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Posted to: rec.music.classical.recordings
Subject: Leonard Bernstein: one man's meat ...
Date: Tue, 25 Apr 1995
SaZLi SHaHaRiR wrote:
I'm a newbie to this genre of music, and I'm interested to know your views about his interpretations of classical-romantic orchestral pieces. From what I read in this newsgroup, his recordings of Mahler's symphonies are supposedly remarkable. How about his "Royal Concert Series" (or something like that) recordings, the ones with Prince Charles's portrait on back. Are they equally good? Can you recommend which ones to try out and which ones to avoid?
Well, one thing is for certain about most Leonard Bernstein recordings ... one way or another, you're bound to have an opinion about them. For this reason, if you poll fifteen people for recommendations, you will tend to wind up with fifteen sets which have little to do with one another. LB favored a very personal style of musical communication, with a very strong sense of rhythm and an emotionality that at times could reach heart-on-sleeve levels. There are times when this sort of thing works gloriously; with the music of Gustav Mahler, for instance, Bernstein seemed to reach a level of identification with the composer, and Mahler's fin-de-siecle spiritual angst found most eloquent expression in Bernstein's recordings, though if restraint is what you're looking for in Mahler, this is *not* the way to go.
A brief biography
There are also a few phases to LB's career, though the quality of his recordings hardly follow predictable rules. He began as an assistant to Serge Koussevitzky at the Boston SO, gained worldwide notoriety after subbing for the ailing Bruno Walter at the last minute in a New York PO concert, became music director of said orchestra for a long rein which was filled with multimedia educational activity, heavy concertizing, and tons of recordings. However, there was always a measure of critical disdain for his work, perhaps because he was American, perhaps because of his exercises on the edge (sometimes over the edge) of vulgarity. One way or another, he guested in a variety of venues, and somewhere in the last ten years or so of his career, he reached a phase when the brickbats became accolades. Not that his style had changed appreciably -- his tempi sometimes slowed down a bit, and his interpretations were sometimes a bit more autumnal, but perhaps it's the sort of respect that is afforded to the Grand Old Men. The Vienna Philharmonic certainly thought much of his abilities, and loved working with him in his last years.
General comments about Bernstein's recordings
Recommended recordings? This stretches over a recorded legacy that has to rank with Karajan, Antal Dorati, and Georg Solti for sheer volume. The two major phases of his recording career that are available on CD are the phase from the 1960's, in his years with the New York PO, when he recorded for CBS (much, but not all of it has been reissued in the Royal Edition) and his late recordings, done with a variety of orchestras, for DG.
Haydn and Mozart
He made some Haydn recordings that are astonishingly good. This is not Haydn for the faint of heart, though -- orchestral textures are thick, and minuets have a slow, earthy, peasant-dance style quality to them. There is also rough humor in spades here, and wonderful music making. Some Haydn recordings worth investigating include his marvelous set of the "Paris" symphonies on Sony and his deeply felt readings of the masses. For some, his "London" symphonies don't work as well; I can't speak from experience. There are others who have done Mozart better, I think.
Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert
Few, though, brought as much drama to their Beethoven as Bernstein did. There are two complete symphony cycles, one with the New York PO on Sony, the other a digital remake with the Vienna PO on DG. To my mind, the earlier set is more worthwhile, as a rule, with its tauter rhythms and more dramatic feel. Individual recordings worth investigating include a fascinating investigation of the sketches to the 5th symphony (Sony), a grand Eroica with the New York PO (Sony), characterful and joyous readings of the 4th and 8th symphonies, again with the New York PO (Sony), a dramatic 9th with one of the fastest scherzi (and finest percussion sections!) that I've heard, with the New York PO on Sony (these ears would recommend against the Berlin Wall performance, which has great historical value but gets pulled apart by slow tempi), and a painterly, loving account of the Pastoral, with the Vienna PO on DG. He also did a moving account of the Missa Solemnis, with the Vienna PO on DG. I've always been fond of his Violin Concerto recording with Isaac Stern, but I suspect that's an imprinting effect. Oh, and there's his recording of a string orchestra arrangement of the Op. 131 and Op. 135 string quartets, which is interesting, but not a first way to become familiar with this music.
Bernstein's late Schubert recordings are also worth checking out; there's a grandeur to them that recalls Furtwaengler, when he's at his best. Try his 8th symphony recording and his marvelous reading of the 9th, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra on DG. There is much to admire in his loving readings of the Brahms symphonies, too; particularly fine are his lyric 2nd and stormy 4th, with the Vienna PO on DG again. I can't speak to his Schumann or his Berlioz.
Late great symphonists
Bruckner was not one of his strengths; I think he responded more to the angst of Mahler than the bedrock faith that Bruckner espoused in his symphonies. He only performed Bruckner's 9th, so far as I know, and the Vienna PO concert at Carnegie Hall in '89 was magnificent, but I don't know that this is a commendable recording.
In Mahler, Bernstein stands with the giants, with urgently recommended recordings of the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 9th symphonies to his credit. Others can speak more knowledgeably about the virtues of various recordings, though I love his DG efforts in the 3rd (New York PO), 5th (Vienna PO), 6th (Vienna PO), and 9th (Berlin PO).
He was also a foremost interpreter of Dmitri Shostakovich's great symphonic canvases, bringing a heavy touch of Mahler to his interpretation. Of particular value are a spirited reading of the 5th (1959, New York PO on CBS appears to be generally preferable, coupled with a fine 9th) and a gloriously sonorous reading of the 7th, with the Chicago SO on DG.
His recordings of other late romantics such as Tchaikovsky and Sibelius are much more controversial, with dragged out tempi in the Tchaikovsky slow movements that border on Mahlerian funeral marches, and Sibelius that can best be described as pulled out of shape.
Bernstein and American music
Bernstein was also a tireless champion of modern music in general, and American moderns in particular. Others will have to go into more detail, but I can think off the top of my head of a marvelous Ives 2nd with the New York PO on DG, a suitably grand Copland 3rd again with the New York PO on DG, and a thrilling reading of Hindemith's Mathis der Maler symphony on Sony. Moreover, Bernstein was a peerless interpreter of his own music, and there's plenty of proof of this both on CBS and DG.
Final thoughts? At his best, he reminds me of the finest work of some of the long missed greats, with a Furtwaenglerian flexibility of tempo and a Mengelbergian knack for finding liberties that work effectively. At his worst, he reminds me of the worst traits of the aforementioned conductors. Your mileage may vary, as always, but this set of opinions might get you started. Comments and brickbats welcome.