Edward Greenfield remembers Leonard Bernstein

Edward Greenfield Wed 1st January 2014

Archive feature from the December 1990 issue written shortly after Leonard Bernstein's death. Edward Greenfield looks back at the life of one the 20th century's leading classical music figures

Leonard Bernstein Tribute by Edward Greenfield

Leonard Bernstein Tribute by Edward Greenfield (December 1990)

In recording, as in everything else he did, the breadth of Leonard Bernstein's achievement was unique: no musician this century has achieved so much over so wide a field. In a way that defied today's obsession with specialization, he dared to use his seemingly limitless gifts in a way that the eighteenth century would have applauded. In breaking down barriers in the twentieth-century music world he went far beyond even the other great composer-conductor of the century, Mahler, with whom Bernstein had many points of kinship, not least his Jewishness. As a brilliant, deeply perceptive writer, lecturer and broadcaster, he was able to use the media of our day in a way inconceivable to even the greatest and most generously gifted musicians of previous centuries. He was the complete musician. 

Happily for the record-collector, he had the opportunity throughout his career, never more than in his last years, to put on disc the interpretations which consistently electrified audiences. It is a tragedy that his death has come so soon after he signed a new contract with DG, giving him a total freedom to choose what he wanted to record. Fortunately more treasure is on the way, including the last three Beethoven piano concertos with Krystian Zimerman as soloist, Bruckner's Ninth Symphony recorded in Vienna, and not least his own operetta, Candide, recorded last autumn a t the Abbey Road Studios, when various principals dropped out one by one, stricken by flu, and Bernstein himself, as ill as anyone, struggled on, determined not to give in. I went to one of the sessions, and following the Bernstein rule that the bigger the challenge, the greater the achievement, the intensity of the actual music-making seemed all the keener, matching that of the memorable concert performances he had conducted earlier in the week at the Barbican. 

It is sad that so few recordings of Bernstein's pre-CBS period are at all widely known today, particularly when a number of them are of his own music. As early as the mid-1940s for the specialist label, Hargail, he recorded his Clarinet Sonata with David Oppenheim, a clarinettist who was later a recording manager for CBS. For the same label he did some of hi s own piano pieces, Anniversaries, which he did again, when he started recording for the RCA label. That was s till in the I940s, and other RCA recordings of the period include his Jeremiah Symphony, done with the St Louis Symphony Orchestra and with Nan Merriman as soloist, as well as the ballet , Facsimile, and excerpts from the musical, On the Town. Among his RCA records as a pianist were a brilliant account of Cop land's Piano Sonata and an early version of the Ravel Piano Concerto, made in London with Bernstein conducting the Philharmonia from the keyboard, one of the earliest instances of a twentieth-century work being treated in this way. That was scheduled for release by EMI, but never appeared in Britain. 

For American Decca, with Billie Holliday as the soloist in the opening number, he did his own ballet, Fancy Free , and with the New York Phil he recorded his Second Symphony, The Age of Anxiety, with Lukas Foss as solo pianist. Issued on four 78rpm discs, that dates from 1950, and it was for the same company in 1953, after his association with RCA had lapsed, but before he signed his CBS contract, that Bernstein made his first major recordings of works in the classical repertory, including Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, Brahms's Fourth, Tchaikovsky's Pathetique and Schumann’s Second. All were done with the New York Stadium Concert Orchestra, the summer pseudonym then used by the New York Philharmonic, and though the reviews in GRAMOPHONE were not rapturous, they gave credit to the refinement of the playing and the incisiveness of the conductor. Best-received was the Schumann, always a favourite work with Bernstein, and even now the performance can stand comparison with any subsequent reading. Interestingly in his early account of the Eroka Bernstein takes the first movement spaciously with more changes of tempo than he did later. 

Bernstein's recording career really took off when he signed his contract with CBS. In 1958, after becoming Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, he began a monumental series of recordings, not all of which appeared in Europe. He initiated it with three issues deliberately chosen to illustrate the breadth of his sympathies-Beethoven's Seventh Symphony and the Franck D minor, as well as a second recording of Ravel's Sheherazade with Jennie Tourel. That last was coupled with the Mussorgsky Songs and dances of death, in which Bernstein accompanied Tourel at the piano. His many New York recordings made over two decades included not only a long list of orchestral showpieces from Berlioz to Ives and Copland, but a complete Beethoven cycle, and it was then , too, that he did the first eve r integral recording of the Mahler symphonies. Starting in 1960 with No. 4 (with Reri Grist as soloist), he did all but No. 8 in New York. For economic reasons he came over in 1966 to do the so-called " Symphony of a Thousand " in London with the LSO, using a live performance at the Royal Albert Hall as preparation for regular sessions at Walthamstow Assembly Hall. I t proved a problem ridden event: the amateur chorus had at the last minute to be bolstered with 80 professionals, which caused ill feeling. Out at Walthamstow the professional singers were brought to the fore, and though the finished recording betrays some signs of the stress behind the project, the weaknesses are mainly technical. I vividly remember Bernstein at his most all-embracing, happily drawing together forces on all sides, behind him as well as in front. 

Another memorable session I attended, one which had a profound influence on the whole of Bernstein's later recording career, similarly had the conductor surrounded by his musicians. That was for Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, done in quadraphonic sound at EMI 's Abbey Road Studios in 1972 , again with the LSO. The technical problems were enormous, both for Bernstein and the engineers, not to mention the players. By the end of the allotted time, the whole score was covered, but Bernstein was not happy with a tape "made of a hundred patches”. It lacked the cohesion of a true performance, he felt. Somehow managing to persuade the recording producer and musicians to find extra time-in his amiable way Bernstein could be a bully-he insisted on recording another complete performance there and then. The result was a transformation, substantially what appeared on the finished record. 

That was the period when Bernstein's links with his long-time record company, CBS, were growing weaker. By 1973 he was no longer Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, no longer so completely the all-American star conductor in the eyes of the American buying public. His love affair with the Vienna Philharmonic-as well as his close relationship with the Israel Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra-was taking more of his attention. It was in 1966, when he made his dazzling Vienna recording of Verdi's Falstaff that the Viennese love affair really began. That was his first major opera recording, and it whetted his appetite. He went on to make Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier , also for CBS in Vienna, with Christa Ludwig as the Marschallin, but the commercial returns were too disappointing for CBS to think of going on. The company refused to record Bernstein in Beethoven's Fidelio, another of his successes at the Vienna State Opera, and so it was that for his next complete opera recording, Bizet's Carmen, he went to DG, who did it with him in New York using the orchestra and forces of the Met. 

I t was a controversial reading, often adopting exceptionally slow speeds, but it led directly to what was at the time a surprising change of Iabel. One might also see Bernstein's contract with DG, widely regarded as the upholder of the great European musical tradition, as symbolizing an important change of image in a conductor, increasingly accepted as a vital interpreter of the central Viennese classics. Particularly in Europe there was a tendency earlier to feel that Bernstein, versatile beyond all possible rivals, kept something of the whizzkid conductor about him, however thoughtful and dedicated his readings of Beethoven, Schubert or Brahms. Those who had been studying his records closely knew better, though I remember my own surprise in 1962, when in his earlier CBS recording of Beethoven's Missa solemnis I found such inner intensity in it with nothing flash y or meretricious. I t took the wider world, an d Europe in particular, many years fully to appreciate that , and his DG contract was timely in that it allowed him to build up a new corpus of recordings. As a direct result of his experiences over The Rite of Spring recording, he made it a condition that DG should as a rule record live performances and then edit them together with additional material from a tidying-up session. That is how, over some 15 years, he replaced virtually the whole of what he had recorded in New York, including hi s own major works. (n these later recordings, . the electricity may not always be of quite such a high voltage, but regularly there is extra warmth and refinement. Some of his Israel Philharmonic recordings of virtuoso orchestral works are except ions, but that is partly a question of the unhelpful acoustic of the Frederic R. Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv.

Bernstein may have courted the reputation of needing always to be the central star, and his charisma made him the natural centre of attention in any gathering, whether social or musical. But it was quite wrong to think him as self-obsessed. Significantly, both in his CBS New York period and in his DG European period, he regularly recorded concertos with soloists he found especially sympathetic. I remember one session in Vienna , when he worked with Krystian Zimerman on the Brahms First Piano Concerto. Conditions were particularly difficult, since the performance before an invited audience at the Musikvereinsaa I was recorded not for ordinary television video, but with noisy film cameras. They were the more intrusive when Berns tein and Zimerman both sought to underline the hushed, meditative side of the work, preferring except ionally slow speeds. Yet there was a limit. Bernstein had just celebrated his sixty-fifth birthday, and had received a special award from the orchestra. In the playback of the slow movement, Bernstein had one of Zimerman's solos repeated. "Can't you draw that phrase out more?" he asked in an emotional voice. Zimerman demurred. "Everyone does that," he replied crisply, but then daringly he added with a twinkle, "I will do it when I am 65". That kind of answering-back was a privilege always allowed to soloists whom Bernstein respected, and it was good to hear, in Richard Osborne's BBC Radio 3 tribute at the start of "Record Review", the little speech Bernstein made before another Brahms concerto performance, given in New York with Glenn Gould. It was characteristic of Bernstein that, though disowning the interpretation, he gave heartfelt praise to the soloist’s musical individuality. 

It was during those Vienna Brahms sessions that Bernstein told me over dinner about the project to record West Side Story, his biggest popular success. Surprisingly, it was a score he had never till then actually conducted complete, whether •in the theatre or in concert. The DG plan was to do it in Munich, and I remember making the strongest protest. However brilliant the musicians, I objected, they were hardly likely to be able to enter into the Broadway musical idiom with the sort of understanding you would get from musicians in New York. I can't think I was the only one to make the point, and the rest is history. Whatever reservations traditionalists had over the operatic treatment of a musical, DG had one of their biggest commercial successes ever, and the background to the New York sessions was preserved for ever in a memorable film, first shown on television, and now issued on Laserdisc and VHS. It was important, too, in demonstrating how tough Bernstein could be in rehearsal, knowing exactly what he wanted, meticulous over detail, providing the firmest foundation for what in the end almost invariably emerged as fierily spontaneous inspiration. 

Last Christmas morning he recorded live one of his most memorable performances. I t was in Berlin, and he • wanted to celebrate the pulling-down of the Berlin Wall, conducting Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with an orchestra of musicians from many countries. I t proved his finest recording ever of that masterpiece, a filling memorial which has been heard worldwide. Characteristically, he offended convention by using, instead of the word "Freude" (Joy) in Schiller's celebrated Ode, the word Beethoven would probably have preferred to use, “Freshet", (Freedom). If any recording of Bernstein's must now stand as a memorial, this is it. 

Over these last years with DG, his live recording technique sometimes led him into eccentricities, bringing the sort of performances which might communicate with special intensity on a particular occasion , but which were less convincing heard cold in one's living room. He himself came to dislike his recording of “Nimrod “from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, which was funereally slow. When I discussed it with him, he felt it had worked in the live performance at the Royal Festival Hall, but not when he went on to do the studio recording. I t got stuck “because it’s not spontaneous, not the kind of slow that makes the ear go on to the next note". On the other hand he vigorously defended the comparably slow speeds in his DG recordings of the slow finales of both Mahler's Ninth Symphony and Tchaikovsky's Pathetique. In the Mahler the end, he felt', must lose all sense of beat or pulse, "because it's death; it's the act of dying". Of the Tchaikovsky, too, he felt the same applies, when the composer "takes you to the very edge of the grave". I t was just before his seventieth birthday, and thoughts of age were with him far more than usual. Yet here was one of the most intensely alive people you could ever hope to meet. He summarized his thoughts on interpretation with what might stand as his epitaph. "As I grow older, I take more risks, whether in daily life, in execution of composition. Life becomes more chancey, more fun, the less of it is left, and you have to take every opportunity there is to try everything." Happily for us all Leonard Bernstein took risks to the end. (Leonard Bernstein. Born Lawrence, Massachusetts August 25th, 1918 Died New York October 14th, 1990) 

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