Music Reviews

Classical Music - Part 22 - January, 2001

Bernstein Lives

Jason Serinus




In November, we profiled three recordings which contain a total of four compositions by Leonard Bernstein: his Songfest/Serenade reissue, and new recordings of A White House Cantata (based on the lengthy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue) and Symphony No. 2 “The Age of Anxiety.” This month, we feature two box sets, and together, these 16 discs offer over 30 years of Lenny’s conducting and playing.


“On stage, Lenny had absolute faith that, for himself as well as for all the musicians in front of him, the greatest thing in life at that moment was playing that particular piece with full wonderment and abandon. None of this was ever contrived – what Lenny felt about music came from deep inside.”

- Isaac Stern -

As the year 2000 closes, so does the tenth anniversary of the death of conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein. As a lasting memorial, the New York Philharmonic has recently issued a 10-CD set of live, never-before-released Bernstein performances, mostly culled from concerts broadcast during Lenny’s 1958-1969 tenure as the NYPO’s Music Director. While the “live” aspect is not unique - most of Bernstein’s commercial performances were recorded before live audiences - the breadth of repertoire and quality of musicianship greatly expand our understanding of Bernstein’s greatness.

Since Bernstein commercially recorded all of Mahler’s and most of his own compositions, many twice, additional interpretations of those works are not included. Instead, we have a host of new recordings, many of 20th Century works. One of the most important of these is a recording of Vladimir Ashkenazy’s stunning 1958 New York Philharmonic debut in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16, predating Ashkenazy’s 1970s commercial account with Previn.

Equally arresting is Bernstein conducting soprano Eileen Farrell as Brunnhilde in 80 minutes of legendary scenes from Wagner’s Gotterdammerung (with the Siegfried, of tenor Jess Thomas sounding better as the music progresses). In 1970, the 50-year old Farrell was a wee bit past her peak - her very top, pushed to its limits, sounds a mite edgy - but her melding of heart, passionate sensuality, and tonal splendor sets her apart from those two other supreme Brunnhildes of the recorded era, Kirsten Flagstad and Birgit Nilsson. Farrell’s gorgeous voice, magnificently supported by Bernstein’s glorious, at times orgasmic conducting, makes their Gotterdammerung, quite literally, a performance to die for.

[Note: Lovers of Flagstad and Nilsson will be happy to learn of the release of NAXOS 8.110068-70, a Ward Marston restoration of the famed live 1936 Fritz Reiner Covent Garden performances of Wagner’s TRISTAN UND ISOLDE starring Flagstad and Melchior. Joining it are two Testament reissues of early Nilsson recordings, BIRGIT NILSSON OPERA ARIAS • SBT 1200 and BIRGIT NILSSON • HANS HOTTER • WAGNER OPERA ARIAS & DUETS SBT 1201. Both women were around 40 at the time these recordings were made].

In a liner note interview, Farrell explains that “with Lenny, there was very little change from rehearsal to performance. He made everything quite clear, and we did exactly as he told us to do. There was no such thing as, ‘Now, you watch me and follow,’ as there was with some conductors. We worked out everything at rehearsal, and that’s how we did it at the concert.”

Such clarity and control are apparent in the opening Dawn sequence of Gotterdammerung’s Prologue, in which Bernstein achieves a positively magical effect as the sun rises above the horizon. Seventeen years later, in his live DG recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, he exhibits a similar mastery in the final movement, especially in the last bars, when he holds the orchestra at a point of extreme tension and then literally allows it to explode into transcendent exaltation. Though Lenny could be excessive at times, especially in his later years, when the combination of cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, ego and declining health left their mark on his music, he had a special understanding of certain composers and pieces of music that made for greatness.

Disc 9 contains almost 80 minutes of 20th-Century works, each prefaced by Bernstein’s literate comments to his audience. The first selection, Aaron Copland’s An Outdoor Overture from a 1960 Young People’s Concert, lets us hear how wonderful Lenny was speaking to children. He was equally fine when introducing adults to the pioneering music of their times, alternating between humor, philosophical musings, sarcasm and seriousness in an effort to create openings in what, in many instances, were closed minds. Even his masterful 11:32 introduction to John Cage’s 8:12 Atlas Eclipticalis could not prevent loud boos at its conclusion, thereby demonstrating once again why many New Yorkers who consider themselves the center of the universe seem so off kilter.

Copland is also represented by his wild Dance Symphony, an early work whose finale’s offbeat and multiple rhythms were written under the influence of Stravinsky’s ballets and the general background of ragtime and jazz. Other 20th Century composers include Britten, Barber, Virgil Thomson, Foss, Webern, Hindemith, Schedrin, Stravinsky, Markevitch (his rarely encoutered Icare), Henze, Xenakis, Brant, Ruggles, Varese and Boulez. (Those hungering for more 20th Century fare are referred to the Philharmonic’s American Celebration box set).

Other highlights include Wilhelm Kempff’s 1966 Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37; Jacqueline du Pre’s 1967 Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129 (sounding quite different than in her commercial recording with Daniel Barenboim; Lazar Berman’s superb Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30; and Maynard Ferguson’s screaming trumpet in William Russo’s knockout Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 32. There’s also a zippy 1959 performance of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, featuring Bernstein on piano. That same year, Bernstein on harpsichord joins fellow composer John Corigliano on violin, and Laszlo Varga on cello in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050.

Not every performance is ideal. The 1951 World Premiere of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2, executed years before Lenny gained the ability to hire and fire orchestra players, is bettered by Bernstein’s two later commercial performances. Nor is the Mozart all one would wish. The Overture to The Magic Flute could be lighter, while the Andante to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488 lacks poetry, Bernstein beating a faster tempo than that which pianist Byron Janis chooses to open the movement. But so much here is either so great or so rare, or both, as to make the set invaluable.

Some of these recordings are monaural, others stereo. Sound quality varies, but most everything is acceptable, and many recordings rate 3.5 stars. This perfect Xmas gift, which includes 486 pages of notes and photos, is available only from Tower Records or the New York Philharmonic (800-557-8268 /

LEONARD BERNSTEIN: THE LEGEND LIVES ON • DG 469 460-2 (Mid-price, 6 discs for the price of 5: $64.95)

This newly-issued six-disc set includes remasterings of several great late live Bernstein performances. All were captured by Deutsche Grammophon between 1982 and 1990.

As most audiophiles know, early DG digital at its worst was thin and harsh-sounding. Applause could pass for breaking glass, cymbal for its metallic cousin, and strings for the sound of electricity passing through wires on its way to the electric chair. The impact of percussion was also frequently diminished, the reverberation of an instrument’s body flattened out, and the soundstage in general quite flat. While it is difficult to fix all of this, the sonic improvements heard on these new issues are so great as to warrant immediate purchase by those who love these performances.

The first disc, recorded at Tanglewood, is devoted to Lenny’s 1990 BSO “Final Concert.” Included are the Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from his opera, Peter Grimes, Op. 33; and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major, op. 92. Bernstein was quite ill at this time, and had to briefly stop conducting during the Beethoven, leaning on the conductor’s railing to catch his breath while the orchestra continued to play. I owned the original pressing of this Final Concert, and put it in my “For Sale” pile within seconds of playing the magical opening bars of the Britten.

Disc Two, played by the Vienna Philharmonic, features Krystian Zimerman in 1989 playing Beethoven’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 72, “Emperor;” and Gidon Kremer and Mischa Maisky in 1981 playing Brahms great Double Concerto in A minor, Op. 102.

Disc Three, devoted entirely to 1990 Bavarian Radio Orchestra recordings of Mozart, includes a disappointingly earthbound Ave Verum Corpus K. 618; soprano Arleen Auger singing the great motet, Exsultate, jubilate K. 165; and Arleen Auger, Frederica Von Stade, Frank Lopardo, and Cornelius Hauptmann in Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor, K. 427 (417a).

Disc Four contains but one major work, Lenny’s monumental 1987 Vienna Philharmonic performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. This disc provides ample evidence of Bernstein’s conductorial mastery. The gripping first movements are filled with terror, Lenny’s personal neurosis, and drama remarkably mirroring that of his New York Philharmonic composer/conductor predecessor, Gustav Mahler. The famed 11 minute Adagietto literally trembles with heartfelt feeling, its mood of intimacy and tenderness increasing when the orchestra swells in volume. The Finale is just as absorbing, every bar filled with insight. This is a great performance, touching deeper than ever before due to its improved sound.

Disc Five offers Lenny’s later 1982 Los Angeles Philharmonic recording of Copland’s Appalachian Spring; Bernstein playing and conducting Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue; and Barber’s famed Adagio for Strings. From 1985 comes Lenny leading the New York Philharmonic in one of the most important American symphonies of the 20th Century, Roy Harris’ one movement, 18 minute Symphony No. 3.

The Sixth bonus disc offers the first release of a 1989 performance of Lenny conducting the Vienna Philharmonic while playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K. 453. While there are better performances of this work, it gives us one of the last glimpses of Bernstein at the piano.


 - Jason Serinus -


© Copyright 2001 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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