The Greatest Mahler Cycle Ever?
You will probably be as incredulous as I was to learn that the greatest cycle of Mahler symphonies comes not from any of the usual suspects — Abbado, Bernstein, Chially, Haitink, Kubelik, Rattle, Sinopoli, Solti, Tennstedt — but from the unsung Gary Bertini, who spent the better part of his career as music director of the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra. Unlike any of those more publicized sets, each of which includes a misfire or two, Bertini is consistently successful from first to last; his performance of each of these works can stand comparison with the very best available.
But what virtues make these performances work so well? Compared to the more “classical” interpreters (Abbado, Haitink, Chially), Bertini is more individual and varied, more intimate and daring. Compared to more “Romantic” interpreters (Bernstein, Sinopoli, Tennstedt), he rigorously avoids any trace of excess or exaggeration. Here is Mahler without the heavy breathing or neurotic self-absorption. Appropriately, Bertini’s tonal palette is more brightly colored than dark-hued; his textures more transparent and cleanly delineated than heavy or thick. In his excellent program notes, Kyo Mitsutoshi calls Bertini’s Mahler “Mediterranean,” and I think that’s an apt description. It’s not that Bertini smoothes over Mahler’s rough edges, or underplays the sense of despair and struggle that animates so much of this music. But he is less prone to exaggerating its darker claims, and he misses no opportunity to let us hear the wonder, humor, and sensuality of the music.
But so honest and refreshingly direct a point of view would count for little without a command of matters both large and small. Structurally, Bertini stresses balance and proportion. No matter the mood, we’re always moving purposefully forward. As you might expect, Bertini’s tempos are faster rather than slower, but always varied–delicately shaded and extremely well judged. In his hands Mahler’s most long-drawn-out movements flow in a completely natural way, and the climaxes are all the more powerful for being so well prepared for. But one also feels Bertini’s care and attention in the smallest details. Over the last year or so I’ve been listening to a lot of Mahler’s music, and recently a kind of weariness had set in that gave me second thoughts about taking on a review of a complete cycle of the symphonies. But Bertini’s expressive phrasing made the music sound fresh and vividly alive again. In fact, Bertini’s attention to detail makes many of his brethren in the Mahler community sound as if they were sleepwalking through their recording sessions.
These performances were recorded between 1984 and 1991 in Germany (Symphonies 2-7 and the 10th) and Japan (1, 8, 9, and Das Lied ). Though several of the symphonies appeared in Europe, this set gathers them together for the first time and marks their first official U.S. release. If in the future they are to stand as Bertini’s recorded legacy, they represent his art in the best possible light. In this respect he is well served by both his engineers and his orchestra. Though not quite demonstration quality, the recordings (like the performances) are honest and well balanced, revealing a spacious, convincingly dynamic and harmonically complete presentation. The Cologne Radio Orchestra plays alertly and heroically throughout. It’s not just that they rise to the challenge. Asked to guess the orchestra here, you would be forgiven for mistaking them for one of the great orchestras of Europe or America.
I should add that the singing of the various soloists and choirs is both technically assured and inspired. As I did not list any of the singers above, I will do so now.
Symphony No. 2: Krisztina Laki (s), Florence Quivar (ms). Symphony No. 3: Gwendolyn Killebrew (c). Symphony No. 4: Lucia Popp (s). Symphony No. 8: Julia Varady (s1), Marianne Haggander (s2), Maria Venuti (s3), Florence Quivar (a1), Ann Howells (a2), Paul Frey (t), Alan Titus (b), Siegfried Vogel (b). Das Lied von der Erde: Marjana Lipovsek (m), Ben Heppner (t).
I’ve seen this set of eleven generously filled cd’s offered for as much as eighty dollars and for as little as fifty. So I suggest a little on-line shopping around. But for those wishing to explore the Mahler symphonies in performances that will endure the test of time, this set stands as a bargain at any price. No conductor has ever done a better job of representing both Mahler’s humanity and the sheer tonal splendor of his music.