This 12-CD set is of obvious interest on two counts -- first, because it assembles all of the classic 1960s vintage Leonard Bernstein recordings of Mahler's symphonies, done during Bernstein's tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, in one place in some of the best digital remasterings. Second, they're all together here in one very low-priced package, working out to a little over $5 a disc, which is less than half their price as individual releases.
Bernstein was the first conductor to record a complete Mahler symphonic cycle, a project he pursued between 1960 and 1968, this at a time when there were only seven or eight formal, complete Beethoven symphonic cycles in print or in progress. Just as an example of what the record company catalogs of the era looked like, at the time he started recording this body of music, his label, Columbia Masterworks, had exactly four recordings of Mahler's music in print, the Symphonies No. 1, No. 2, and No. 9 as done by Bruno Walter in the late '50s and early '60s, plus Walter's Das Lied Von Der Erde. Walter himself pre-figured Bernstein's achievement with his mono-era recordings of the Mahler Symphonies No. 4 and No. 5 in the mid- and late '40s, and his 1955 recording of the Symphony No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic, and those were considered in their time to be plenty of attention to the composer. Bernstein's cutting of the entire cycle of numbered symphonies reset the bar at a much higher level for conductors and record labels. In itself, this makes the body of music represented here historically important, even if each recording is not necessarily among the best or most desirable edition of the particular work. In that regard, strangely enough, Bernstein did better with the larger-scale, more overtly challenging works in the cycle than the two works that, on their face, would seem easier to approach. The Second, Third, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth symphonies are all competitive with the best recordings ever done, and the Third and the Seventh may well still be the best available, more than 40 years after they were done. The virtues go double for these particular editions, which are part of the Bernstein Century series, which are the best of the various remasterings of the pieces in question from the Sony catalog; they all offer a crisp, bright sound that is vastly superior to either the original LP issues or the "Royal Edition" Bernstein reissues from the early '90s (the series with Prince Charles' image and name attached). The Seventh, among its many strong points, still features in the Scherzo the most vivid tuba sound ever captured on the piece. The New York Philharmonic is the most heavily represented orchestra here -- which was a point of great significance to the conductor, as well as to fans of the composer's work, as the Philharmonic was the successor organization to the orchestra that Mahler had conducted in New York. The Israel Philharmonic is also present, as accompaniment for some of the song fill-ups, and the London Symphony Orchestra is present as well (for the Symphony No. 8).
Actually, given his reputation as a Mahler interpreter, the real surprise in Bernstein's Columbia cycle to modern listeners is how disappointing the First, Fourth, and Fifth symphonies were, though, given the abundance of rival great recordings of two of these three, that's hardly a crippling flaw. The Fifth's problems were a result of unfortunate timing, coupled with the piece's inherent difficulties -- Mahler agonized over the Fifth more than almost any other work in his output, spending more time on it refining and rewriting than any other symphony, except, perhaps, for his first (which, in fairness, wasn't even a symphony when it started life); and this was probably not the work to cut in January 1963, among the very earliest recordings made at what was then known as Philharmonic Hall (later renamed Avery Fisher Hall) at Lincoln Center; as a recording it has been a vexation to listeners for more than 40 years, the oddly skewed balances and timbres seemingly impossible to rectify across three different CD remixes using three steadily more sophisticated digital technologies. One wonders, listening to it today, how differently the recording might have come out had it been done at, say, Carnegie Hall or the Manhattan Center, or the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn, which had been the most favored venues in the city before Lincoln Center opened. The First and Fourth suffer more from Bernstein's own approach and decisions, which prevent either from ever developing the easy, natural flow that his later interpretations exhibited -- it's mostly a matter of too much emphasis on individual dramatic "events" and profundities within the score, and separate sections of the music, as opposed to the symphonies as a whole.
Bernstein recorded the Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection," twice for Columbia, and the producers have included the earlier one, his studio version with the New York Philharmonic from 1963. This performance had not appeared on CD prior to the Bernstein Century edition, and the sound is bright, close, and vivid, some of the best to be heard on any Columbia recording of this era; its rival, available separately in the same series from Sony (but not in this box), was a live performance from the 1970s in London (curiously, the latter was done as a television broadcast, and is available separately on Deutsche Grammophon as a DVD). As with the free-standing double-CD edition, the 1963 Mahler Second recording comes filled out with the Adagietto from the Symphony No. 5, performed in 1968 at the funeral Mass for Robert Kennedy, and the first part of the Symphony No. 8 as performed in September 1962 at the opening of Lincoln Center. Other fill-ups are the Adagio from the unfinished Symphony No. 10, two different versions of the Kindertotenlieder (from 1960 and 1974 with Jennie Tourel and Janet Baker, respectively), and the Three Ruckert Songs. Peculiarly enough, amid all of those non-symphonic (though symphony-related) fill-ups, the producers didn't include the one vocal work that should have had its place in this collection, Das Lied Von Der Erde -- there's a perfectly good one on hand, too, with the Israel Philharmonic.
Each CD is packaged in an individual mini-LP-style jacket (without an inner-sleeve, which means one must be a little careful sliding them in or out), with the annotation (a reprint of Bernstein's own contemporary article on the symphonies of Mahler, and a short essay by scholar Tim Page) included in a separate booklet, along with any text for the vocal works.