Sunday, June 12, 2016

Bernstein's Mahler

It would be all to easy to describe ‘Bernstein’s Mahler’, directed by Humphrey Burton, as a two-hour greatest hits package: one movement apiece from each of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, taken from concerts recorded between 1972 and 1977, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (except for the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony, which is with the London Symphony Orchestra), and nothing in the way of commentary, discourse or interview footage.

Or, to put it in disgruntled Guardian-reader terms, you don’t even get a full symphony!

And there is, I’ll admit, a case to be made for the film as disappointing in this respect. By choosing not to feature interviews with Bernstein, we lose Lenny the teacher, Lenny the passionate advocate, in all his cerebral and loquacious glory. As anyone who has ever seen one of Bernstein’s musical guides, young persons’ concerts or introductions from the podium can attest, the man had a natural and charismatic gift for explaining; for educating.

What ‘Bernstein’s Mahler’ offers instead is a complete immersion in the music. Lenny “got” Mahler more empathetically, more intuitively, and more sensuously than any other conductor. Like Bernstein, Mahler had a greater reputation as conductor than composer in his lifetime; as composer he wasn’t necessarily given his dues by his contemporaries. Furthermore, Bernstein conducted as if he were composing the music himself – an approach that sometimes resulted in mercurial interpretations (his late recordings of Sibelius with the Vienna Phil proved notably controversial) but paid dividends with Mahler.

Filmed attentively as regards the positioning and interaction of the orchestra, the choice of movements from each symphony is more or less as one would anticipate: the opening movement of the First, the adagietto of the Fifth, the adagio of the Ninth. The ‘Resurrection’ – a monumental work clocking in at an hour and a half – is represented, ironically, by one of the shorter excerpts here: “O röschen rot”, performed in utterly sublime fashion by Janet Baker. Symphonies 8 (‘The Symphony of a Thousand’) and 9 get a far more expansive hearing, accounting for over 50 minutes of the running time between them.

It’s in the devastatingly poignant sweep of the Ninth’s adagio that Burton’s film truly comes into its own. His focus on the precision and importance of individual instruments is so detailed that ‘Bernstein’s Mahler’ can genuinely be called a documentary rather than a filmed concert. Moreover, Burton captures Bernstein’s complete emotional connection with the music. It goes beyond conducting. The best word I can find is transfiguration.

First in his passionate and emotive cycle on the CBS label with the New York Philharmonic, and later in the authoritative artistic statement with the VPO on Deutsche Grammophon, Bernstein gifted recorded music with accounts of the Mahler symphonies that remain unsurpassed. These two complete sets should be in every serious classical music lover’s collection. Burton’s film acts as both a distillation and a visualisation of them. The performances are faultless, and film as a whole captures large-scale symphonic music-making at its finest.

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