Lenny's been gone ten years now, but you'd hardly know it. Although the direct brilliance of his intense personal flame is extinguished, its reflection continues to glow in the legions of those he inspired, who will fill our concert halls and recording studios for decades to come. He endures in a purely mercantile sense as well, as barely a month passes without some further reissue from among his hundreds of records. With so many Bernstein performances already available, do we really need more? Yes! Despite the abundance, there remains a crucial gap in the Bernstein discography.
Bernstein clearly grew to value his live performances over his studio renditions. Indeed, nearly every recording during the final third of his career was made in concert. But by then his interpretive style had evolved into one of rich and profound deliberation. It was his middle years as conductor of the New York Philharmonic that are remembered as his most exciting of all. Yet, the only concert releases from that era were keyed to special occasions - the 1962 dedication of Lincoln Center, RFK's 1968 funeral, and a 1973 Haydn Mass in Time of War to protest Nixon's second inauguration. In 1999 the Philharmonic released the deluxe ten-CD American Celebration, nearly a quarter of which boasted previously-unreleased Bernstein concert material. Now, its success has prompted Bernstein Live, with 13 hours more. At $195 (available at Tower and through the Philharmonic's web site) it's certainly not for casual collectors, but for ardent fans it's essential.
The set fills many gaps in the Bernstein discography and presents some truly magnificent performances. But above all, it displays the amazing scope of Bernstein's talent. He was the only conductor of his generation (and since) who could (and would) credibly play a Baroque concerto of Bach and an aleatory work of John Cage, with excellent Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Wagner, Sibelius, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Copland and Webern in between, all played with energy, conviction and insight - and each in its distinct but appropriate style. His wondrous versatility is underlined by the accompanying booklets' complete listing of his Philharmonic programs and recordings, which document his unstinting efforts to proselytize for modern and American music within the context of a wide variety of traditional fare.
The package hides its riches behind a hideous graphic design, utterly unworthy of a project of this import, but otherwise is efficient and well-annotated. The extensive program notes include many valuable reminiscences that go well beyond the usual "I loved him/I miss him," stuff; one of the most insightful debunks the myth that Bernstein's wild conducting gestures were a useless ego-driven indulgence to entertain audiences - several musicians testify that his extraordinary body language was in fact a complex system of essential cues that provided his players with highly meaningful guidance and inspiration.
The true value of this set lies not in the packaging but with the music. Perhaps the ultimate tribute to Bernstein's artistry is that Bernstein Live, like its complex subject, defies generalization. My personal highlights include a breathtaking Rach 3, a gorgeous Schumann Cello Concerto, bold Prokofiev, a Markevitch rediscovery, pioneering Ives, an awesome Beethoven Triple Concerto, a galvanizing Bruckner Sixth, a compelling lecture on avant-garde music and a fabulous evening of Wagner.
Here are some thoughts on the complete program:
Disc 1 - Stravinsky: Song of the Nightingale (1956); Elgar: Cockaigne Overture (1963); Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto # 3 (with Lazar Berman, pianist, 1977).
- Stravinsky: Song of the Nightingale - The collection begins with a poignant opener. Despite his abundant talent, Bernstein's career was shaped by two very lucky breaks, both with the Philharmonic. He had catapulted to fame at age 25 when he suddenly substituted at a 1943 concert for an ailing Bruno Walter. By late 1956, Bernstein had drifted away from the Philharmonic, and hadn't led the orchestra for nearly six years. In the meantime, Toscanini protégé Guido Cantelli had become closely associated with the Philharmonic and seemed destined to succeed the retiring Mitropoulos as its new Music Director. On November 24, 1956, Cantelli was killed in an air crash and Bernstein was called up to conduct in his place. Thus, it was Cantelli's tragic death, more than any other factor, that paved the way for Bernstein's appointment to head the Philharmonic, a position that would shape the rest of his career. The Song of the Nightingale heard here is from the first of the concerts Cantelli had planned for himself. Ironically, the performance itself really isn't as striking as Cantelli's January 1954 concert with the NBC Symphony Orchestra (last on AS Disc 530) in which he presents the work with a wryness and brittle energy that Bernstein couldn't quite match.
- Elgar: Cockaigne Overture - If pushed to choose the worst Bernstein performance on record, most critics seemingly would pick his 1982 BBC concert of the Enigma Variations, which was universally despised upon its release. That's too bad - while Bernstein's Enigma wasn't a quintessentially English reading, rippling with good humor, it was a serious, probing attempt to shed a new light on what had become a rather ordinary warhorse. This Cockaigne compensates for the perceived sins of his Enigma - it's faster and brasher than the accepted approach - London Town at a New York pace, as the notes aptly put it.
- Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto # 3 - Sergei Rachmaninoff himself presented the world premiere of this work in 1909 with one of the two New York orchestras that would eventually merge to form the Philharmonic, and then repeated it the same season with the other. While his 1940 Philadelphia recording with Ormandy (on Naxos 110601) remains incomparable for its sheer vision and authority, this one is a superb complement. Bernstein is on the cusp of his late style of very broad tempos, but still offset with surges of energy that charge the climactic moments (of which the Rach 3 is full). The opening bars alone announce that this is to be special - the rhythms are quirky and inflected with tension. He beautifully supports the huge power of Berman's conception, not just in the obvious big moments (the first movement cadenza, the transition to the third movement) but throughout. Monumentally conceived, this is one of the most passionate accounts on record of a work which seems ideally suited to Bernstein's artistic temperament but which he never recorded.
Disc 2 - Thompson: The Seine at Night (1961); Mozart: Piano Concerto # 23 (Byron Janis, piano, 1960); Webern: Six Pieces for Orchestra (1958); Hindemith: Symphony - Mathis der Maler (1956).
- Thompson: The Seine at Night - This is lightweight, instantly forgettable fluff that fills its nine minutes pleasantly enough with only a hint of bittersweetness amid dreamy strings and harp glissandi. Its only surprise is its source, having come from the pen of one of the most acerbic critics of his time who burdened composers of far greater significance with sharp and caustic censure.
- Mozart: Piano Concerto # 23 - Because he was such an accomplished pianist himself, one might expect Bernstein to have imposed his own interpretive ideas on others. Yet, he proved an especially empathetic accompanist for concerti featuring other soloists. This is a fine performance - gracious, fleet, self-effacing and idiomatic - and a wonderful foil for Janis, known at the time for powerhouse virtuosity. Yet, I regret its inclusion, only because the world is already full of other fine recordings of this work and the half hour it consumes could have been used better for one of Bernstein's many performances of less familiar material that the producers regret omitting for lack of space.
- Webern: Six Pieces for Orchestra - This item, too, seems rather superfluous, as it requires little in the way of interpretation and its subtleties are largely obscured by a bland recording and an especially noisy audience. Yet, it does serve to document that Bernstein did schedule music which was antithetical to his own post-Romantic outlook. Indeed, while Bernstein flirted with serialism in his final work (Jubilee Games), in a lecture included on Disc 9, Bernstein handily trashes twelve-tone music. Even so, Webern escapes the syndrome of serial stasis through brevity, an exquisite sensitivity to orchestral color and a pervasive sense of mood. This seems to be the only serial work Bernstein ever led, and just this once.
- Hindemith: Mathis der Maler - This is from the second concert Cantelli was to have led and for whom Bernstein substituted. But the liner notes, in attempting a rationale for its inclusion here, do Bernstein an injustice by implying that his interpretation had mellowed too far by 1989 when he finally recorded it in concert with the Israel Philharmonic (on DG 429 404). Despite the gulf of three decades, the performances in fact are strikingly similar. While the rhythmic subtlety, crisp attacks and overall energy are slightly more accentuated here, the timings are virtually identical and the Israel Philharmonic plays at an inspired level throughout (far above the mediocre norm of its other concert recordings with Bernstein). Incidentally, despite the circumstances, Bernstein made no attempt to mimic Cantelli's style or approach, as reflected in a 1954 Cantelli RAI Rome recording that is drier, leaner, more classical and three minutes faster.
Disc 3 - Britten: Spring Symphony (1963); Schumann: Cello Concerto (with Jacqueline du Pre, cello, 1967); Sibelius: Four Songs (with Phyllis Curtin, soprano, 1965).
- Britten: Spring Symphony - Of all the English composers, Bernstein identified most strongly with Britten, having led the 1947 American premiere of his masterpiece, the opera Peter Grimes, and including its four Sea Interludes in the final concert of his life on August 19, 1990. Despite its title, the magnificent Spring Symphony is really an oratorio that begins as the earth and mankind arise from the torpor of winter, traces the multi-faceted blooming of nature and humanity, and culminates in a wondrously complex yet lyrical finale heralding the emergence of summer. Its shifting moods and compendium of seven centuries of poetry must have had enormous appeal to the highly-cultured Bernstein. Yet, this, his only performance, is too assertive and rough for such a light-boned, highly-refined work. Especially frustrating is the final climax where the boy's choir should erupt with Soomer is I-Coomen In, but its magical effect is lost, buried in the crude balance. The composer's own recording (last on London LP OS 25242) gleams throughout with a magnificent precision, surface polish and a shimmering blend of voices, orchestra and percussion that, unfortunately, seems to have eluded Bernstein.
- Schumann: Cello Concerto - Our memories of Jacqueline du Pre are still tainted not only by her sister's trashy book and the soapy movie which followed but by the cloud of knowing her awful fate. But in 1967 all that sordid stuff was to come later (although not much). She had just married superstar Daniel Barenboim, her youth was in full bloom, her popularity was bounding on her first American tour and a fabulous career presumably was ensured. Her reading of the Schumann is sweet yet assured, with a lovely balance of ardent energy and British composure, focus and detail. An acclaimed Schumann conductor, Bernstein crafts a superbly expressive orchestral support; the emergence from the cadenza of the finale is breathtaking. Bernstein had already recorded the Concerto with more pointed emphasis with Leonard Rose (on Sony SMK 47 609) and would do so again with Rostropovich (Angel CDC 49307) and Miasky (DG 419 190), but this reading is truly special.
- Sibelius: Four Songs - As with Schumann, Bernstein was hailed as a preeminent interpreter of Sibelius. His complete Philharmonic cycle of the symphonies (on Sony SM2K 47619 and 47622) is remarkable for its melding of Scandinavian strength, dignity and tightly controlled power and his valedictory Vienna remakes (DG 435 351, 419 772 and 427 647) seethe with repressed passion. These performances fill the last gap in his Sibelius discography between the works he gave in concert and those he recorded.
Disc 4 - Mozart: Overture to The Magic Flute (1966); Beethoven: Piano Concerto # 3 (Wilhelm Kempff, piano, 1966); Foss: Quintets for Orchestra (1981); Copland: Dance Symphony (1981).
- Mozart: Overture to The Magic Flute - This is a nice stylish performance, light, airy and precise, propelled with a fine rhythmic bounce. There's no revelation or deep insight, but it projects a lovely sense of theatre and serves as an appropriate curtain raiser for the next work that followed it in the same concert.
- Beethoven: Piano Concerto # 3 - Both in its leisurely tempo and its lighter texture as well as its deeper color, this reading is more akin to Bernstein's late 1989 concert recording with Zimerman (on DG 429 749) than his nearly contemporaneous 1964 studio recording with Serkin (Sony SMK 47520). Ironically, the greater inflection of the German Kempff marks him with less of a traditional German sound than the Americanized Serkin or the Polish Zimerman.
- Foss: Quintets for Orchestra - Judging from the works he chose to embrace, Bernstein seemed to have had as little love for minimalism as he had for serialism. Perhaps that's why he actually liked this work which at first seems to be squarely in the minimalist mainstream. Foss, though, had a particular talent for tweaking modern conventions. His Phorion (which Bernstein recorded in 1967; currently on Sony SMK 63164) took the idea of a tone row a witty step further by constantly repeating a phrase from Bach to generate a universe of mood in a dizzying descent from high humor to brutal depression. Here, the Quintets begin with rigid, formal, unremitting rhythm and tonality subjected to timbral development for its first two-thirds, followed by a sudden eruption and mellow, sustained fanfares, as if to say, Enough of this minimalist stuff! Let's get back to real human music, a musical depiction of Bernstein's own outlook on such matters.
- Copland: Dance Symphony - During his last decade, Bernstein returned to the Philharmonic and played a few concerts each year, focusing mostly on American works, with special emphasis on two composers - himself and Copland. He never got around to the Dance Symphony, though - reportedly, a concert and recording was one of the projects left unrealized at his death. This performance had been given at an auspicious occasion - a celebration of Copland's 80th birthday. Copland's work was derived from a discarded vampire ballet and is charged with the spirit of his studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, full of quirky rhythms, jazz elements, and brash energy - Copland's first style before the Americana mode that would ultimately make his popular reputation. Despite its roots among the dead, the zippy work presents Bernstein invigorated with the youth of his first records.
Disc 5 - Prokofiev: Piano Concerto # 2 (Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano, 1958); Markevitch: Icare (1958); Varese: Arcana (1958).
- Prokofiev: Piano Concerto # 2 - Even though nearly a half-century old at the time, Prokofiev's vibrant work was a ideal vehicle for Bernstein, flush with the excitement of his second month as Music Director of the Philharmonic, as well as for Ashkenazy, bursting out of Russia for his first American appearances. Most works of such sustained energy either flag long before the finish or begin to fray along a fault line between the artists' personalities, as each tries to accommodate the other, even while hoping to shape the interpretation to his own specifications, but this is an outstanding example of two souls in absolute synchronization and maintaining the same emotional level throughout its exhausting length.
- Markevitch: Icare - Many conductors compose but few succeed in writing with an original voice, so strong is the influence of the more conservative styles in which they are constantly immersed as an interpreter. Bernstein was one of the rare ones who managed to sound innovative. Markevitch was one of the very few others. Perhaps the greatest tribute to his talent is a letter, quoted in the accompanying notes and addressing this very piece. It proclaims Markevitch the most striking personality in contemporary music and I rejoice in profiting from your influence. The writer? None other than Bela Bartok! Yet, before reaching 30, Markevitch abandoned composition to focus on conducting and teaching. Perhaps Bernstein, who kept wanting to do it all, was awed by the integrity and discipline of this choice by a fellow multi-talented prodigy. Or perhaps he just loved Icare which, like its mythical subject, soars while retaining human roots and searches afar while remaining earth-bound - mystical, rhythmic and strikingly novel, not sounding quite like anything else. It's an astounding discovery and a fabulous addition to the Bernstein canon.
- Varese: Arcana - Although this performance is important as a pioneering account (copies were circulated before the work had ever been formally recorded), it's since been eclipsed by the startling precision of the Boulez record, also with the Philharmonic (now on Sony SMK 45844). Even so, as a single motif evolves through a huge variety of forms and rhythms and with an orchestra augmented with eight percussionists, it's bold, brash, noisy and complex - right up Bernstein's alley.
Disc 6 - Barber: Second Essay (1959); Russo: Symphony # 2 (with Maynard Furguson, trumpet, 1959); Ruggles: Men and Mountains (1958); Ives: Symphony # 2 (1951).
- Ives: Symphony # 2 - Sorry for getting out of order, but the Ives performance is of overwhelming importance. It was, quite simply, one of the most important concerts ever given, doing as much for the cause of American classical music as Benny Goodman's seminal 1938 concert (also in Carnegie Hall) did for jazz. Ives's work is a fabulous artistic encapsulation of American thought, attitude and tradition and this was its world premiere, fifty-four years after its completion. Bernstein offered the composer, very much still alive if not well, a private performance, but he declined and avoided the concert as well. (His wife, just as stubborn a Yankee, did attend and after decades of neglect and even scorn of her husband's bizarre music seemed genuinely surprised that the audience actually liked it.) Ives reportedly heard the tape-delayed broadcast the following week on his maid's radio and was thrilled. When he died three years later, he could not have suspected the massive tide of discovery and admiration of his work that had just begun to build and which would culminate in nothing less than a crucial reevaluation and understanding of America's contribution to serious music. That movement toward appreciation of America's iconoclastic pioneers had some early sparks but only began to pick up critical mass with this concert. Bernstein would record the Symphony in 1958 (now on Sony SMK 47588) and it remains fabulous, alive with vigor and detail, but this performance is equally impressive, albeit far different - it's fleet, casual, pastoral and refreshing, without even a hint of self-importance. To take a single illustrative detail, the final "shock" chord, a sting of all 12 chromatic tones, is emphatically drawn out in 1958, but just a brief slouching event here. (Bernstein's 1987 remake (on DG 429 220), also with the Philharmonic, is a bit too arty and refined and seems to have lost some of the Ivesian spirit that imbues the concert and first record.) The recording, from a single surviving Voice of America copy archived in the Library of Congress, sounds fine. But even if it didn't this would be a crucial find.
- Ruggles: Men and Mountains - Ruggles was as close to a soul-mate as the fiercely independent Ives would ever have. His music is compact, efficient, craggy, rugged and unsentimental, yet tinged with an elemental beauty - New England to the core. While Ives set his scores aside, Ruggles destroyed the ones in which he had lost interest, keeping only a dozen or so. Given his ardent campaigning on behalf of Ives, it's curious that Bernstein didn't champion Ruggles as well, but in fact he performed only this piece, and just this once. But the Bernstein influence had an effect nonetheless, albeit indirectly - a protégé, Michael Tilson Thomas, would emerge to wave the Ruggles banner in full force with his pioneering 1980 set of Ruggles' complete extant works (sadly requiring only two LPs, CBS M2 34591).
Russo: Symphony # 2 - Bernstein was especially adept at "crossing over" the presumed boundaries between classical and pop; so was Russo - his credentials included five years with the innovative band of Stan Kenton, whose arrangements flavor this work, dedicated to Serge Koussevitzsky, Bernstein's mentor. The last movement features a trumpet part by Maynard Furguson, for whom it was written, playing an octave above normal range. The effect is brilliant but tiring, something like trying to keep watching a high-wire act at the circus without getting a sore neck.
- Barber: Essay # 2 - Intended as a musical analogue to the literary form, Barber's Essay is an inventive yet formal development of ideas with a restrained but modern sound. While an addition to the Bernstein discography, it's somewhat superfluous, the Philharmonic having recorded it in 1965 (now on Sony MHK 62837) with Thomas Schippers, another American-born conductor and a foremost exponent of Barber. The two interpretations are quite similar, with Schippers providing marginally more precision and finesse while Bernstein injects slightly greater power and energy.
Disc 7 - Shchedrin: Mischievous Folk Ditties (1967); Stravinsky: Capriccio (Seymour Lipkin, piano, 1962); Henze: Symphony # 5 (1963); Beethoven: Triple Concerto (Leonard Bernstein, piano, John Corigliano, violin, Laszlo Varga, cello, 1959).
- Shchedrin: Mischievous Folk Ditties - Although celebrated in the accompanying notes as a prime example of the outpouring of previously-suppressed music from Russia during a Cold War thaw, this deliriously joyous but stylistically conservative romp transcends nationality and belies its 1963 date. Its irrepressible humor, unassuming grace, and breathless giddiness flavor a profusion of solo and ensemble turns, all in ceaseless motion at a breakneck pace, testing the orchestra's endurance and virtuosity and its conductor's rhythmic acuity.
- Stravinsky: Capriccio - Like Bernstein, Seymour Lipkin was a triple threat as teacher, conductor and pianist. Here, he acquits himself brilliantly in the last role as he, Bernstein and the Philharmonic fully reflect the wry grace of Stravinsky's buoyant neoclassic concerto.
- Henze: Symphony # 5 - Commissioned for the Philharmonic's first season in its new home in Lincoln Center, this performance was its world premiere. Intended to reflect the bleakness of postwar Germany, it succeeds all too well, unremittingly grim, cold and bitter, with the entire middle section a mournful oboe solo with the barest hint of an accompaniment. Typical of his inventive and sympathetic programming for conservative subscription audiences, Bernstein nestled this forbidding and dour work in concert between familiar and soothing Mozart and Debussy. The effect is suggested on this disc, where it's sandwiched between the agile delight of Stravinsky and the vigor of Beethoven.
- Beethoven: Triple Concerto - Generally regarded as the least of the Beethoven concerti, the Triple is accorded an unusual respect here, as Bernstein joins his concertmaster and principal cellist in a reading of camaraderie spiked by vitality, ardor and devotion. It's a fine example of the inspiration Bernstein conjured among his colleagues in a live setting and radiated to his adoring audiences; here, they burst into spontaneous applause after the first movement. Judging from his recordings of the somewhat comparable first two Beethoven piano concerti, it's probable that a studio rendition of the Triple would have been far more cautious. Interestingly, the pace of this reading is matched on record only by another Philharmonic account with Corigliano (with Bruno Walter conducting in 1949, on Sony SMK 64479) but the comparison of timings is superficial, as Bernstein's approach is sharper and consistently more alive to detail. (There is an even faster account - a furiously-driven 1942 Toscanini concert (on Naxos 110801), but it's all visceral excitement and utterly lacks any grace or balance.)
Disc 8 - Bach: Brandenburg Concerto # 5 (Leonard Bernstein, harpsichord, Isaac Stern, violin, John Wummer, flute, 1959); Bruckner: Symphony # 6 (1976).
- Bach: Brandenburg Concerto # 5 - The program notes regard this performance as a corrective to the bloated enriched adaptations of Bach which the Philharmonic had played in its earlier years, yet Isaac Stern characterizes it as having blood, balls and guts. Both descriptive extremes seem apt. With reduced forces, a bland flutist and minimal vibrato, the elegant sound (albeit on modern instruments) is respectful of Bach's sensibility, whereas Stern and Bernstein contribute both power and drive. To his credit, except for the bravura cadenza (in which he shines with suitably forceful virtuosity), Bernstein observes his role as accompanist and stays well within the background of the mix.
- Bruckner: Symphony # 6 - It seems incredible, given his devotion to Mahler, that Bernstein played only two of Bruckner's symphonies. His affection for the Ninth is clear enough - it's the most angst-driven, Mahler-esque of the series and in fact Bernstein recorded it twice - once with the Philharmonic in 1969 (on Sony SMK 47542) and again in a compelling valedictory concert in early 1990 (on DG 435 350) in which he brilliantly reflected the composer's life-ending struggles as energy ebbs and the empty terror of the end nears. The Sixth, though, is a far different work. In Bernstein's hands, it's bright, light and crisp, and he invests it with a wonderful Viennese sense of grace allied with a marvelous natural flow among its sections of shifting moods and timbres. The first movement, in particular, bounds with taut youthful energy, all the more remarkable since Bernstein at this time was passing through a severely depressing phase of his life, having had to confront several of his own demons, including a creative dry spell and his wife's fatal illness.
Disc 9 - Copland: Outdoor Overture (1962); Xenakis: Pithoprakta (1964); Brant: Antiphony One (1960); Boulez: Improvisation sur Mallarme I (Marni Nixon, soprano, 1960); Cage: Atlas Eclipticalis (1964).
Bernstein's performances as a conductor and as a pianist are well documented and his compositions have confounded skeptics by remaining in the active repertoire even though he is no longer around to perform and advocate them. Yet, his most lasting contribution to music may well prove to be the one we least remember - his extraordinary influence as a teacher who not only inspired colleagues and students but converted an entire generation of concert and television audiences into music lovers. This disc provides a much-needed souvenir of Bernstein in his element and surmounting his greatest challenge: pioneering Thursday evening pre-performance talks as he cajoles a conservative and resistant subscription audience into a grudging appreciation for avant-garde music.
His discussion opening a six-week 1964 series is a brilliant non-technical introduction to modern music. Bernstein recognized that music was at a crucial crossroad among serialism, electronics, chance and improvisation. While committed to the obligation of exploring and exposing key works, he warned of the lack of critical standards in the absence of tonality and the dangers of confusing sincere striving with ambitious chicanery. He noted that the new music ranged from a semi-idiotic simplicity to a mathematical complexity that staggers the mind and traced it all to the outcome of the Copernican revolution that shifted and undermined our perspective from hero-innovators at the center of our cultural universe to being a mere speck in space.
Bernstein explores the irony of the Xenakis work, in which each of the 46 instruments plays a different part but where all the careful planning sounds like a vast improvisation. (With great humor, Bernstein admits that he can't hear each separate contribution and therefore puts the orchestra on the honor system.) The Boulez presents a similar paradox, as the precisely-formulated rhythm is so complex that it seems to disappear into spontaneity. With Brandt, antiphony reigns, as five separate groups arrayed around the hall provide a precursor of quadraphonic sound. Finally, in the Cage piece, chance governs both the composition and performance - notes were determined by placing transparent music paper over maps of stars, and then the musicians' sounds were fed through contact microphones to a mixing board in which volume and timbre were randomly adjusted. Here, Bernstein's explanation is far more interesting than the result, which the audience heartily boos after its excruciating eight minutes finally end.
It's hard to say which is the more impressive feat - the mere fact that Bernstein would program such stuff, or that he argued so ardently and convincingly for its legitimacy, all the more remarkable since so much of this music was anathema to his own taste. (The programming of each concert, mixing the unfamiliar stuff with Beethoven, Vivaldi and other favorites, itself illustrated Bernstein's feeling that this was all important and valid.)
The avant-garde material is preceded on this disc by the Copland Outdoor Overture, another of his mentor's works that Bernstein never got around to cutting in the studio. It's from a 1962 Young People's Concert and bursts with athleticism and fresh air. Indeed, in his brief talk about the Copland he notes that this naïve audience's ears and minds are wide open to everything, unlike their elders'. Thus, while Bernstein's playing of modern music for older audiences was courageous, his devotion to youngsters was perhaps more significant - this was his best opportunity to turn on minds that had not already been turned off. It was with this new generation (ie: my generation) where his most enduring effect as a teacher was to be felt.
Disc 10 - Wagner: Scenes from Gotterdammerung (Eileen Farrell, soprano, Jess Thomas, tenor, 1970).
Wagner's overt emotionalism seems custom-made for Bernstein's temperament, yet he never touched Wagner until the early '60s, perhaps out of deference to Israel, where performances of Wagner were banned over lingering sensitivity to associations with the Nazi regime. After recording some overtures and excerpts in the 1960s, the floodgates opened with entire concerts of Act One of Walkure (1968), scenes from Tristan (1969) and then the Prologue, end of Act One and the last half (beginning with Siegfried's narrative) of Act Three of Gotterdammerung (1970), all with Eileen Farrell, with whom Bernstein had recorded his first Wagner (the Weisendonk Leider and Brunhilde's Immolation, now on Sony SMK 47644) in 1961 and whose pure, commanding voice deserved far more acclaim than she ever received. As expected, Bernstein's reading is superb, with hair-spring responsiveness and deeply dramatic underlining of the action. There's no overriding personal vision or sense of architecture, but rather a moment-to-moment fit to the episodic progression with a fine combination of precision and detail. Interestingly, it's not as sharply-defined as his studio recording of the finale, and the opening sunburst, while magisterial in its deliberation, is played just raggedly enough to attest that these are live musicians seized with impulse, and not dutiful drones following a prescribed routine.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this disc is its source. Although boasting the best sound and stereo spread of the entire set (and the quietest audience), it was recorded covertly (and illegally) in the midst of the concert hall by an ardent fan. Of course, these were the days before pocket-sized digital recorders, reliable wireless microphones, or even decent-sounding cassette decks, and one can only imagine how he managed with the bulky reel-to-reel equipment of the time. What's more, he attended and taped three of the four repetitions of this concert and gave the current producers the luxury of a choice among them (this disc is a composite of two). The Philharmonic did not broadcast its concerts during this era, and so were it not for such brazen defiance of the law this incredible concert would have never resurfaced. The multiple ironies of this entire situation are truly astounding!
Bernstein Live provides an indispensable reminder of the amazing bundle of energy, talent and dedication with which Leonard Bernstein galvanized audiences in his glory years with the New York Philharmonic barely a short generation ago.
Copyright 2001 by Peter Gutmann