Leonard Bernstein, music titan, was famous the world over. He was, during his lifetime, the public face of classical music. There were the works for concert hall and Broadway theatre alike, the talks, the showbiz lifestyle, the theatrics – and, of course, the fires of inspiration that consumed him whenever he took up his baton. This was the Bernstein that the world saw and worshipped. Millions knew that public face. Relatively few glimpsed him away from his audiences. Gramophone critic Edward Greenfield, however, was privileged to witness Bernstein’s inspiration at close quarters; he was present at the recording sessions for some of his most famous recordings. There was no audience, no gallery to play to, just Bernstein, the musicians – and sometimes a handful of invited guests. Greenfield’s and Bernstein’s acquaintance grew over the years, and precious few journalists were granted the same amount of access. Here he recalls the Bernstein sessions to paint a revealing portrait of a man of supreme confidence and uncompromising integrity, even when crises threatened to become disasters.
The place was the Royal Albert Hall, the date February 1970. Leonard Bernstein was scheduled to record Verdi’s Requiem with the LSO and multiple choirs. As the session began, the maestro entered dramatically, picked up his baton, and said in a suitably solemn manner, ‘We are assembled, gentlemen, hopefully to record the “Ingemisco”’. That of course is the big tenor solo that taxes any singer, however great, to the limit. On this occasion there was extra uncertainty because the tenor had been brought in at the very last minute. In Bernstein’s live performance in St Paul’s Cathedral, which with television involved had preceded the regular recording sessions, the tenor was Franco Corelli, but between St Paul’s and the Albert Hall, the temperamental singer decided to pull out.
In the event they did even better than they could ever have imagined, for the recording producer, John McClure, had managed to sign up the young and inexperienced Plácido Domingo, whose reputation was rapidly expanding. Domingo, as he faced Bernstein onstage, was plainly a little nervous, even more so when he heard the extremely slow tempo that the maestro was setting for this example of soaring lyricism. He protested for a moment, complaining that he could not manage the solo at that speed, but Bernstein waved his objections aside, giving him confidence that he would help him to make it.
Indeed he did, and as one can hear on the finished recording, it demonstrates Domingo’s phenomenal breath control and fine legato line. Even so, he was plainly relieved when the ordeal was over and Bernstein in the control room approved the take. Recording in the Albert Hall, with its echoing acoustic, has always had its problems, and it says much for the engineers at the time that the result in this instance is so full and well balanced, with no feeling of being set in too cavernous a space.
One hazard of those sessions that might not have been predicted was that Bernstein was visited in the control room by the soon-to-be Prime Minister, Edward Heath, a would-be conductor who could never resist invitations from great conductors. I remember a funny photo, obviously taken at a late stage in one of the sessions. Sitting at the table in the control room is Bernstein, looking more than relaxed, next to a rather prim-looking Conservative leader. As a clue to the picture, there in front of Bernstein is a half-empty bottle of Scotch. At least the photo was never published at a time when electorally it might have been embarrassing to Heath.
It was always a joy to meet up with Bernstein, whether at recording sessions or in connection with concerts. He was by far the most charismatic of the many great musicians I have known, even more magnetic, if possible, than Mstislav Rostropovich, another larger-than-life character. Bernstein was also the most acrobatic of conductors, and those who did not know him well, or had not observed him closely, might have been fooled into thinking his technique was entirely impressionistic, relying freely on the inspiration of the moment. In fact, as I learnt over the years, he had complete control, drawing on a phenomenal intellect, and the acrobatic style was only one element in magnetising both players and audiences, notably when at some climactic point in a work he would leap right up in the air.
I questioned him once on which conductors had influenced him most, and he astonished me by suggesting first of all Fritz Reiner, his mentor at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he had studied conducting technique. Reiner was the opposite of an acrobatic conductor, rarely moving the end of his baton more than a few inches, yet Bernstein insisted that from him he had learnt the vital lesson that a conductor must be precisely aware of what he wants to convey in every single movement. The devotion of such orchestras as the LSO, a demanding body of players, bears witness to that degree of control.
That session with the LSO in London on the Verdi Requiem was one of a series that CBS sponsored at the time. Bernstein’s own orchestra, and the one with which he made virtually all his recordings, was the New York Philharmonic, but the costs of recording in the United States had escalated so alarmingly that CBS took up this option of making recordings of major choral works with the LSO in London.
The very first took place four years earlier in 1966, when CBS wanted to complete its Mahler symphony cycle with the Eighth, the Symphony of a Thousand. As with the Verdi Requiem, the recording sessions were preceded by a live performance, but this time it was the performance that took place at the Albert Hall, while the recording sessions found the performers, choir as well as orchestra, in the Assembly Rooms next to the Walthamstow Town Hall, a favourite venue at the time, with a fine, open acoustic. It was there, for example, that some years later Colin Davis made his pioneering complete recording of Berlioz’s Les Troyens for Philips, a work which similarly involved vast forces.
Not that the translation from the Albert Hall to Walthamstow went at all smoothly. Bernstein was plainly dissatisfied with the live performance, citing the lack of weight and bite in the chorus. The Leeds Festival Chorus had been chosen, largely on the initiative of Lord Harewood, patron and prime mover of the Leeds Festival. Originally the plan was to perform Mahler’s Second Symphony with Bernstein, a work that the chorus and their new young chorus master, Donald Hunt, already knew. But Harewood felt that it would be a waste for the Leeds Chorus to come all the way to London just to sing in the finale of Mahler’s Second, and much preferred the idea of the Eighth, with its far greater choral contribution. The trouble was that no one in the chorus knew the work, and it was new even for Hunt.
Unfortunately time was short, and Hunt working with a chorus new to him found it hard to cope with the problems presented by this vast score. He wrote to Bernstein, asking for his advice on rehearsing the score in preparation for Bernstein’s interpretation. He got the instruction simply to follow indications in the score. That is what Hunt expected, not knowing the conductor’s reputation for free expressiveness, only to find, much later, when Bernstein arrived, that his reading was far from being meticulous on following indications in the score, including tempo changes.
To make matters worse, when Bernstein arrived for rehearsal, he seemed unused to working with a chorus of amateur singers. He expected his singers to pick up the necessary indications from his baton. That prompted one of the plain-spoken Yorkshire choristers to ask in graphic terms for more explicit instructions. As Hunt reports, a rasping Yorkshire voice came from the back of the bass section, saying, ‘Mr Bernstein, if tha’ tells us what tha’ wants, then we’ll do it!’ which more or less summed up the choristers’ problems.
Before the actual concert Bernstein arranged for the chorus to have support from professional singers, but in the great span of the Albert Hall choir stalls the Leeds singers were reluctant to give up their vantage-points, and the professionals had to be infiltrated at the back. In the end the performance was a great success and honour was satisfied, even if Bernstein felt it could have been even better. Bernstein was appreciative of Hunt’s contribution and was delighted to find that he was giving the northern premiere of the Chichester Psalms a few weeks later.
Then came the actual recording sessions in the Walthamstow Assembly Rooms. This time the professionals took pride of place, leading a chosen selection of the Leeds singers. At the Assembly Rooms the chorus was consigned to a large upstairs gallery, which had room for a substantial choir, but hardly for one of a size one would have expected for the Symphony of a Thousand. To complicate matters once again, the chorus’s gallery was actually behind where Bernstein stood on the podium. I vividly remember noting Bernstein’s brilliance in conducting to all four points of the compass, with the eight soloists also strategically placed in front of him.
All this time, through all the choral problems, the LSO had performed superbly, and the recording went well. Even though, when the LP discs finally arrived, the scale of the work was slightly minimised. Now on CD the result can at last be fully appreciated, with its ample weight and expansiveness, a version of Mahler’s Eighth that even now stands comparison with the finest. As it happened, that recording of Mahler’s Eighth prompted my very first meeting with Bernstein. I had the tricky job of trying to interview the great man while we were eating supper in his hotel suite, along with leading members of the orchestra’s committee, all of us sitting around a small table. Bernstein wasn’t warned of this arrangement, and I always remember him turning on me at one point with 'Say, are you interviewing me?' He did, of course, cooperate marvellously.
That collaboration with the LSO on Mahler’s Eighth led to many more projects with the orchestra, not just the Verdi Requiem in 1970, but very strikingly in a recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1972, again in connection with a festival performance at the Albert Hall. This was the period when CBS were recording quadrophonically, in a process which for a year or so was hailed as the great new development. Unlike most other companies, CBS opted for certain key recordings actually to lay out the orchestra in a distinctive way to maximise the impact of surround-sound.
That meant that in Number 1 Studio at Abbey Road (hired from EMI for the occasion) Bernstein’s low podium was literally in the middle of the orchestra, and as in the recording of Mahler’s Eighth he was conducting at all four points of the compass, only even more complicatedly. The sessions went slowly, until with one brief section after another safely approved, the recording was complete, and could be assembled from all the many components.
It was then that Bernstein came up with a totally new suggestion. He wanted to record The Rite of Spring from beginning to end without interruption, as though it was a public performance. There were one or two problems with players who had other commitments and found it hard to cope with the overtime involved, but in the end everything was worked out. The result was a thrilling performance. It is that final account, involving all the tensions of a live event, which appeared on the finished LP.
The experience seems to have influenced Bernstein profoundly, for it was not long after that that he left CBS, with which as principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic he had been exclusively associated for many years, and signed a new, and to most observers unexpected, contract with Deutsche Grammophon. From the start in that new phase of his recording career Bernstein insisted on making his recordings at live concerts, and as he explained to me, that decision stemmed largely from his experience with the LSO Rite of Spring.
There was one important proviso involved. In order to be sure of a perfect result, there had to be more than one performance, and most importantly, he insisted on a final tidying-up session to iron out any flaws he detected in the recording. That accounts for the fact that few if any of those so-called “live recordings” have any applause at the end, and sometimes one wondered whether the tidying-up session had provided more than a little of the finished result.
I remember on one occasion, when I interviewed Birgit Nilsson in her hotel suite in Vienna, the room had a window overlooking the artists’ entrance to the Musikverein, home of the Vienna Philharmonic. Nilsson, ever the sharp observer, noted that the players were engaged in recording Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, even though the schedule was for a live recording of the performances that they had just completed in the hall.
Very soon DG acknowledged what was never intended to be a deception, and the result was a superb series of Bernstein recordings on DG, including complete cycles of the Beethoven and Mahler symphonies and much else. When Bernstein died prematurely in October 1990, he had just signed a contract to make many more recordings for DG, including Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, the America premiere of which, many years earlier, he had conducted at Tanglewood. One can only regret that death took him when it did.