While he held various posts in his career, Bertini was noted for the contributions he made as general music director of the Frankfurt Opera and principal conductor of the Cologne Radio Symphony, and it was with the latter ensemble, that he recorded this cycle of Mahler’s symphonies.
This set includes Mahler’s ten numbered symphonies that were already released by EMI, including the Adagio of the Tenth, along with the symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde. For these recordings, Bertini involved various soloists for the vocal parts, including some of the finest singers available at the time. As to the specific performers for each work, the Second Symphony has Krisztina Laki and Florence Quivar; the Third, Gwendolyn Killebrew; the Fourth, Lucia Popp; the Eighth, Julia Varady, Marianne Haggander, Maria Venuti, Florence Quivar, Ann Howells, Paul Frey, Alan Titus, and Siegfried Vogel; Das Lied, Marjana Lipovšek and Ben Heppner. While this EMI set is a recent compilation, most the recordings dating from 1990-91; the recordings of the Third, Fourth, and Sixth Symphonies were made earlier, in 1984, 1987, and 1984, respectively. Yet with a single conductor leading the same ensemble in such a short period, it is possible obtain relative consistency in this cycle of Mahler’s symphonies.
While Bertini nowhere stated his credo about performing Mahler’s music, the commentator Kyo Mitsutoshi ventures into some comparisons with other conductors in “On Bertini and Mahler: A Personal Note,” the retrospective essay he contributed to the booklet that accompanies the set. Mitsutoshi establishes a dichotomy between more emotional conductors, like Mengelberg, and Klemperer, who he views a relatively “dry and inorganic.” Mitsutoshi goes on characterize Solti’s recordings as reflecting the power of Mahler’s scores, Bernstein, their emotional pitch, and Tennstedt’s ability to explore some of the “irredeemably dark” aspects of the music. While such judgments are subjective, Mitsutoshi uses them to distinguish the “florid beauty” that Bertini brought to his recordings as “a pinnacle of Mahler interpretation.” He goes on to describe Bertini’s performances as manifesting “a fine balance that might almost be descried as classical. The brass may roar, but their roaring is always meticulously controlled and there is no sense of out-and-out violence.” Putting those comments in perspective, it seems that the clarity of Bertini’s recordings that attracts Mitsutoshi, and it is this aspect of the performances that emerges throughout the set.
Bertini’s tempos are at times a bit brisk, as with the Scherzo of the First Symphony, which also benefits from his attention to the tempo markings in the score. By attending to such a detail, Bertini avoids becoming self-indulgent with the music and reflects, instead, a laudable respect for the composer’s scores. Such an approach to tempo allows Bertini to contribute an appropriate pace to the opening of the slow movement of the Fourth Symphony so that he can explore Mahler’s detailed markings in a memorable performance of the piece. In this interpretation of the third movement of Fourth Symphony, Bertini brings out in its coda the thematic connections that exist with the Adagietto of the Fifth.
Likewise, Bertini’s interpretation of the Scherzo movements of the Second and Seventh Symphonies betray a similar approach at the outset of each, as the composer establishes the rhythm through percussive sounds and fragmentary themes that take shape as each of the movements proceed. With the Second Symphony, the pacing of the various sections of the Scherzo reflects the overall breadth Bertini gives his interpretation of this work. By accentuating the lyrical character of the central section of the movement, Bertini sets up, in a sense the reprise of the Scherzo theme and thus creates a highly dramatic effect. At this point, the intensity of this performance builds, with the setting of “Urlicht” in the fourth movement providing a vocal interlude that anticipates in several ways the expansive Finale of the work. Never exaggerating the grand gestures that Mahler used in its structure, Bertini delivers a convincing performance of the fifth movement, a work in which Mahler employs cantata-like elements into its symphonic framework.
With the symphonies like the Second, that include choral forces, Bertini is particularly effective in his ability to arrive at a reasonable tempo for the text to be presented clearly and yet, he allows the musical structure to lag. His ability to elicit some exceptional responses from voices is evident in Bertini’s other work as a conductor. In fact earlier in his career he recorded Mahler’s score for Weber’s Die drei Pintos, an opera which requires a deft touch, especially in the choral passages. Thus, Bertini’s approach to the massive forces in the Eighth Symphony is convincing for the control he wields in this score. While the apparently close proximity of the microphones to the solo voices may not be to everyone’s taste, the resulting clarity helps those lines from blurring into the chorus and orchestra in various passages that involve the full ensemble.
The clarity of line that Bertini exhibited in his other performances of Mahler’s works is apparent in the first part of the Eighth, with the lyrical line prominent. This is particularly evident in the “Veni creator spiritus,” with its rich counterpoint and overlapping voices. In the second part, Mahler’s setting of the final scene from Goethe’s Faust Bertini delivers a Moreover, that recording is carefully banded so that it is possible to move easily between individual sections in both parts of the work, as found in the recording of the final movement of the Second Symphony. As a live performance, Bertini’s recording of the Eighth offers a solid reading of the work that conveys the intensity of the concert hall.
Bertini achieves a similar effect in his studio recordings, and this is especially apparent in the recording of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, which presents a convincing interpretation of this challenging score. The details of this score are essential to a successful execution, and this aspect of the work was not lost on Bertini, whose clarity allowed the various nuances to emerge. His attention to the details of the score is apparent at the opening of the Scherzo, where the shadowy style that Mahler prescribed may be found in the intricate balancing of the various instruments with which the movement begins. In the second section, Bertini introduces rubato to bring out the popular-sounding themes that occur in the brass, while maintaining a full and resonant string texture, which is a sonic underpinning of the piece. Critics often discuss the problems in making the Rondo-Finale of the Seventh convincing, but it is important not to underestimate the function of the Scherzo in the structure of the work, where it counterpoises the outer movements of the work and, in a sense, sets up the Rondo-Finale. When it comes to the final movement, though, Bertini avoided overstating the opening figure in the timpani in lieu to establishing a crisp tempo that he can then adapt to fit the character of the sections that follow. In this way he allows the piece to build gradually, as ideas emerge in the various sections that comprise the movement. Even as he brings the movement to its conclusion, the brass never overwhelm, but blend into the full sound that a thoughtful conductor must maintain through the final measures that bring this work to a persuasive conclusion.
Mahler’s music is sufficiently resilient to succeed with multiple interpretations, and as much as preferences may exist between enthusiasts, it is important to keep in mind the attentiveness that Bertini contributed with his EMI recordings of the composer’s symphonies. If it is possible to use the comments of Mitsutoshi in the pejorative, Bertini did not have the Chicago Symphony at his disposal, as Solti did for his Mahler cycle, and Bertini may not have accentuated the emotional content in the way the Bernstein did when he conducted Mahler’s works. Yet it is his faithful attention to the details of the scores that allowed Bertini to create a set of memorable recordings that are uniformly convincing in their interpretation and execution. While individuals may have some preferences to one or another of the performances that Bertini contributed to this set, it is difficult to find a particularly strong or unusually weak recording among them.
At the same time, it is laudable for Bertini to include Das Lied von der Erde in this cycle, since the composer himself called it a symphony, even with its assimilation of elements from the song cycle into the genre. For those who want to learn Bertini’s approach to Mahler, the performance of Das Lied has much to recommend. Ben Heppner and Marjana Lipovšek offer some solid performances in their respective movements, and under Bertini’s direction each singer complements the other well. At the same time, the sonic balance of orchestral forces that is critical for this work is handled masterfully by Bertini, which is vivid and engaging. With “Der Abschied,” the instrumental passages never fade into mere accompaniment, but become another voice with which the mezzo can interact. Without as deep a voice that is sometimes used in this work, like that of Brigitte Fassbaender, Lipovšek’s clear mezzo is nonetheless effective in delivering the text well within the poignant melodic line. “Der Abschied” itself is a demanding work for those who attempt it, and this performance stands well with various other memorable ones. It is telling at the end of the movement, where Lipovšek’s voice blends into the orchestral timbre, without lingering too long in a passage that epitomizes the idea of morendo in music.
In recent years various conductors have taken up the challenging of conducting and also recording the cycle of Mahler’s symphonies. It is in a sense of right of passage, a gesture that presumes a certain level of musicianship and, perhaps, orchestral leadership. It is as though the conductor has then met the challenges posed by this series of works and then leaves his mark on the repertoire. The concept of the cycle is not required by the composer, though, and the results can be varied. Leonard Bernstein’s famous set of Mahler’s symphonies with the New York Philharmonic set the standard for other cycles, like that of George Solti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; and in subsequent years, other conductors proceeded with their own cycles, including such individuals as Eliahu Inbal, Michael Gielen, Riccardo Chailly and, of course, Bertini himself. Aficionados of Mahler’s music sometimes express demanding standards for individual recordings, though, and it is difficult to find consensus about finding a completely acceptable set of Mahler’s symphonies. The reality is that differences exist, and preferences may differ. The approach one fine conductor takes for Mahler’s Third Symphony may differ from another, whose divergent thought may surprise or even appall some of the audience. It is difficult to conceive of one set that is completely acceptable, just as the idea of finding a single acceptable performance is tantamount to an affront to music itself, where different interpretations can exist side by side. Thus, while some may quibble with Bertini’s interpretation of some movements, other may be delighted to hear his approach in the context of others. Preferences may differ, but that is what makes music appealing, especially Mahler’s works, which endure varying approaches and emphases. That aside, Bertini’s offer an even-handed approach that is attractive for its fine musicality.
Moreover, Bertini’s cycle of Mahler’s symphonies with the Cologne Radio-Symphony Orchestra is a fitting tribute to the conductor’s contribution as a thoughtful and ardent interpreter of the composer’s music. Conveniently available as a single set, it is something that stands well alongside the cycles by other famous conductors. In addition to Mr. Mitsutoshi’s encomium on Bertini, the booklet that accompanies the recordings contains the German texts of all the vocal music, that is, the Second through Fourth Symphonies, as well as the Eighth and Das Lied von der Erde, along with translations into French and English. (In fact, each of the texts are carefully tracked to the specific bands in which they occur.) Such a booklet could have been augmented with a discography of Bertini’s other recordings of Mahler’s music and, perhaps, those of other composers, so as to help put into perspective this highly integrated cycle of Mahler’s symphonies, which remain at the core of the conductor’s career. A set like this will serve for years as testimony to Gary Bertini’s fine contributions to Mahler’s music.
James L. Zychowicz