Bernstein's Great Mahler Song Cycles in Hi-Rez

Why should you or anyone care about a 24/192 download reissue of recordings of two Mahler song cycles that were made in Vienna and New York in 1968 by conductor Leonard Bernstein and three of his favorite singers, mezzo Christa Ludwig, her bass-baritone husband Walter Berry, and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau? After all, the recordings are "old" and the music much older, all but one of the artists is dead, the language is German, and the reissue lacks lyrics and translations.

Because anyone who cares about the terrible costs of war, and the suffering it engenders, must hear the pain, anger, love, bitter irony, and eloquence that Mahler invested in his settings of songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Youth's Magic Horn.) Because anyone who has ever felt the heart-rending mixture of pleasure and pain at the core of love won and lost owes it themselves to hear Mahler's four-song cycle, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Song of a Wayfarer). Because everything that people value about Bernstein's way with Mahler, and his affinity for Mahler's window on joy and suffering, can be heard in these miraculous recordings. And because Ludwig (b. 1928) and Berry (1929–2000), who join Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic on the first cycle, and Fischer-Dieskau (1925–2012), who joins Bernstein on piano on the second, are some of the most expressive and wondrously voiced singers of the late mono and earlier stereo era, and in their absolute prime in 1968.

True, some may find the original recording's dynamic compression and sound a bit dated, or the lack of translations (easily found on the Web) a major hindrance. Hopefully, they will get over it, and do whatever necessary to find lyrics they can follow. These performances are devastating in their emotional commitment.

Let's take Bernstein's contributions first. You will not find a single phrase, not even a single instrumental entrance, that has not been carefully pondered and executed with emotional truth in mind. Bernstein's conducting is breathtaking precisely because he understands everything Mahler wrote as an expression of tortured genius. Listen, for example, to how Bernstein varies the NYPO's violin tone from magically translucent and luminous to biting, often within the same song. Marvel at how he coaxes the same virtually symphonic range of color and feeling from his piano's 88 keys, and is absolutely one with the insights that Fischer-Dieskau expresses through vocal shading, dynamics, and word painting. How many conductors can stretch phrases as long as Bernstein does without losing tension, or make each pause and space between notes as telling as the notes themselves?

Fischer-Dieskau has often been criticized for his vocal micro-management, which is another way of saying that he can strive so hard to shade every word and syllable that he can actually draw attention away from the music. Not here, however. With his vocal resources in prime shape, and a pianist/partner as sensitive as Bernstein, he finds a balance that works. Fischer-Dieskau's honeyed sweetness on top, and ability to sing in the same range with biting vehemence, are totally put in service of Mahler's music. His is a once-in-a-generation voice, employed with supreme intelligence.

Then there is the team of Ludwig and Berry. With Ludwig's 90th birthday currently celebrated by bargain box-set reissues from Deutsche Grammophon and Warner—Warner's tribute consists mainly of song cycle recordings that are available in CD format with translations, and stream-able on Tidal in hi-rez MQA—this is the perfect time to acquaint yourself with her brilliance. The voice is rich beyond belief, and the emotional range awe-inspiring. In Des Knaben Wunderhorn, she tears your heart out one minute, and sets you laughing the next.

A love of Ludwig leads to my very personal connection with this recording. Although I seem to have lost the LPs along the way, I bought this particular Wunderhorn collection way back. To this day, I recall my wonder at Ludwig's performance of "Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?" (Who thought up this ditty?), and her vocal consistency as she lightly skips up and down two octaves as though whistling the tune. (Believe me, this is anything but an easy song to whistle, especially if you understand the importance of maintaining a legato line as seamless as Ludwig's.)

Berry's reputation may have been eclipsed in some circles by Ludwig's, but he is magnificent in this cycle. His militant anger booms out throughout the range, with tone simultaneously searing and beautiful, and his pain is palpable. (I recall another LP of the cycle that I owned, on which neither the sharp-edged, uningratiating Heinz Rehfuss or earth mother Maureen Forrester could approach the vocal and interpretive brilliance of Berry and Ludwig.)

This reissue is urgently recommended. It is, most definitely, a Recording to Die For.

Anton's picture

I also like that they re-purposed an old Genesis album cover!

Severius's picture

You have a problem with it - reading - don't you? You missed the sentence in the article that spells out the date of the release under discussion. Here, let me paste it for you, so that you may have another go at it:

"...made in Vienna and New York in 1968...".

Ja git that? 1968? Go ahead - ponder that for a while. Let it sink it ---slowly, slowly --- there.

1968 - that'd be BEFORE you're silly, loud, thrashing, dumb-ass rock and roll band made their "albums" [it's always albums with rockers - actually creating music independently of recording, or God forbid, knowing enough to actually write a score, is pretty much unknown to those who either play electronically amplified rock and roll, or those who listen to it - but, that's another tale for another time].

So, back to the matter at hand, it's really obvioust that the self-named, so-called Genesis [jeez] actually re-purposed the Columbia Mahler cover art, not the other way around, as cannabis-drenched Anton believes.

But, that's not your most serious problem [besides the aforementioned brain-rotting cannabis]. Indeed, the fact that you view everything through the lens of pop/rock trash traps and severely limits your ability to understand anything outside of the limits of noise-riddled, drum-pounding, thumping, loud rock and roll.

Your comment here's proof of that.

Brought up on rock and roll, rock and roll is how you see the world. The only way.

Rock on.

Anton's picture

It was a joke, Einstein.

Quite a button of some sort you have there, champ!

Do you slowly turn when someone says, “Niagara Falls?”

Do you live in Washington state?

dalethorn's picture

I never heard the original, but this version sounds darn good.

volvic's picture

Those of us luddites who never jumped on the cd bandwagon in the 80’s and 90’s, have treasured this recording along with the Szell version for many years. Get both and enjoy. I think it’s time to pull them out for a listen tonight, while I wait for Zinio to get the July issue posted.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Let it all hang out vs. a modicum of classical restraint; soprano and baritone vs. mezzo-soprano and bass-baritone; and two very different conductors to boot.

volvic's picture

My only gripe are those poor Columbia pressings from that era, not the best sound, but good enough through the analog rig. The Szell sound is better. Must seek the Bernstein version on cd so as to compare against the Szell on cd, that I already own, might be an equalizer. Kudos on bringing this recording back to the fore.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

that's the way to go. The remastered CDs are only in box sets. Their price, however, is a steal.

Let me clarify this a bit. Skip the early CD issues. The recent ones are based on hi-rez remasterings.

volvic's picture

Thanks, because it is always a fun exercise for me, Will start with the early CD issue, you'd be surprised how well some transfer to a hard drive when played through a good system. If found lacking, the Japanese CD's which are based on the high resolution mastering will be next.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Zinio is enjoying listening to the recording ......... He will get to work hopefully soon ............

foxhall's picture

Your review is timely with the biopic films in development and Bernstein's daughter releasing her book Tuesday.

pbarach's picture

I bought the download a couple of months ago. The Szell/F-D performances had been my favorites (I dislike Schwarzkopf in this music), and these I like better. Another good version is Abbado's, with Quasthoff and von Otter.

dalethorn's picture

While digging up background info on this recording, I saw the Bernstein/Mahler/Jenny Tourel Kindertotenlieder (with one Des Knaben Wunderhorn track, and others) released by Sony at the same time as the album in this review, recorded circa 1960(?). While Sony did a great job on the remaster as they did here, the differences that make the Ludwig/Berry a R2D4 really stand out.

pbarach's picture

The performances reviewed here by JVS were recorded later (1967-1968) than the Tourel performances (1960). Here's an excellent discography of all Mahler recordings that unfortunately hasn't been updated since 2014:

liguorid42's picture

My LP set of Des Knaben Wunderhorn actually contains two versions: one accompanied by the New York Philharmonic, one by Bernstein at the piano--the latter from a live performance. This is not crystal clear in the review. I think the Wunderhorn reviewed is only the orchestral version and the Wayfairer with Fischer-Dieskau (which I missed in its original release) is what's accompanied by Bernstein at the piano, right? The piano Wunderhorn is not included in this download, which I always thought was fascinating to compare to the orchestral version, correct? I think my reading comprehension is decent.

BTW presumably that unattributed piece of cover art was used both on this album (yes, I'll call it an album) and the one by Genesis, and was not created from whole clothe by a record production team. I'll have to check and see if it is attributed on my LP set.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Yes. There were two versions of the Wunderhorn songs on the original LP, one with piano. That's what my memory tells me as well, and what I had hoped to find on this digital release. I don't believe the piano version had the same number of songs, but maybe it did. (What happened to my copy of the LP, I wish I knew.)

I've just received all the remaining digital remasterings in Sony's "Bernstein the Pianist" set, and the piano-accompanied Wunderhorn songs are not on it. For reasons I do not know, they have not been re-released digitally as part of the current cycle.

What's happened instead, in this particular digital issue, is that "Lieder eines fahrenden gesellen," one of the contributions to Bernstein's album of Mahler songs with Fischer-Dieskau, and which are all accompanied by Bernstein on piano, has been tacked on. Some download sites do not combine the Wunderhorn songs w. orchestra with the Wayfarer songs w. piano into a single digital release, while others do. (You can find some sites where the entire album with Fischer-Dieskau is included.) It's rather confusing.

As for the other comment about the "Urlicht," yes, some recordings include it as part of a Wunderhorn cycle, and some do not. Many recordings order the songs differently, and some omit some. Some may, in fact, also include the delightful finale of Mahler Symphony No.4, which is a rather gluttonous view of paradise that will please all but vegans. That song was actually the first of the four movements of No. 4 that Mahler composed, and the one that guided him as he composed the remaining movements.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

The piano-accompanied version of the Wunderhorn songs is included in the "Bernstein the Pianist" CD set mentioned above. While it has also been remastered in 24/192, I have been unable to find it online.

I hope to review the entire box for the October print edition of Stereophile.

liguorid42's picture

An interesting inclusion on Bernstein's readings of Wunderhorn is "Uhrlicht", not officially part of Mahler's song cycle but which serves as the fourth movement of the "Resurrection" symphony. I don't think you will find this on most recordings of the cycle. The finale of the fourth, a more extended movement also based on a Wunderhorn poem, is not included.

wozwoz's picture

The main reason to give it a miss has nothing to do with it being a 1960s recording, but that it is download release ... and paid downloads are a dying if not dead format that are neither collectable, nor re-saleable. Even your aunty doesn't want them anymore. I'll wait for a hi-res SACD version (collectable and re-saleable), or a 'free' (zero marginal cost) streaming version.

dalethorn's picture

The main reason why downloads are the only way to go is very simple. I can fit a lifetime of high-res music on a tiny chip the size of my thumbnail. And I can make any number of perfect copies of all of that music, automatically, with no restrictions or deterioration ever.

Because there is no "size" to that music, I can carry it with me wherever I go, 24/7/365. I can access any of 10 thousand music tracks in 2 to 3 seconds. I can play what I want when I want wherever I am. This means total, complete, and instant access to all of my information at all times.

In years past, there were always excuses that people offered for not having access - "It's not practical, you don't need it, you can't listen to more than one thing at a time, etc." Now there are no more excuses.