It is 10 years since Leonard Bernstein died and his absence is keenly felt. Despite a public image at odds with conventional notions of artistic depth, he exemplified a musical approach so different from that of today’s predominantly literal practitioners that he is coming to seem like the last in a line. After all, most of the great conductors of the 20th century were composers (good or bad) and the act of re-creating means more to one who knows what it is to create. Though Sony Classical has abandoned for the moment its ambitious Bernstein Century reissue programme, this massive retrospective from the New York Philharmonic is a worthy act of corporate remembrance. True aficionados will consider it worth acquiring for the quality of the accompanying documentation alone. The sturdy box includes two fat, fully illustrated booklets. There’s a list of every performance Bernstein gave with the orchestra (though not in its New York Stadium Symphony guise) plus a discography of all their official recordings together; this looks reliable even if the West Side Story Symphonic Dances are rendered, perversely, as ‘Ballet Music’.
The compilers’ deliberate avoidance of Bernstein’s core repertoire might seem a risky strategy. Even so, I found such adjectives as ‘vital’, ‘forceful’ and ‘ebullient’ springing readily to mind. Inflections of phrasing and nuance are generally straighter than they became in later years: the younger man is more likely to turn in a reading of fanatical rigour than to opt for swooning self-indulgence. Choose any one of them and Bernstein’s personal magnetism and energy in performance are readily conveyed.
Two of the three previous Philharmonic-issued sets – ‘Historic Broadcasts 1923-87’ and ‘An American Celebration’ (NYPO, 12/99) – have already raided the Bernstein archives. The man’s particular expertise in American music has thus been well documented and there are none of his own scores this time. No small matter given the posthumous rehabilitation of his own output in today’s more pluralistic musical landscape. Bernstein seems to have convinced himself that his concert pieces would be forgotten, and it was this, rather than the ins and outs of his emotional life, that most unsettled him. Having given up the musical directorship of the Philharmonic in 1969 (ostensibly to devote more time to composition), he would be gratified to discover his music getting more performances than ever, perplexed that his success on the podium has not led to more Americans being chosen to front the big American symphonic institutions. At the time of writing, this unparalleled legacy of live recordings documents what looks like remaining a one-off love affair between a top US orchestra and its indigenous maestro.
Drawing on far-flung sources that include the caches of private collectors, ‘Bernstein Live’ certainly demonstrates the breadth of the conductor’s sympathies: his willingness to explore uncharted territory in new or newish music, his mixed fortunes as a concerto accompanist, his ability to generate heat at the one-off gala event. The programme-building of individual discs is not always explicable, but few will complain when the gems are readily accessible.
The set begins on a high note in December 1956 with a splendid account of Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale which, for whatever reason, was never recorded commercially by this team. As in Hindemith’s Mathis der Mahler Symphony Bernstein was here filling in for Guido Cantelli who had just died in a plane crash, a tragedy that also left the NYPO succession in doubt. There was a great deal of emotion and drama in the air and both performances convey this in spades. Next up is Elgar’s Cockaigne (1963). Worlds away from his notorious, molto espressivo reading of Enigma (DG, 12/82), this is a thrillingly fast-paced reading, eschewing nostalgia until the very closing stages. Jump cut to 1977 and we find Lazar Berman, who recorded a famous Rachmaninov Third with Abbado (CBS, 6/77), causing a sensation in his sole appearance with the New York Philharmonic and in this very concerto. Bernstein, not generally in sympathy with the idiom, contributes some rather heavy-handed rubato, but this is perfectly in keeping with Berman’s epic, big-boned conception.
The second disc has Bernstein doing his duty by Webern and Virgil Thomson, while the Mozart concerto with Byron Janis is more elegant than you might expect. The great find is the Hindemith, taped a week after that Song of the Nightingale and similarly intense. The interpretation is ultra-expressive, less smooth and settled than, say, Karajan’s, more thrusting than Bernstein’s commercial recording with the Israel Philharmonic (DG, 5/91).
Disc 3 is another mixed bag. Britten’s Spring Symphony gets its one and only New York airing in 1963; this was clearly an ‘event’, although Bernstein’s massed forces, far from ideally balanced, occasionally sound bemused. The sound per se is much better in Jacqueline du Pre’s intimate, eloquent, risk-taking Schumann Cello Concerto (1967). Notwithstanding a nasty blip on the master tape, which we are told could not be eliminated, this is a not only a major historical document but a cherishable performance in its own right. If the warmhearted accompaniment is not faultless, the cellist can’t have minded. It was with this broadcast that she broke through to the wider American audience. (In 1973, her playing career would end with abortive concert performances of the Brahms Double with Pinchas Zukerman, again accompanied by Bernstein and the New Yorkers.) The group of Sibelius songs makes a curious encore.
Disc 4 begins with some beefy Mozart, but the chalk-and-cheese, tough-and-tender combination of Bernstein and Wilhelm Kempff in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto (1966) works well enough. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it is Lukas Foss’s vaguely minimalist Quintets for orchestra and Copland’s Dance Symphony that really strike sparks. Neither reading is likely to be surpassed, although the Copland is more deliberately handled than might have been the case a few years earlier. These two items stem from an all- American programme of 1981, the most recent concert represented here.
Disc 5 takes us back to the late 1950s for some riveting revivals of material with French links, Stravinskian tendencies and provocative intent. Vladimir Ashkenazy famously recorded Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto with Andre Previn (Decca, 10/75), but here, barely out of his teens, he makes an even more dazzling impression. To programme Markevitch’s Icare at all was an audacious gesture when its composer had long since given up composition for the podium. It, too, receives the performance of a lifetime (the intrusion of premature applause is a small price to pay). Varese’s Arcana was similarly unfamiliar – and unrecorded – when Bernstein took it up, raising the roof with greater elan than more superficially plausible exponents.
Disc 6 is Americana. A spectacular, hard-driven Barber Second Essay (1959) is followed by the Second (!) Symphony by Bill Russo, more than premature ‘crossover’ I’d say, even if the participation of Maynard Ferguson’s stratospheric jazz trumpet will be reckoned its main attraction today. Ruggles’ Men and Mountains is unfortunately disfigured by some pulsing of the upper strings – the tape dates from 1958. The famously belated world premiere of Ives’s Second took place on February 25, 1951, the broadcast being caught by the composer himself a few day’s later. The tape had to be included and yet there is a slightly provisional quality about the occasion. Bernstein’s subsequent commercial recordings adopt yet slower tempos, but this is one piece in which his authority grew and grew.
Disc 7 dispenses with logic, kicking off with Shchedrin’s most familiar crowd-pleaser, the impish Concerto for Orchestra No 1, variously translated as ‘Naughty Limericks’, ‘Merry Ditties’ or, as here, ‘Mischievous Folk Ditties’. The Stravinsky Capriccio, a companion piece to the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments the same team recorded commercially (CBS, 9/62), sounds less well; there’s plenty of disgruntled coughing at the start and Seymour Lipkin’s tone is made to sound thinner than we expect today. Henze’s Fifth Symphony is captured in better sound. The idiom may not have been entirely congenial to these forces, but it is impossible to imagine the work being brought off with greater intensity than at this 1963 premiere. It would be easy to overlook the Beethoven Triple Concerto (where Bernstein is joined by section leaders), but, for me, this is one of the best things in the whole set. The conductor-pianist sets a cracking pace and the whole approach is of a piece with his super-ebullient New York Missa solemnis taped the following spring (CBS, 6/62). Disc 8, by contrast, seems designed to demonstrate the conductor’s limitations. The slapdash, period (1959) drudgery of Bernstein’s Bach is trumped only by the painfully brazen Angst of his Bruckner (1976). Both are fascinating to hear – once.
Disc 9 contains a somewhat eccentrically balanced selection to demonstrate Bernstein’s involvement with ‘cutting edge’ music. While Xenakis, Boulez, Cage and Brant represent competing tendencies of the avant-garde of the late 50s and early 60s, Copland’s Outdoor Overture of 1937 inhabits a wholly different world of hearty, homespun Americana. The tape’s origin also sets it apart; it comes from a Young People’s concert rather than the notorious 1963-64 concert series devoted to ‘The Avant Garde’. Here Bernstein’s spoken introductions, once hugely controversial, now seem helpfully evocative of time and place with their frequent allusions to contemporaneous developments in the arts and sciences. For good or ill, the very concept of an avant-garde dates the enterprise, placing it firmly within its future-obsessed age (though only Henry Brant’s Antiphony One fails to transcend the ‘changes and fads’ of the era). The account of Xenakis’s Pithoprakta (1955-56), slightly fuzzy round the edges, is worth having given the scarcity of recordings of this important work. Henry Brant’s (1953) piece, a precursor of the experiments of Stockhausen and Zimmerman in its ‘spatial’ exploration of five orchestral groups, is more problematic in that little of the spatial effect on which it depends is actually conveyed by the recording. The performance of Boulez’s first Improvisation sur Mallarme (1957) has the clear-toned soprano of Marni Nixon threading through the beguiling percussion sonorities with an appropriately exotic inflection. Audience noise spoils the effect slightly. Elsewhere, particularly at the end of Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis (an aleatoric work from 1961-62 based on star charts) the mixture of appreciation and hostility is part and parcel of the experience. As a bizarre bonus, we also get the New York Philharmonic’s free improvisations immediately preceding the Cage.
Bernstein’s Wagner is a different kind of a rarity – his Tristan (Philips, 10/83) is a remarkable (and remarkably slow) experience – which makes Disc 10 especially valuable. Taken from a bootleg apparently made by a member of the audience, the recorded (stereo) sound is short on tonal lustre but otherwise decent enough. This is not, sadly, a complete act of Gotterdammerung, but a ‘Wagner Night’ devised around the Siegfried of Jess Thomas and the Brunnhilde of Eileen Farrell, whose heroic tone suffers just a little in the unflattering acoustic. The compression and concision (in every sense) could have proved frustrating, with the necessary cuts ranging from a couple of bars to whole scenes and the orchestra displaying no in-built feeling for the idiom. Yet the voltage throughout is consistently high, and the cumulative tension of the final scene is quite staggering. Like a good swathe of the performances in this collection, such music-making transcends expectations and reminds us of the recreative fervour and sheer vigour of Bernstein’s music-making before the creeping Furtwanglerisation of his old age. The years of ‘smoking, drinking, staying up late and screwing around’ did sometimes take their toll. But this is music-making from another time: Felicia Bernstein’s mercilessly satirised ‘radical chic’ soiree for the Black Panthers had been held only the previous week.
Warmly recommended – and a mandatory purchase for affluent devotees.'