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Leonard Bernstein has been dead for 10 years, and his PR machine hasn’t slowed down for a second. Commemorative concerts come and go like clockwork. The record companies that documented most of his worksSony Classical (originally Columbia) and Deutsche Grammophonare on their umpteenth reissues of his recorded legacy. And trade dailies and music journals have fallen all over themselves to memorialize him as the last genuine Romantic, America’s truest musical voice, the 20th century’s finest musician, and one of history’s great musical polymaths.
That’s not to say that the guy has wanted for detractors: Some critics will never lower their eyebrows, arched over his superheated conducting style or his effusively confessional compositions, not to mention his glamour-puss public persona. But plenty of the we-were-there-so-we-know crowd will attest that, during Bernstein’s golden years (the mid-’50s through the early ’80s), he couldn’t be touched in anything he put his hand to.
Those needing confirmation need look no further than Bernstein Live, the New York Philharmonic’s 10-CD love letter to its former music director on the 10th anniversary of his death. Featuring 13 hours of painstakingly restored, previously unissued recordings of Bernstein in the heat of performance, this doorstop of a box set charts a remarkable musical journey from 1951 to 1981. Two books (“booklets” is far too puny a word to describe these things) supply extensive program notes, interviews, New York Phil history, biographical info on Bernstein, rosters of orchestra personnel, and a detailed chronological listing of every concert program Bernstein conducted with this orchestra. Oh, yes, and a photo album’s worth of great shots.
What first strikes you upon listening to these discs is the sheer personality of the music-making. If any recordings truly warranted the cliché “jumping out of the speakers,” these would be the ones. Suffused with easy wit, crushing grief, and, always, fierce intelligence, the performances don’t speak to Bernstein’s legacy so much as sing to itand not one phrase registers with less than a total, personal investment.
But if Bernstein’s brand of subjectivity has sometimes been labeled self-indulgence, this set should prove a corrective. Few readings of Bruckner’s elusive Symphony No. 6 have unfolded with the architectural clarity and sense of dramatic inevitability of the 1976 performance included here, and Britten’s Spring Symphony, recorded in 1963, glows with fresh inspiration and lovingly etched detail. Indeed, the set’s crowning glory is also its most subtly wrought and radiantly played: nearly 80 minutes of scenes from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung with both Jess Thomas and the scandalously underrecorded Eileen Farrell in commanding form. Bernstein is at his most unexaggeratedly persuasive here, his emotional immediacy going hand-in-hand with a scrupulous calibration of inner voices.
Of course, there are performances here that show Bernstein as the brash young iconoclast of legend, not least a lickety-split, testosterone-driven 1963 take on Elgar’s Cockaigne overture. A 1959 sprint through Beethoven’s Triple Concerto (conducted from the keyboard) is equally hot-blooded and exhilarating, with Bernstein’s sparkling pianism matched by the passionate playing of fine New York Phil section leaders John Corigliano (violin) and Laszlo Varga (cello). As is so often the case with Bernstein, his larger-than-life interpretation feels much closer to the composer’s spirit than the myriad well-behaved, plushly played performances of the piece conducted by others.
“Plush” is not an adjective that leaps to mind when I consider Bernstein’s New York Philquite the contrary, actually. It’s been instructive listening to these recordings and discovering that much of the lean, tough orchestral timbre so often blamed on Philharmonic Hall (later acoustically renovated and renamed Avery Fisher Hall) and on the harsh miking of the conductor’s old Columbia LPs is just as present in discreetly miked broadcasts from Carnegie Hall. It’s partly a matter of Bernstein’s favoring emotional truth over tonal refinement, partly the sheer range of compositions the orchestra had to learn, and partly a reflection of the Phil itself, which in those years so often sounded like an aggregation of virtuoso soloists rather than a homogenized unit.
So where Karajan might sculpt a subtle, burnished brass sound, Bernstein is apt to leave a windburn. Bernstein’s violins can, on occasion, hector like a mob of outraged citizens. His wind solos sometimes suggest the raw frankness of a Klezmer band. And his trumpet solos are as likely to emerge with a nasal, almost operatic vibrato as they are to play it straight. All this makes for a sense of spontaneous invention, of music forged on the spot.
But as prickly and individualistic as the New York Phil players could (and still can) be, they could also come together into a tight, corporate unit, as virtuosic in their unanimity of attack as in their solo work. Consider the imposing and athletic overture to Mozart’s The Magic Flute, or Rodion Shchedrin’s addictively replayable Mischievous Folk Ditties, its skittering, scatting rhythms as tight as a drum but no less teasing for that discipline.
Bernstein could also forge his band into one big chamber ensemble when necessary, as a brace of terrific concerto performances here demonstrate. Listen to the way the wind lines weave around Lazar Berman’s burly fingerwork in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Note the rapt, silken string sound Bernstein conjures for Jacqueline du Pré in a very personal, very moving reading of Schumann’s Cello Concerto. And who would have imagined a partnership between the wry, understated pianist Wilhelm Kempff and Bernstein, whose heart rarely left his sleeve? Yet here they are, in a Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 in which the conductor’s boldly projected interpretation draws beefier and more overtly dramatic pianism from Kempff than we usually hear from him. Only a Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 from 1959 disappoints, with lightweight, reticent playing from flutist John Wummer, an involved but only fitfully effective Isaac Stern on violin, and a sluggish, surprisingly ill-tuned response from the massed strings. Once again, though, Bernstein’s personality breaks through, this time in his assured harpsichord playing, full of things to say about the music itself and about his in-the-moment response to it.
It should be remembered that when some of these recordings were made, the New York Phil belonged to other music directors: Dimitri Mitropoulos (whose volatile conducting was a big influence on Bernstein) had it for most of the ’50s, and after Bernstein stepped down, in 1969, it was taken over first by Pierre Boulez and then by Zubin Mehta. But Bernstein’s presence on the podium always ensured a “Bernstein sound.” It’s easy to imagine the orchestra’s current music director, Kurt Masur, producing a richer, more note-accurate reading of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler symphony than the 1956 performance led by Bernstein on these CDs. But it’s doubtful that Masur would do as much justice to the restless, searching quality in this score, and no performance in memory has generated the kind of cleansing white heat Bernstein’s does. And although Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra sits squarely in Boulez’s regular repertoire (his rigorous, surgically clean performances of it having become something of a gold standard), Bernstein’s 1958 interpretation shows us, to revelatory effect, the romantic heart lurking beneath Webern’s spare, cryptic 12-tone writing.
Bernstein wasn’t a big fan of atonality, and he used it in his own compositions only as a flavoring. Likewise, he never embraced the aleatory or minimalist schoolsor any music based more in mathematics than in gut emotion. But he championed all modern music, whatever form it took. More than half of the 33 works in Bernstein Live are by composers living and, in most cases, actively writing at the time of these performances. Most fascinating is the Bernstein Discusses and Conducts 20th-Century Music disc, with pre- and post-performance remarks drawn from a televised Young People’s Concert (featuring a version of Copland’s An Outdoor Overture practically bursting at the seams with adrenaline) and from subscription concerts designed to yank listeners into face-to-face confrontations with their own musical era. Sure, there’s some wink-wink, nudge-nudge going on here about the really out-there stuff, but Bernstein’s comments are full of personal connections and philosophical contexts and a palpable (although quietly expressed) fervor to bring reluctant listeners into the fold. It’s hard to imagine a more eloquent stump speech for experimental music than Bernstein’s 12-minute talk prior to Xenakis’ Pithoprakta. And almost as thrilling as the applause greeting most of these works is the vigorous booing following John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis.
The new music on the remaining discs moves from highlight to highlight, starting with the most important performance here: the 1951 world premiere of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2. Written near the turn of the 20th century, it waited decades for a champion, and Bernstein, who was instrumental in establishing Ives as America’s most groundbreaking (and, perhaps, very greatest) composer, put this piece on the musical map. The performance is not as swaggeringly confident as Bernstein’s studio recording for Columbia or as weighty as his much-later Deutsche Grammophon recording. This broadcast, full of caution and reverence and a feeling of wanting to get it right, emphasizes the work’s Romantic forebears and touches lightly on the subversively cacophonous final note. But it’s a performance that has “major event” stamped into every bar, and it must be heard.
And there’s other little-known music crying out for a wider audience. Lukas Foss’ mesmerizing Quintets for Orchestra (bearing, as it happens, an epigraph by Charles Ives: “…then the rocks on the mountain begin to shout”) starts like early Reich or one of Morton Feldman’s more active compositions and builds to a set of controlled, ever-spreading explosions. Composer/conductor Igor Markevitch’s Icare bears some fingerprints of earlier mastersStravinsky, Ravel, and Poulenc, among othersbut its slender, chilled beauty has a sound uniquely its own. Although William Russo’s Symphony No. 2 is less heady, its jazzy accessibilityespecially in the final movement’s wailing, mile-high writing for trumpet, astonishingly played in this 1959 performance by jazz great Maynard Fergusonevokes the Manhattan of bebop and beat poets, of the New York School painters, and of the Lee Strasberg Studio. But then, this entire set of recordings brings back an era of brashness and new beginnings, of seeking after fresh musical truths instead of recycling old ones, of a belief in home-grown music and music-making. That true-believer exhilarationwhich is a lot harder to find these days in our concert hallsis there in spades in Bernstein Live.
During the last decades of his life, Bernstein underwent something of a sea change. Shifting his musical base to Europe and refocusing his attentions on the classical repertoire, he essentially remade himself as a latter-day Wilhelm Furtwängler, adopting the expansive tempos, hefty orchestral timbre, and spiritually questing approach to music so typical of that legendary maestro. But whatever was lost of the high-wire excitement of Bernstein’s early years was more than compensated for by an exponential gain in interpretive depth and dark-night-of-the-soul revelations.
Deutsche Grammophon, which documented Bernstein’s later years, has also produced a commemorative box. But whereas Bernstein Live opened up the archives to enlarge our picture of Bernstein, Deutsche Grammophon’s six-CD box, affectionately titled Lenny: The Legend Lives On, is, with one exception (a buoyant rendition of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 with Bernstein conducting from the keyboard), a reissue of previously available commercial recordings. What’s been assembled works well enough as an overview of Bernstein’s late period or, with its midline price tag, as a gorgeously played classical sampler for the uninitiated. But surely the Deutsche Grammophon vaultsnot to mention the archives of the Vienna Philharmonic, which served after the New York Phil as Bernstein’s home basecould fill a dozen boxes like Bernstein Live with previously unissued broadcasts.
What is here is choice, but the selection seems pretty arbitrary nonetheless. Why, for example, include the Vienna Philharmonic Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto with Krystian Zimerman or the Brahms Double Concerto with Gidon Kremer and Misha Maisky, when both recordings center more on the mercurial hi-jinks of their soloists than on the lovely, supportive conducting of Bernstein?
Bernstein’s Viennese version of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, though, is a riveting, deeply felt gem and probably the best single Deutsche Grammophon disc to represent the conductor’s special connection with this composer. (Presumably, the omission of Mahler recordings in Bernstein Live was based on the continued availability of one-and-a-half Bernstein/New York Phil Mahler symphony cycles on Deutsche Grammophon and Sony Classical.) The Mozart Great Mass in C Minor (with the Bavarian RSO) is also a beauty, even though its high butterfat content sounds further out of date with every passing minute.
There is a well-chosen program of American works in Lenny (although, once again, regrets start mounting for what’s been left out). Bernstein’s recordings with the Los Angeles Philharmonic have been consistently underrated, and it’s good to be reminded of the ripe tunefulness of his L.A. Appalachian Spring and, even more, the opulent pleasures of his L.A. Rhapsody in Blue. This is Gershwin as smoky and seductive and sunset-lita hunk of decadent L.A. noir, whereas Bernstein’s New York Phil Gershwin recording was all gritty black and white, hopped up with dance-hall rhythms.
One disc here is indispensable. Its pairing of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 comes from the last public concert Bernstein conducted, with the Boston Symphony at its summer home, the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Mass. The Britten is gripping, the Beethoven magisterial. That the exultant final two movements of the Seventh were conducted by a man coughing blood into his handkerchief and clutching the podium rail while he struggled for oxygen is a testament to the transformative power music held for Bernsteinand the life-and-death stakes he brought to his music-making right up to the end.
What’s shocking is that nowhere in either commemorative box is there a single composition by Bernstein himself. Important as he was to the world as a conductor (and pianist and writer and teacher and cultural ambassador and TV icon and…), he considered himself first and foremost a composer. And he was no slouch at it, writing in just about every popular and classical form. Conventional wisdom suggests that his writing for the Broadway stageWest Side Story in particularconstitutes his surest legacy and that his operatic and concert works are a mixed bag at best.
Reissues of Bernstein’s own recordings of his works on Deutsche Grammophon, Sony, BMG (formerly RCA), and Pearl have gone a long way toward rehabilitating these marvelously inventive, underappreciated scores. More important, a younger generation of conductors (Rattle, Slatkin, Nagano, Oue, Tilson Thomas) have taken up Bernstein’s work both in concert and in the recording studio. A vital piece of restoration has now reached us, thanks to Deutsche Grammophon: scenes from Bernstein’s final Broadway musical, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, arranged into a concert piece retitled A White House Cantata.
Only Bernstein would write a musical for the U.S. bicentennial that weaves the history of the White House with the history of racism in America. It’s a long musical, loaded with acerbic wit and unflattering portraits of our Great White Fathers. The Broadway production
struggled with a didactic book, production problems, and enough rewrites to fill two musicals; it closed quickly and ignominiously, to Bernstein’s crushing disappointment.
1600 was the kind of show that needs a loving hand and the sort of creative rethinking that’s honed Bernstein’s equally huge and eclectic Candide over the years. (Whether 1600’s musical sophistication, heavy political agenda, and opera-house demands could ever work in a Broadway house is another story.) A White House Cantata drops the book and pares the score down to a prelude and 15 numbers. The music shows Bernstein at his subtlest and most lyrically generous. It’s a lovely, lovely piece, lacking only the Big Tunes that make his earlier shows (West Side Story, On the Town) so indelible.
Kent Nagano conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of elegance and engaging color, supported by engineering of splendid presence and sound-staging. Thomas Hampson’s supple baritone is welcome in the roles of 11 presidents, and although June Anderson sounds a bit past her prime as all those first ladies, she sings clearly and with engagement. The roles of Seena and Lud (archetypal African-American White House servants who reappear administration after administration) are taken with great character by Barbara Hendricks and Kenneth Tarver. This recording is a real ear-opener: It completes the picture of Broadway’s greatest composer between Kurt Weill and Stephen Sondheim. CP