In his review for the Gramophone some years ago of Levine's recording of the sixth symphony, RO (Richard Osborne) was scathingly dismissive of Levine's manner with the piece. In particular, he complained that Levine's way with the slow movement of the sixth `veers between fine balances, blandness, saccharine sentimentality and unmitigated uproar'. I cannot imagine why RO felt it to be so!
May we take a look at this reissue from three perspectives? Firstly, the recording quality throughout is superb. To me it is mildly ridiculous to complain, as does Osborne, that a `fourth horn is weak at bar so-and-so', etc. These recordings are all remarkable for their superb clarity and balance. Detail is thrillingly present without being spot-lit exaggeratedly (as is sadly often the case in Bernstein's CBS set). For faithfulness to the depths and heights, the whispers and thunderings of a Mahlerian orchestral sound these recordings are exemplary.
Second, the standard of orchestral playing is breathtakingly accomplished. Throughout this long symphony the orchestra (the LSO) perform with a consummate degree of concentration, individual phrasing, tone and colour. And the same can be said of all the orchestras that feature in this set - a testimony to Levine's excellence on the podium.
Thirdly, Levine's greatly impressive conducting. Osborne dismisses Levine's reading as `a trifle naive', a naivety that, he suggest, is the `product of a generation which has known neither war nor cultural collapse'. That is a strange, and highly contentious, remark, all the more so in view of the fact that Osborne has in his review already quoted Bernstein's remark that `ours is the century of death and Mahler is its musical prophet' - the century to which, of course, Levine belongs as much as any of his contempories!
It is enough to say that there are few, very few, recordings of this tremendous symphony that are more complete in their precision, sensitivity and power. Levine achieves a rare and greatly desirable paradox: a reading that is penetratingly and eloquently objective while being also and in equal measure profoundly responsive and personal.
A few years after Osborne's review of the sixth, Michael Kennedy reviewed (also in the Gramophone) Levine's recording of the fifth; MK voiced a far more mature and reliable judgement:
`I am not sure that James Levine's Mahler is appreciated so fully as it ought to be. His recording of Symphony No. 7, perhaps the most difficult of the set to bring off, is a magnificent achievement and some might think that he is superior in the finale even to Abbado.... This No.5 is first-rate in every respect. ...the playing of the Philadelphia Orchestra (particularly its brass and woodwind soloists) is truly amazing and the recording is bright, warm and well-balanced.'
MK's response in his review of Levine's recording of the ninth is similar:
`For reasons never quite clear to me, some Mahlerians tear their hair when confronted with Levine's performances. He is often a whippingboy for the American critics, apparently, but no serious listener could deny the strength and integrity of his music-making. This is an impressive account of the Ninth Symphony, an interpretation which eschews self-pitying whining and stresses the courageous, positive elements of the symphony.
While that doyen of Mahlerians, Deryck Cooke, refers to Levine's conducting (in this instance of the fourth) in these terms:
`James Levine is a true Mahler conductor. He really cares about all those multifarious tempo and expressive markings, and follows them in an entirely natural, unfussy manner, so that the feeling of the music is enhanced in the way one feels Mahler intended it to be.
`...Levine can be seriously considered on the level of the two conductors who have hitherto led the field where the Mahler Fourth Symphony is concerned--Kletzki (HMV Concert Classics) and Szell (CBS Classics). His performance is a really beautiful one, which explores the depths as well as the charms of this work, especially in the slow movement, which is quite remarkable. ... The recording is one of great clarity....'
I have quoted these comments to redress a popular misconception. For many years I was persuaded, by the negative attitudes of reviews like Osborne, to dismiss Levine's Mahler as sub-standard. That was my mistake - and what a mistake!
This set (at an almost unbelievably low price) is decidedly of the front rank. I cannot imagine anyone who loves the music of Mahler being other than delighted and grateful. Very strongly recommended.