New online: Alto tells Leonard Bernstein he’s got it wrong in Mahler

New online: Alto tells Leonard Bernstein he’s got it wrong in Mahler


norman lebrecht

February 25, 2021

Marvellous new video from the Israel Philharmonic of Christa Ludwig stomping over to Leonard Bernstein to tell him he’s got her tempo wrong in Das Lied von der Erde.

‘This is so much slower than I usually do it, says Lenny.

‘Aber ich kann nicht…’ declares Christa.

‘Nobody hears the words anyway,’ shrugs Lenny.




  • A.L. says:

    I don’t know if these sort of interventions from soloists happen frequently but, if not, they ought to.

    • Gary Freer says:

      Hadn’t they had a piano rehearsal beforehand?

      • Singeril says:

        Yes, these things should be worked out in a piano rehearsal…but things are not always the same between a piano rehearsal and an orchestral rehearsal. These kind of tempo questions often occur in rehearsals…there really is very little news here.

      • BruceB says:

        Probably not. When you’re that famous, you can come in straight from the airport.

    • Music fan says:

      Agreed. “Nobody hears the words anyway” sounds like the ultimate rationalization. Bernstein tried a similar tack with Artur Rubinstein, saying the Rachmaninoff Paganini Rhapsody was not worth bothering to rehearse, and that de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain was “not much better.” Then there was Lenny’s takedown of Glenn Gould before a performance of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto.

    • Petros LInardos says:

      There is a clip somewhere where the great Christa Ludwig convinced an aging Karajan to conduct a little faster. Apparently she couldn’t sing at his slow tempo and threatened to resign. Karajan threatened to look for other singers, only to have Ludwig answer that he wouldn’t find better ones. The story is told by Christa Ludwig on camera.

      • Ashu says:

        Though he did actually fire her for inadequacy, didn’t he, from the last project on which she worked with him? I saw an interview in which she recalled this with tears, but I forget the details. “Bernstein is doing Das Lied von der Erde with the Israel Philharmonic”, he told her suggestively, which was pretty insulting to both of them, though as she describes the scene, he was very kind and gentle about it.

    • Rachelle Goldberg says:

      It does!!

    • DB says:

      It’s not an “intervention”. It’s a soloist expressing discomfort at a chosen tempo, it happens all the time! Nothing to do with having a piano rehearsal beforehand either — piano timing is so completely different from orchestra timing.

  • Jack says:

    Bernstein acting like a total douchebag. He makes it sound like circus music… or a Bernstein composition.

    • Concertgoer says:

      Circus music is not an inapt way to describe several brief passages in Mahler.

      This little struggle was 49 years ago, after Christa Ludwig had learned the piece with Karajan and just before she sang it with him in Salzburg and Edinburgh.

    • 18mebrumaire says:

      Yes, you are right. Mahler’s is the music Bernstein wished he had written.

    • Maestro51 says:

      Ludwig wrote numerous letters to Bernstein time and again saying what a “thrill of a lifetime it was collaborating with him”. Why would she say that? She didn’t need to “suck up” to him. She respected his musical opinion more than the vast majority of conductors. Do some research!!!

  • Max says:

    Look at the score, Lenny is absolutely right here. It’s exactly as he says, the text here can not possibly meant to be heard…
    You can choose to be slow enough for the words to be understood and destroy the musical affects (the neighing and gallop of the horses) or let the music go crazy, exactly as Mahler intends to.

    • Ashu says:

      Or is it possible that Mahler himself was not quite sure what the effect would be? This was one of the two posthumous scores which he could not subject to the usual heavy revision he seems to have needed after first performances, due to what some have speculated may have been a certain weakness of orchestrational imagination. He did actually say once, “The trouble is I cannot orchestrate.”

      • John Borstlap says:

        Mahler is one of the most brilliant orchestrators of the entire repertoire.

        But since every new piece he wrote held new ideas, it was always difficult to find the best way of scoring them. Hence the many revisions, not because he could not orchestrate but because he was ‘too good’ at it. He never scored on routine, but tried to find something striking all the time. If he said such thing, it must have been in a moment of despair, when he could not find the sound he was looking for.

        ‘Das Lied’ is not ony a masterpiece in terms of music, but also in terms of orchestration. Listen for instance only to the opening of the first Song, ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’, where he gets the orchestra bark in bitter contempt. No composer ever imagined such sounds:

  • NOrbert says:

    Bravo! I love this woman.

    LB was the most over-rated conductor of the post war era. Utter vainglorious twat. “who can hear the words anyway…..” Um….might that not be the clue to incorrect conducting Maestro?

    That’s like when Karajan said during a recording playback “Argh…..only a fish could hear that mistake”

    • IP says:

      I don’t think his results were always bad, although often not my cup of tea. But the video of his pathetic attempt to record his own West Side Story, sucking the air out of everybody. . . You can see the same Kiri Te Kanawa doing My Fair Lady with a less famous conductor, and she is unleashed, she is on fire, which is what a conductor is supposed to achieve in the first place. Plus, My Fair Lady is competently written for the voice and can actually be sung.

    • E Rand says:

      Take him or leave him; Bernstein was the real deal. I can’t think of an American musician of greater impact than Benstein. Decadent, tragic, brilliant, deep, vulgar, human.

    • Bone says:

      Just no.

  • Trevor Ford says:

    And, of course, the tempo remains the same …

  • Patrick says:

    I miss Lenny.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Bernstein was right when he said it was an impossible place anyway. The problem is in the music: it has to be fast, and there are too many words in too short a time. On top of that, the words are German with lots of consonants which have to be squeezed into the notes. Mahler never conducted or heard the music, and he would surely have corrected something there, as he always corrected many details when premiering a new piece of his.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Christa’s absolutely right. Lenny took that section WAY too fast.
    (She’s one of my all-time favorite singers, BTW.)

  • Jack Burt says:

    Christa, what a voice. THE Das Lied vor der Erde singer for so many years, it’s like Mahler wrote it for her…

    • Anonymous Bosch says:

      And she is still with us, about to celebrate her 93rd birthday on 16 March. She is still an active presence in Wien’s music scene.

    • Petros LInardos says:

      Most of what Christa Ludwig sang sounded as if it were written for her. And she was versatile.

  • Brian says:

    Got to hand it to the orchestra for letting the film crew capture all of this. Most orchestras these days are too protective of their conductors’ reputations to provide such transparency (granted, it was Bernstein, so maybe all rules went out the window).

    • BruceB says:

      There are lots of Bernstein-getting-in-an-argument videos out there. There’s one where he gets into it with the brass section of the LSO (I think?) because they can’t/won’t play a section of the Enigma Variations the way he wants it. (Apparently they’d rather play it out of tune and without blending) And another one where he’s letting the Vienna Phil have it about their Mahler: I forget if he says they’re playing the music as if it’s shit, or it sounds like shit when they play it.

      Anyway, he and Ludwig stayed friends. She’s in his “Candide” recording, one of the last things he did.

  • Arnolphe says:

    This was obviously the other extreme.

    • Been there, done that says:

      That video is well known in England I believe. While Bernstein had a point, imitating a musician by singing with a bad sound to demonstrate what he didn’t want to hear is very counterproductive, not to mention insulting. A good lesson for conductors on what NOT to do in order to get a musician to do what you want.

      • Larry W says:

        Bernstein was quite polite as he improved the player’s pitch, timbre and blend. It sounded much better. He should have thanked him.

    • John Borstlap says:

      LB looks here as if he were quite drunk. He probably was.

  • IP says:

    Great personality, limited talent. Now kill me if you must.

  • True North says:

    I am totally addicted to these Bernstein rehearsal videos, especially the West Side Story recording documentary. Imagine being there.

  • sam says:

    that’s because bernstein, the composer, never wrote music to his own text, so of course for him, the music takes primacy over the text

  • Sixtus Beckmesser says:

    +1 for Team Christa.

  • Micaelo Cassetti says:

    Whenever Bernstein’s name is mentioned, I put on a Mitropoulos CD…

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Thank you for your comment, Micaelo.
      Mitropoulos was not only orders of magnitude greater as conductor and recreative musician as was Bernstein, Lenny stabbed him in the back in order to get the NY Phil conducting gig.
      And Lenny took all the credit for bringing the music of Mahler into the limelight with his NY Phil performances, but way before him were Walter and Mitropoulos, who performed lots of Mahler over the years with the NYP.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Wilful conductor and strong minded soloist often makes for great performance. Don’t know what everyone is beefing about. Bravo!

  • I had the privilege of attending this concert in Tel Aviv in the Mann Auditorium ca. 1971 or 72. Renee Kollo was the tenor. It was my very first live performance of Mahler and it was sublime.

  • Wimsey says:

    I agree with the great Christa Ludwig here, he really conducts this passage too fast, and it’s the only weak spot in his studio recording (Fischer-Dieskau sounds like someone after running a marathon).
    On the other hand, I agree with other commenters, had he lived, Mahler would have surely revised the score, as he always did after hearing it performed. A lighter orchestration in the tenor songs, too.

  • NorCalMichael says:

    Lots of Bernstein bashing going on here, but Ludwig has always spoken very, very highly of him. She called him a genius more than once in interviews, even as she acknowledges his limitations as a musician. She wouldn’t have worked with him so much had she thought otherwise. It’s not like other conductors didn’t want her!

    Gosh I adore her. What a voice…

  • Singeril says:

    Indeed, Ludwig and Bernstein remained good colleagues and friends. In his huge birthday bash at Tanglewood when he turned 70, Ludwig was a featured part of the festivities.

    • Nick2 says:

      Ms. Ludwig told me following a recital in late October 1990 when she included some Berstein songs at the last minute that LB had sent her a fax about two weeks prior to his death. He informed her the prognosis for his illness was not good. He then went on to express his gratitude for their friendship, his great admiration for her artistry and the many wonderful collaborations they had enjoyed. I am sure this was also sent to a number of other artists, but I found it very moving.

  • E says:

    Surely this is here the horses are in a gallop…of course it’s to fast for words!

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    These are both great artists, obviously, and part of that greatness is that they can argue their points without threats of quitting or firing, or written reprimands, etc. The political world should learn from this! Anyway, my ‘interpretation’ of this passage is a Star Trek one: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. The protagonist’s (singer’s) serenity at the pavilion is interrupted by young men riding through upon their steeds. They’re clearly riding at full speed. At the passage in question, the text is describing one of the horses in action: “Hey, see how its mane flutters in frenzy; how hotly its nostrils steam!”. (hei! wie flattern in Taumel seinen Maehnen, dampfen heiss die Nuestern!). It’s a rather Wagnerian moment. According to my Dover Edition score, Mahler marks the end of this faster passage, “immer noch draengender”, which can loosely be translated as “ever more rushing ahead”. What you DON’T HEAR in this video clip, is that this passage is immediately followed a subito (sudden) Tempo I, which is a much, much slower tempo. The point being that the vocalist only has to endure the pushing of tempo for a short duration. Regardless of what the agreed upon tempo ends up being, this passage needs to sound ‘exciting’ – the entirety of “Das Lied von der Erde” badly needs the contrast. It’s the only truly fast music in the entire work that reaches a forte.

  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

    She’s absolutely correct. It’s too fast.
    And her diction is without fault.

  • DB says:

    The tempo is perfect, just slightly rushing, which is why she is uncomfortable. Two great artists in a typical rehearsal process.

  • Fabio Luisi says:

    The tempo was just perfect. Mahler also expected impossible things from his singers at the Vienna Opera (as Toscanini did, btw) “Singen Sie wie ein Musiker, nicht wie ein Sänger”

  • BruceB says:

    “Nobody hears the words anyway [because I conduct it too fast, and I let the orchestra play too loud].”

  • E Rand says:

    It’s puzzling to see such derision of Bernstein in the comments above. One can agree or disagree with his style, but the talent (it was a unique genius, really) is blinding.

  • John Rondeau says:

    Discussion is healthy either he or she insisting on their way is not healthy. Did Mahler intend for the voice to be just part of the mayhem who really knows for sure. Anyone who claims to absolutely know it’s this way immediately cedes credibility in my eyes.

  • JB says:

    Why “Alto tells Leonard Bernstein…” and not “Ludwig tells Leonard Bernstein…” ?

  • Novagerio says:

    Christa’s low tolerance for bullshit was no match for Lenny’s seismic ego.

  • Frank says:

    Two things to keep in mind.
    At these rehearsals Bernstein was usually massively hungover from the night before. Bernstein was a full-fledged MadMen alcoholic and especially in his later years it shows. The sweating, the carelessness, the lazy vanity. He could make great music in the moment, but these rehearsal videos, are not a pretty picture.
    The difference of opinion between Ludwig and Bernstein is about different views of music. Ludwig wants music to be transparant, Kammermusikalisch. As a singer you’re telling a story. Just like DFD did. Bernstein obviously always went for the symphonic kill, the socalled musical orgasm. Out of this conflict great music making can occur, sometimes.

  • Another orchestral musician says:

    I don’t see what the fuss is all about. If there’s a soloist, the conductor (be it Bernstein or whoever) should follow him/her. Very simple.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Das Lied is not a simple song cycle, but a symphony with a solo voice, there are long orchestral interludes which underline this.

  • Freddy says:

    I love Ludwig, but am with LB here. Not that it matters I suppose, but if every performer had it their way, it would be anarchy or direct democracy (I shiver). I rather liked when Hitchcock called actors cattle.

  • PianistW says:

    Bernstein is completely an overrated musician. I find no interest in his compositions, and find most of his recordings are over sentimentalised and quite frankly of poor musical taste. US Americans feel very insulted if you say you are not a fan of Bernstein.

    In the 70s-80s, US-Americans, trying to have their first US-born conducting star, pushed him into everything, including pressuring recording companies, who then pressured orchestras to engage him on the promise of great record sales in the US.

    Source: my father played in one of Europe’s leading orchestras (if not the leading orchestra) before leaving to pursue other music interest. He tells the story of Bernstein being incapable of conducting the accompaniment of a concerto, the representatives if the orchestra complaining, and the people in charge saying something like “maybe he is poor as a conductor, but he is making us rich”.

  • AllesMahler says:

    I have watched this rehearsal many times on YouTube – no idea why the clip runs viral decades later. I like how Bernstein makes Christa Ludwig rap in the “Immer fließend” / “Immer noch drängender” passage of the galloping horse. Remember that Ludwig’s English was very basic (and Bernstein would not speak German in a public rehearsal in Israel).