always
enchanting, whether or not she was in the best voice -- for me an
incomparable artist at a time when the competition included Güden,
Schwarzkopf and Della Casa. But she was not enough to redeem a performance
disfigured by the diluted sonics on a Solti off-day.
The sound itself of the Fifth Symphony as conducted by Klaus Tennstedt on June 18, 1980, is some of the best in this collection. And the orchestra played alternatingly like maenads or seraphim, as bidden, in a reading one will either cite as gospel or reject as willfully pulled apart, despite some smashing moments. I don't write this as a Tennstedt enemy, although I preferred the performance of other conductors in almost everything I heard him broadcast or record -- with one historic exception. His performance of Mahler's Seventh with the Philadelphia Orchestra during the 1986-7 broadcast season was flat-out incomparable, and I've heard my share of Sevenths: in a perverse way it is my favorite of the echt Nine, followed closely by the first movement (forget the rest) of No. 3. But Tennstedt's NYP Fifth was deboned, like pressed duck, with juice galore and rich flavor but very little of the Fifth's original shape. It sprawled, shrieked, cooed, wept, and beat its breast, but all that emotion undercut what has always been a structurally problematic work. You want to hear No. 5 as the NYP played it best? The Mitropoulos broadcast of January 1960, in Music & Arts tribute to his Mahler (reviewed elsewhere on this website), is nonpareil, and should have been the performance of choice in this collection -- along with his First and Ninth, which here suffer terminally from Barbirolli. I daresay the NYP's source copy, too, would have sounded even smoother than M-&-A's. Meaning no disrespect to the late Tennstedt's powers of persuasion on the podium, or to the NYP's hair-trigger response, his Fifth rather than Mitropoulos' is beyond forgiving.
The Mitropoulos Sixth that follows on disc 6 comes from a broadcast of April 10, 1955, the second time he conducted it with the NYP (their American premiere in December 1947 was not aired). It still used an "older" order of movements, with the Andante moderato after the opening movement, then the Scherzo leading to a finale that Mitropoulos delivered in 28:46, whereas a good many later performances have added up to five minutes more of playing time. (Jascha Horenstein's Stockholm recording lasts 33:30!). Mitropoulos also featured three "hammer-blows" in the Finale, rather than the two settled on by Erwin Ratz in the latest critical edition. But Mahler had a terrible time making up his mind about the order of movements (both sequences were published), and likewise about the "hammer-blows" (he finally decided on two, saying the third was "implicit," until real life dealt him a third one). The Sixth is Mahler's most traditional work structurally, and Mitropoulos approached it in that spirit, here as in the 1959 WDR broadcast in M-&-A's overview. You won't get Bernstein's rabid angst or angry Geschrei, but the Sixth comes off better for Mitropoulos' continence. Mahler may have withdrawn his "Tragic" subtitle, but the darkness remains, with nary a wisp of humor, nor much light let into a spiritual sickroom. With Mitropoulos I can listen to it straight through; not so with anyone else's. Recorded sound is plain, compared to what precedes and follows in this collection, but is neither distorted nor crabbed -- in other words, good solid mono.
What comes next, on disc 7 and the start of 8, is the collection's most exasperating inclusion -- a Kubelik reading of the Seventh Symphony from February 28, 1981, that is three parts magical, one part hyper (yet inveigling), and one part simply grotesque. His first movement is what an assistant of mine always misspelled as "trugid." Actually, applied to tempo and accent, that's probably more onomatopoetic than "turgid," and certainly suits the longeurs of Kubelik's preposterously slow opening -- 24:27. The opening Langsam has never been Langsam-mer: may it never be again. JFK's horse-drawn catafalque moved faster through the streets of Washington, D. C. than Kubelik's first movement through the acoustic space of Avery Fisher Hall. There's a gloriously unfolding melody in the first movement that rewards the long wait for it -- on average about 10 minutes. Here it didn't arrive until the 14th minute, by which time one had either dozed off (but not the orchestra, who played wonderfully for their Czech-born, Chicago-fired, Met-quitting guest) or was yowling with rage.
But then comes the magic trio: Night Music I, Schattenhaft, and Night Music II , a shade slower than other conductors take them, but so brimful of fantasy, surprises in detail, expressive continuity and inspired playing that we're on the Yellow Brick Road. When Kubelik reaches Oz it's like mid-evening traffic in Times Square -- exhilarating, death-defying, everywhere glittery, and bracingly vulgar. Kubelik braked suddenly a couple of times where running a yellow-light might better have served the cause, and almost ran down traffic policemen a couple of more times. But virtually all of this "worked." Because the first movement was so protracted (the entire performance lasted almost 88 minutes, whereas most conductors negotiate it in 79 or less on a single CD), the performance is broken after the second Night Music, spilling the Rondo-Finale onto disc 8, where Walter's Das Lied follows. If only the assemblymen who plotted this release had put the first movement at the end of a different disc -- say Barbirolli's bow-wow First -- the rest could have been enjoyed without black-&-white Kansas, so to speak, padded with drought scenes from The Grapes of Wrath, before the technicolored journey to Oz and back.
Disc 9 holds the sets other undiluted (well, almost undiluted) treasure after Das Lied -- Stokowski's April 9, 1950, revival of the Eighth Symphony ("of a thousand"), which he introduced to America in 1916 at Philadelphia, and then brought to the "Old Met" in New York by popular demand -- overall a run of nine performances when most programs were lucky to be repeated once. Stokowski heard the Munich premiere in 1910 and never forgot the experience. Albeit in mono (but excellent mono), it sounds better than any over-the-counter copy heretofore, including a Stokowski duo-pack on Music & Arts coupled with Debussy and Ravel -- from Leipzig of all unlikely places, given the bucolic bleating and braying of the Gewandhaus winds in French impressionistic music. The NYP version has no overloading, and remarkably subtle dynamic modifications by the original crack team of engineers at CBS radio. In recent days, R.E.B. has been agog over a new Brit issue of Jascha Horenstein's 1959 stereo performance. I've only heard portions of a pirate edition on LP, so long ago that no memory remains (Hercule Poirot's "little grey cells" don't get greyer with age...they die). But Stokowski's version bewitched me when I first heard it on CD, and does so even more now in this impeccable transfer. Sure, Eugene Conley was on-again-off-again as Doctor Marianus in Part 2 (not all his wanting-to-be made him weightier than a lyric tenor, overparted in much of this music for spinto-weight voice). And one of the solo Damen committed a flatted whoop in Part 2 that would have been redubbed had a commercial recording ensued. But the other six soloists were better than par for the Mahler course, with choruses letter- and-pitch perfect. Best of all, Stokowski was a model of fidelity without vitiating his interpretive genius. Horenstein yet may sway me with ungimmicked engineering in pristine stereo, but I cannot imagine a more insightful reading, or playing and choral singing of NYP caliber. If anything ever moves me to listen to No. 8, I prefer it to be this version.
From the celestial realms of "a Thousand," disc 10 plunges into the abyss. By December of 1962, Barbirolli was recurringly ill, yet I heard him twice in Scandinavia during May-June of 1965 and found him in fettle both physically and musically. On the other hand, at the opening of Jones Music Hall in Houston 15 months after that he was seriously ill and none too sober, needing a backstage slant-board on which to rest because of a cardiac condition. His conducting was ludicrously slow, including an Elgar Enigma that lasted 40 minutes; the poor cello section looked as if their bowing arms would fall off. In between Sir John was doing Mahler in Berlin, which EMI recorded, including a somnolent Symphony No. 9 that I never did hear all the way through on discs sent for review. I hadn't yet "cracked" the Ninth, and may never in this lifetime, but Mitropoulos in January 1960, just three years earlier than this one, came as close to revealing the work's core as anyone I expect to hear. On disc 10, the NYP does not sound like the same orchestra (although a couple of seasons of Bernstein's music direction had allowed discipline to slacken). Some of the problem is that CEDAR and NO NOISE jiggery-pokery, also in the First and Fourth performances. But it didn't change Horn 4, who came in flat in the very first bar, or subsequent abominations of intonation and ensemble. These became less egregious later on, but only by comparison, while the performance lurched from bar to bar, subject to subject, movement to movement. I ended up spotting the rest of it after hearing 15 minutes of the opening Andante (but hardly comodo) movement. The set's lone press quote by Irving Kolodin is full of praise -- but surely not for this third of four performances on successive days. I'm sorry, but this one verged on terrible by 20th-century standards; its inclusion does no one a service -- not "glorious John" as Vaughan Williams dubbed him admiringly, nor the NYP, nor Mahler.
Disc 11, before the talk starts, offers the Andante--Adagio first movement of the Tenth that Mahler left unfinished: the same 1960 performance by Mitropoulos in Music & Arts' tribute, plus the brief Purgatorio movement Mahler had more or less completed, this from March 1958. Purgatorio doesn't really work out of context, with or without the opening movement for company. It is merely anticlimactic, as Mitropoulos evidently realized since he didn't repeat it in 1960.
The talk part is frequently fascinating, if not something a buyer is likely to replay often. Bruno Walter leads off with a well-rehearsed, oft-delivered sermon (or so it sounds). A couple of minutes identified as "Stokowski" was mostly a Bostonian presenting him with a Bruckner Society of America Medal for his advocacy of Mahler. Barbirolli, speaking in 1964, had one of those bloody awful interlocutors who cannot let six words go by without reiterating what's just been said -- a distaff Charlie Rose, if you will, with BBC enunciation. From there to the end of side 12 it's William Malloch's storied "I Remember Mahler" broadcast -- ohne die Witwe "Almschi," aber mit seven minutes by her surviving daughter, Anna. The rest is up to you: are two copious booklets and superlative performances of 3-3/4 works out of 12 worth $225?
R.D. (September 1999)
(This set is available from the New York Philharmonic. For more information, call 1-800-557-8268)