Mahler 2: Bernstein’s only concert with the Cleveland Orchestra

Mahler 2: Bernstein’s only concert with the Cleveland Orchestra

Why Mahler

norman lebrecht

February 18, 2022

New on youtube, starting with an astonishingly gloomy forecast for the future of the orchestra.


Bernstein conducted the Cleveland Orchestr in July 1970 Mahler 2nd after George Szell was hospitalized following the tour of Asia.

We hear: The back story is that at the first rehearsal LB started to lead a rather perfunctory run through until the orchestra members insisted that they wanted a real performance. LB supposedly said okay if that’s what you want. It has been reported that after rehearsals he said you guys are f…ing great you give me exactly what I ask for and the musicians talked about the concert for years afterward. The other story connected with his visit is that Mrs. Szell refused to let him visit GS because LB showed up in a white leisure suit and she said he looked like an ice cream cone. Regardless, the sound is quite good and the performance imo compelling.


  • Barry Guerrero says:

    I’ve had a ‘pirate’ CD of this performance for several years now. I consider it to be easily Bernstein’s best recording of the “Resurrection” Symphony.

  • Monsoon says:

    There’s so much gold in the Cleveland Orchestra radio archives. And pretty much everything from the late ’50s on was recorded in stereo. What’s it going to take for more of these recordings to be officially released?

    • ira says:

      i long ago gave up hoping for arthur lourie”s dialectic symphony.

    • Amos says:

      I’m surprised that Robert Conrad-WCLV and the Music & Arts Association have not partnered to re-issue more of the radio broadcasts. The programs from Blossom are especially revealing of the differences between live performance and commercial recordings. Similarly were concerts every broadcast on local television? The only video I’ve ever found of GS conducting is with the CSO, VPO and the one Bell Telephone sponsored program with TCO.

    • Seeker64 says:

      The current conductor might not appreciate the comparison…

    • Whatever says:

      Seeker64 is correct. The current music director insisted years ago that all Cleveland Orchestra CD’s recorded with former music directors and all books about the history of the orchestra be removed from the gift shop when he is in town. And management complied with this absurd demand! It certainly betrays a great deal of insecurity on the part of someone who should be grateful for the legacy he inherited, irrespective of whether the style suits his taste. And it’s no secret he had no respect for his predecessors, making derogatory jokes about them with certain orchestra members with whom he was socializing.

  • Hal Sacks says:

    Simply….Wow !

  • punto says:

    Thank you for posting this. I had the good fortune to hear many concerts as a student years ago at Blossom, usually slightly drunk. I just listened to this performance in its entirety. Can you imagine being in the audience for this one? I would have lost my fucking mind.

    • Martin says:

      Well I was in TCO performing this with Bernstein. I almost fell off my bass stool. I will never forget this performance.

  • Player says:

    I am sure thy did talk about it for years afterwards – such a contrast with playing for Szell. Just a fact, no invidious comparisons made.

    • Amos says:

      Just an opinion.

    • Martin says:

      Since TCO had recently returned from its three week Asian tour with Szell (we) were razor sharp for Bernstein.
      I said “we” because I was a member of the double bass section.

    • Monsoon says:

      Oh please.

      It very much sounds like the Szell-era Cleveland Orchestra: Bright, incisive brass, ultra clean phrasing, razor sharp precision.

      Whoever that orchestra was performing under, the quality of their playing was always distinct and second to none.

    • Amos says:

      I meant to add that Joseph Silverstein was known not only as a superb violinist but as a musician who did not engage in hyperbole when discussing conductors. Nonetheless he indicated that one of the greatest disappointments of his professional career was never having had the opportunity to perform the Brahms concerto with George Szell. Respectfully, I think his opinion is of greater significance than yours.

    • Amos says:

      Try this for the ultimate in orchestral performance art thanks to George Szell, TCO and a Robert Shaw trained/directed chorus:

  • perturbo says:

    Former orchestra members who played in that concert still cite it as one of the highlights of their careers.

  • J Barcelo says:

    Compelling indeed! And it wasn’t just musicians who talked about this for years, so did audience members. A neighbor of mine was at this concert; for decades she’s recalled what she says was the greatest concert she’d ever been to – and now, here it is. Thanks for posting it!

    • Martin says:

      Unfortunately it was raining that whole day, thus there was just 3,000 people in attendance. If the weather had been pleasant there would have been at least 10,000 people.

  • he says:

    They sound like they finally broke loose for a day, something Szell would never have allowed, and something they never would’ve dared to demand of Szell, “c’mon old man, we want a real performance!”

    Karajan is another one who certainly made sure Bernstein never got within a 100 yards of his Berliners to ruin his carefully cultivated sound.

    • Charles Marx Gottschalk says:

      There is an outstanding recording of Mahler 9 with Berlin and Bernstein.

      • Martin says:

        So much for “he” comment.

      • Joe Green says:

        Yes, and THAT WAS the only time LB ever conducted the BPO. There is even an anecdote reported by John Mauceri in his book that the BPO delayed returning to LB the annotated copies of the score he had given to the musicians because Karajan wanted to study them before his own performance of the same piece with the BPO.

    • Amos says:

      Your opinion of the orchestra in concert with George Szell is in the minority. The number of similarly vital live performances with Szell is too long to delineate. I would recommend you find on You Tube the 1968 inaugural Blossom concert of pieces by Mozart and Strauss. If the performance of Death & Transfiguration doesn’t strike you as profoundly moving I doubt anything will. In the words of Principal Horn Mr. Bloom when asked what happened in performance after George Szell finished rehearsing the technical details of a piece his answer was succinct “magic”.

    • Bone says:

      Mahler 9 was pretty solid tho

    • Robin Mitchell-Boyask says:

      Szell and Bernstein were on quite good terms.

      • Amos says:

        Supposedly Bernstein wept when he heard that George Szell had passed. It’s interesting that Bernstein cultivated the image of a man of the people yet craved respect from everyone. Supposedly while driving in a convertible he responded, with annoyance, to someone yelling hey Lenny that no one would dare yell hey George to Szell.

    • Martin says:

      A lot you know!!! Are you saying the Cleveland Orchestra didn’t give any “real” performances with Szell?
      I feel like you have shown disrespect for the great George Szell. I can cite chapter and verse about SO many incredible performances that took place with Szell and the great Cleveland Orchestra.

      • Amos says:


        Above I mentioned what I regard as the best Strauss Death & Transfiguration I’ve ever heard. The concert included the Mozart 41 and Strauss 4 Songs. Do you recall the D&T? I’ve always wondered why Szell acknowledged that the Orchestra often did its best playing at the dress rehearsal yet he wouldn’t stop rehearsing so it occurred at the first public performance? Were you a member of the orchestra for the 65 European tour? I’ve heard a Schubert 9th from the Concertgebouw that is a force of nature. Never to be duplicated!


    • Martin says:

      A great orchestra can play under any conductor and make them look good.

  • Fernandel says:

    Strangely enough, only one, and rather late, recording exists of Bernstein with Chicago: Shostakovich’s 1 & 7. How many times did he conduct the Chicagoans ?

    • Bone says:

      Boy, is that a barn burner of a peformance!

    • music lover says:

      Rarely….Apart from the late,recorded Shostakovich program,only very early in his career,during the 40s and early 50s.

      • MacroV says:

        Indeed. There was a book in the early 70s called “Season with Solti,” by William Barry Furlong (who also wrote a bio on Arnold Palmer), where it discussed the CSO trying book guest conductors, and at that time saying “Bernstein says ‘no’ to everyone,” and that Solti himself had written to Bernstein to invite him.

        When Henry Fogel took over the CSO in 1985 he – having worked with Bernstein at the NY Phil – made another push to bring in Bernstein, and did, just for two weeks (and an appearance in NY), which produced that Shostakovich 1/7 recording. Maybe he would have returned but he died just 3 years later.

        • Daniel L says:

          @MacroV or anyone for that matter. If the powers that be knew how hard it would be to get Bernstein to conduct and given this being his only performance with the CSO (late in his career), why weren’t these performances captured on film/video? It seems that virtually every concert he gave under DG was also captured on film. This would have been an extraordinary thing to see. I’ve always wondered this, but surely someone must know why.

  • MacroV says:

    I heard it on a Cleveland Orchestra broadcast years ago.

    My favorite Bernstein rendition is a one-off concert he did with the NY Phil in 1984, a year or so before they did the DG recording.

  • Steve Proser says:

    The CO musicians wanted a real performance at a first rehearsal? What does that even mean?

    • Amos says:

      It means that Bernstein was just running through the score without asking for the multitude of details present in every Mahler score. Think superficial vs. nuanced.

      • Steve Proser says:

        It’s that word “performance.” Professional orchestral musicians (I am one) don’t use that word in the context of what goes on in a rehearsal. I’m not saying that the CO musicians wouldn’t have asked LB to be more demanding. Perhaps he was being more relaxed, since it was a Blossom concert. We musicians never ask for the kind of histrionics in rehearsal that conductors go for at performances. They’re not helpful. Those are for the audience. Again, that word “performance.” Strange choice. Makes the anecdote suspect.

        • Amos says:

          You are clearly unfamiliar with how TCO was accustomed to rehearsing during the Szell era. Aside from his oft-quoted statement that TCO is just beginning to rehearse when most orchestras have finished, the long-time Principal harp once commented that every Monday morning rehearsal with GS was treated as a Carnegie Hall performance. Supposedly his office window overlooked the parking lot and most mornings he made sure to note both when the musicians arrived for a rehearsal and if they were carrying their score part. Feel free to argue the semantics of my comment but the intent was clear.

  • bet says:

    This is not a willful re-interpretation of Mahler, this is a willful re-writing of Mahler.

    Bernstein blatantly deviates from what Mahler explicitly instructed in his score.

    All of Bernstein’s Mahler recordings should come with the byline “as written by Mahler and as re-annotated by Bernstein”

    • Couperin says:

      Ok so stick to your Boulez Mahler recordings.

      • bet says:

        Boulez’s recordings, not only of Mahler, are far more revelatory than Bernstein’s, and already have stood the test of time far better than Bernstein’s.

        Same for the compositions. Boulez’s compositions are far more important and influential than Bernstein’s in the history and development of classical music.

        Boulez is far more consequential than Bernstein both as conductor and composer.

        And the reason why Boulez is a better conductor is because he’s a more original composer:

        – Boulez gets others’ scores better because he respects their originality.

        – Bernstein reads others’ scores and sees himself trying to composing them.

        • Amos says:

          If you check the fine print on bottles of melatonin it indicates not to be taken when listening to Boulez recordings without medical supervision. As for his compositions, I suspect that the MD of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project Gil Rose admires his music but I don’t recall the last time that organization performed one of his orchestral pieces.

  • Frank Flambeau says:

    There was only one Leonard Bernstein.

    Thanks for posting this. Wonderful stuff.

  • Robin Mitchell-Boyask says:

    Urania has released remastered live Szell/Cleveland recordings from WCLV, which I believe the Orchestra released as part of a commemorative set. Right now on Qobuz I can stream Mahler 9, Das Lied von der Erde and the Missa Solemnis. I’ve listened to the 9th and it’s pretty intense, with the first movement tempo at the relatively swift pace that Walter took in Vienna. Das Lied has Janet Baker. I’m saving that for the right time.

    • Monsoon says:

      This Missa Solemnis is the best of the radio broadcast recordings — I can’t think of a commercial recordings that surpasses it. The other knockout performance (with superb sound) is the Walton Violin Concerto with Francescatti — now that rivals all other recording performances. Both these recordings desperately need to be more widely available.

      The Mahler 9 is quite good and Baker is in better form in this recording than the 1975 studio Concertgebouw recording.

      Finally, the Sibelius 4 is not to be missed.

  • BigSir says:

    IMHO, whether a Beethoven, Brahms, or Mahler symphony, the brass section of TCO plays its role perfectly!

  • Andrew Collins says:

    In 1982, as part of the Nuclear Freeze demonstrations, LB conducted volunteers from the National and Baltimore Symphonies in Mahler 2, at the Washington Cathedral. Jesse Norman and Barbara Hendricks were the soloists. I sang in the chorus, and I recall that Hugh Wolff, then asst. conductor in DC, stood next to me. Freeze volunteers were allowed to attend the afternoon rehearsal, and packed the Cathedral. LB conducted the piece, with no rehearsing, and it was one of the most transcendent moments of music I have ever witnessed. The evening performance, which was recorded for television somewhere (Eurovision?), was “just” excellent.

  • Corno di Caccia says:

    Ooooooooh, Lennie conducting another Mahler 2!!! I must search this out.

  • Frank Flambeau says:

    Fascinating comments on the orchestra by Bernstein.
    “A kind of museum future.” He saw it happening 50 years ago.

  • Frank Flambeau says:

    George Szell died in July, 1970. Was the Cleveland Orchestra “looking at” Bernstein as its future conductor?

  • Martin says:

    I must make a couple of minor corrections to what Norman Lebrecht has written about Bernstein and the Cleveland/Mahler 2 performance.
    It was during one of the rehearsals at Blossom when Lenny got so overwhelmed by how the orchestra stuck with him in every move he made that he stopped the rehearsal and said: “You are so great….you are so f…..g great”!! I was playing in the orchestra and heard this with my own two ears.

    • Steve Proser says:

      So did the musicians ask LB to be more demanding (“ask for a real performance”) at the first rehearsal as Norman has heard?

    • KANANPOIKA says:

      I was observing that rehearsal, and concur with Martin. LB did indeed say that directly to the Orchestra.

      • Martin says:

        Glad you could back me up! I heard it but couldn’t believe I heard the exploitive. That was a favorite word of LB as someone in the NY Phil told me.

    • he says:

      Faint praise, it seems to me, because all Bernstein was saying was this: you guys are obedient, you follow my every whim.

      There are plenty of youtube videos of orchestras blatantly refusing to give the conductor what he wants:

      – The backstory of Bernstein’s Mahler 9th with the Berlin Phil was that Bernstein almost gave up after the first rehearsal because the orchestra was simply unyielding

      – As Muti once put it, “Vienna will play beautifully for you…if they want to”, and indeed there is footage of Bernstein rehearsing Vienna for Mahler in which Bernstein stopped rehearsal in mounting frustration because he felt the Viennese were not giving him 100%

      – of course, there is the footage of an LSO trumpeter openly questioning Bernstein in front of the cameras,

      I think the Clevelanders by 1970 had been so well trained and on such a short leash by the terrifying Geroge Szell, who fired his men at will and on the spot, that no other orchestra in the world was quite as, let’s not say obedient, let’s say accommodating, as Cleveland.

      • Amos says:

        If you don’t care for George Szell personally and/or professionally you are free to express it but denigrating the orchestra members as robotic/obedient is beyond contempt. Given there collective musicality they were able to impress equally Leopold Stokowski when he guest conducted in the early 1960s and countless other conductors of disparate styles/approaches. George Szell did have the power to hire and fire at will but there is only one regrettable incident in which a musician was dismissed “on the spot”. You might be interested in knowing on that occasion, for different reasons, shortly afterward both parties regretted the incident. By 1970 Bernstein had conducted internationally and I don’t recall reading that he ever had a similar experience conducting an orchestra for the first time. Faint praise indeed!

      • guest says:

        its not the LSO, BBC concert orchestra

        • John Kelly says:

          BBC Symphony Orchestra (the BBC Concert Orch is a smaller band playing lighter repertoire). I was at the concert where Lenny played Enigma Variations and Songfest. Watch the video of the encounter with the trumpeter and I think you will agree with me that Lenny was 100% right and everything sounded a lot better afterwards…….

          • Martin says:

            That trumpet player was a real SOB. I have my thoughts as to why that guy was so disagreeable towards LB.

    • Sam says:

      “Great” has some 18 definitions in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. What Bernstein meant is deduced by the full context of his quote: “you guys are f…ing great you give me exactly what I ask for”.

      So “great” in this sense is a showing of appreciation — “general approval and satisfaction” — as in: “I had a great time” or “that was great” or “honey, you were great tonight”

  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

    I started it and had to quit. I am well aware that Bernstein is the musical grandson of Mahler through Bruno Walter.

    But I usually find Bernstein’s Mahler to be pedantic and slow with no forward motion and often dead.

    Is it just me?

    • Amos says:

      Yes. Whatever your opinion of the performance it is impossible to label it as pedantic or lacking in vitality. The reaction of the musicians and 3000 in attendance speaks volumes.

  • freddynyc says:

    Why was he never invited to conduct the CO while Szell was still alive though……?

    • Amos says:

      George Szell was still alive when the performance took place. That said, during the period when he was in the hospital both Leonard Bernstein and Eugene Ormandy both made their only visits to Cleveland. In the latter case I’ve read that there was more than a little animus. I gather that although Szell greatly admired the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra he was not a fan of the famous string sound. The evidence is that he went so far as to tell the members of TCO to sound like the PO when they were recording the Variation 18 of the Rachmaninoff with Leon Fleisher and all concerned knew it was not meant as a compliment.

      • John Kelly says:

        After Szell died, Stokowski went to Cleveland in 1971 (not ever a guest when Szell was alive because he didn’t want Stokowski reseating the orchestra and teaching it all kinds of bad habits like free bowing). The concert was Toccata and Fugue, Beethoven 7, Swan of Tuonela and Gliere Ilya Murometz. If you can ever get to hear this the string sound is vintage Stoki/Philly and poor Szell must have been grumbling mightily in heaven – or wherever conductors end up. There’s a bit on YT

        • Amos says:

          I was surprised as well that George Szell would invite Stokowski but this is taken directly from TCO website regarding Severance Hall acoustics:

          The steep price tag of $25,000 for necessary improvements saw to it that the matter was silenced until 1953, when Philadelphia Orchestra Conductor Leopold Stokowski relayed his experiences of a two-week intensive with The Cleveland Orchestra in a letter to Szell. “I only wish you had a hall with acoustics worthy of your great art…In the hall the music was dry and half-dead sounding,” he wrote. Perhaps it was that an outside voice of international acclaim had corroborated Szell’s complaints; or that in the four short years since Swan’s study, The Cleveland Orchestra had already multiplied its renown. In any case, it became increasingly obvious that a first-rate orchestra’s talent was outgrowing its dated performance venue; and the Musical Arts Association demonstrated an inclination to pursue improvements.

          I thought it was early 60’s but clearly early 50’s. Supposedly at the first rehearsal he insisted that strings adopt free bowing and they indeed sounded like the PO for the 2 weeks.

          • John Kelly says:

            Thanks for these comments. I believe Stokowski also got the curtains taken out of Orchestra Hall in Chicago in the 1950s when invited by Reiner and the sound was improved. He walked into the RFH for the first time and immediately said “what a pity.” Bud Herseth said he could hear overtones better than anyone.

        • Brad German says:

          I saw that concert. I was mesmerized. The climax in the Gliere was overwhelming.

      • ROBERT A BATTEY says:

        No, Ormandy did the Mahler a few years later, in Severance Hall. I was there.

  • Nicolas COUTON says:

    It’s hard to imagine LB doing “a rather perfunctory run through” of a Mahler symphony (or of anything else)