MAHLER: Symphonies 1-9, Adagio from Symphony No. 10. Das Lied von der Erde.
Ben Heppner, tenor; Marjana Lipovsek, mezzo-soprano (Das Lied); Krisztina Laki, soprano; Florence Quivar, mezzo-soprano (Symphony No. 2); Gwendolyn Killebrew, contralto (Symphony No. 3); Lucia Popp, soprano (Symphony No. 4); Julia Varady, Marianne Haggander, Maria Venuti, sopranos; Florence Quivar, Ann Howells, altos; Paul Frey, tenor; Alan Titus, baritone; Siegfried Vogel, bass (Symphony No. 8); various choruses; Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester/Gary Bertini, cond.
EMI CLASSICS 40238 (11 CDS) TT: app. 13 hrs. 18 min.
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Gary Bertini, who died in March 2005, less than two months before his 78th birthday, conducted chiefly in Europe, Israel and at the end in Tokyo, apart from two seasons in Detroit (1981-83). Although born in Bessarabia (Moldova today), his family moved to Palestine when he was three, where he was specially cherished, not only as a batonist but a conferencier in the Bernstein tradition, and a teacher as well. His major posts elsewhere were principal guest conductor of the Scottish National SO(1971-81) as well as music director of the Jerusalem SO (1976-83), then following his brief Detroit detour, chief conductor of the Cologne Radio SO(1984-91, where Gunther Wand preceded as well as followed him), intendant and general director of the Frankfurt Opera (1987-91), artistic director of the New Israel Opera at Tel-Aviv (1994-7, where he died), music director of the Rome Opera in 1997, and in 1998 music director of the Tokyo Metropolitan SO. For all that activity Bertini was not a prolific recording artist, and this set of Mahler Symphonies (including the Adagio only of No. 10) and Das Lied von der Erde – begun in 1984 with No. 6 (!) and completed in November 1991– stands as his principal legacy on discs. Nos. 2-7 and the first movement of 10 were recorded in Cologne beginning in 1984; Nos. 1, 8, 9 and Das Lied were recorded live in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall on two tours in 1991. Despite the difference in venues (the WDR studio as well as Köln’s Philharmonie) the recorded sound in EMI’s “Classics” Collection is remarkably full-bodied, clean without dryness, and consistent.

This is the first time, however, the entire enterprise has appeared intact. French EMI published 1-5 but nothing more, and elsewhere random individual issues appeared (only to disappear). Now, however, in a Mahler market that today is full if not fulsome or glutted, these collectively admirable readings and playings can be had on 11 discs at a midrange price, cardboard-boxed, with several works divided albeit not sequentially in several cases. My only major complaint is the program note by a Tokyo music critic whose knowledge of Mahler performers and performing traditions is egregiously limited (no mention of Haitink, Abbado, or Rattle for that matter, among completists, or Koussevitzky and Mitropoulos as master interpreters of individual symphonies), whose admiration of Bertini amounts to adoration. He finds the last movements here of Symphony No 9 and Das Lied “full of tenderness and love” and “unexpected optimism,” respectively, adding that Das Lied “might even be described as the happiest music that Mahler ever wrote.” Keep a full salt-shaker close to hand.

The most triumphant performance is the Eighth Symphony, with a stellar cast of singers, choruses from Stuttgart, Prague and Cologne as well as The Little Singers of Tokyo – as insightful and noble as any ever recorded, with a brisk but not hurried opening movement, and a heart-filling “Neige, neige, du Ohnegleiche...Blicket auf zum Retterblick...Alles vergängliche” that caps Bertini’s superbly cumulative finale. I don’t, in fact, know a better overall performance, not even Solti’s 1971 Vienna benchmark. The finale of No. 2 (“Auferstehn!”) is similarly moving, although soprano Kristina Laki is pushed beyond native capacities. But here, again in No. 3 and No. 8, contralto Gwendolyn Killibrew is rock-solid and deeply expressive. Lucia Popp however, in the finale of a rather quirky No. 4, is not in good voice, while Marjana Lipovsek in Das Lied isn’t going to make anyone forget Ferrier, Forrester, Ludwig, Dame Baker or a distinguished list of other mezzos and contraltos in movements 2, 4 and the heartbreaking 6. Her partner Ben Heppner, however, in 1991 voice, is thrilling – tonally vibrant, a conquering hero of tessitura, with reserves of power to spare. I don’t think I’ve ever heard songs 1, 3 and 5 better sung.

Among the nonvocal symphonies, No. 1 (the last to be recorded) rather lacks character in the middle movements. No 2 makes up for a laid-back opening movement in 4 and 5.The Third Symphony is admirably characterful, though it was only the second Mahler that Bertini recorded in Cologne with an outstandingly expressive finale. No. 5 is altogether characterful as well as rich in instrumental subtleties. No. 6 is comparatively weakish (with the Scherzo in second place) but then conductor and players had not yet taken the full measure of one another’s capabilities. No. 7 has a rip-roaring finale, although the middle movements (2-4) stress finesse over character. No. 9 ends seraphically, even if the opening is somewhat four-square and the “Rondo-Burleske” really uglier music by Mahlerian intention than Bertini was willing to admit. The Adagio movement of No. 10 makes one wish the Cologne players had done all of Deryck Cooke’s second version to which Colin Matthews and Berthold Goldschmidt lent their ears and imagination. Which version is played here has not been not identified in an otherwise comprehensive program book; given the dates of these recordings, the Gesellschaft edition of the 1960s is likeliest.

Those who dote on Bernstein will dismiss Bertini as deficient in what the Tokyo critic scorns as “the cloying despair of Expressionism. There is no sense of the canvas being covered with dark colors, of garish colors being hurled around or of violent brushstrokes.... Bertini is a conductor who values beauty above all.” He even calls these performances “Mediterranean Mahler.” Persons who collect Mahler conscientiously, whether complete recordings or individual performances, have their favorites and those which are anathema. But adding Bertini should not be considered spendthrift (unlike Abravanel’s reissued Utah recordings). On the other hand, budget-conscious buyers might want to save their coin of the realm for Abbado and the Berlin Phil and other post-Berlin orchestras he’s working with for DGG. Currently, he is Primus, period.

R.D. (February 2006)