This recording dates from pivotal time in the long and ongoing Mahler revival. It’s a concert performance, dated September 10, 1965, at which time Leonard Bernstein was near the end of producing his first recorded Mahler cycle, a project that was essential in boosting the composer’s popularity.
Steinberg was never the public star that Bernstein was, although he does have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He had important tenures with the top shelf of regional American orchestras, like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and San Francisco. He was also of an era, born in 1899, that knew Mahler’s music either first-hand via playing in orchestra’s the composer conducted, or through collaborating with musicians who, themselves, played under Mahler.
Star conductors are great musicians, of course, but non-star conductors who work productively for decades are also great musicians too. This excellent performance is a testament to that. The orchestra is fine but not flawless, the singers – Stefania Woytowicz is the soprano and Anny Delorie is the contralto – are colorful but perhaps a little weird, but the music-making is gripping and thrilling throughout. Cologne was Steinberg’s hometown, which may mean a lot for the music, or nothing at all. We’ve had decades to examine Mahler interpretation closely, and that means many more opportunities to indulge in mannerism. Steinberg’s account is so flowing and unforced, and taken into conjunction with other contemporaneous accounts, it says something interesting about an unselfconscious style in Mahler; like Klemperer, the Allegro maestoso movement is fast (this is a single disc recording), while the great scherzo seems, after hearing dozens of other, more recent discs, strangely slow. But it all works beautifully. This is one of Mahler’s great horizontal constructions, the flow of time from beginning to end is paramount, especially through eighty or so minutes, and the polyphony that snakes and entwines around the central line must be full of import and emotional weight yet not heavy. Steinberg makes this so. This is a performance that focuses attention from the very start, is full of excitement and beauty and comes to a marvelous and maturely measured conclusion. A real find for Mahler discography.