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LEONARD BERNSTEIN CONDUCTS BEETHOVEN AND HAYDN
Released for the first time on DVD and BluRay, Leonard Bernstein’s interpretations of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16 and Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli are quite superb. Only the strings of the Vienna Philharmonic could carry off the orchestral rendition of Beethoven’s opus 135 with bravura, since each player is a true soloist. Bernstein and the orchestra wanted to play a difficult Beethoven Quartet in a monster setting, achieving a truly exciting performance unlike anything anyone has ever heard.
Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135 (arr. for string orchestra)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein, conductor
Joseph Haydn: Missa in tempore belli, Hob. XXII:9, “Paukenmesse”
Judith Blegen, soprano
Brigitte Fassbaender, contralto
Claes-Hakan Ahnsjö, tenor
Hans Sotin, bass
Bavarian Radio Symphony Chorus and Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein, conductor
Recorded live in 1984 (Haydn) and 1989 (Beethoven)
Picture format: 1080i 4:3, mastered from HD Source
Sound format: PCM Stereo / DTS 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles (Haydn): Latin, English, German, French, Spanish, Korean, Chinese
Running time: 93 mins
No. of Discs: 1
R E V I E W:
String Quartet No. 16.
Missa in tempore belli
Leonard Bernstein, cond;
Judith Blegen (sop);
Brigitte Fassbaender (mez);
Claes Ahnsjö (ten);
Hans Sotin (bs);
Bavarian Radio Ch & O
C MAJOR 711604 (Blu-ray: 93:00); C MAJOR 711508 (DVD: 93: 00) Live:
This arrangement for string orchestra of Beethoven’s final quartet, the op. 135, was previously reviewed by Mortimer H. Frank in 16:4 on a DVD that paired it with a similar arrangement of the Quartet No. 14, op. 131. While his assessment was positive overall, he had reservations about “a Mahlerian malaise” that he thought infected some portions of the performance and “indulgent adjustments” to some of the rhythms, comparing them unfavorably to Toscanini’s more taut account of the second and third movements with the NBC Symphony. As someone inclined to romantic readings of the Beethoven symphonies (favoring Bruno Walter and Wilhelm Furtwängler as opposed to Toscanini), I have no such reservations. The conductor here is actually far less self-indulgent than he was wont to be at this twilight stage of his career, and leads a performance of rapt intensity, with the incomparable advantage of the string section of the Vienna Philharmonic at his command. The arrangement, originally published by Eulenburg and retouched by Bernstein, was first heard by the latter when he attended a performance of it with Dmitri Mitropoulos and the Boston Symphony at Harvard in 1936, when he was only 18 years old. He immediately sought out the conductor, borrowed his copy of the score, and added it to his repertoire early on, so this performance represents the culmination of over five decades of commitment to the work in this guise. For those who want a string orchestra version of the quartet, but in a less romantic interpretation, there is also a recording with the smaller forces of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta on Channel Classics.
The Haydn Mass has also been released before, though it has not previously been reviewed in these pages. Bernstein was a noted Haydn conductor, and many critics (including several who write for
) still consider him the reference standard for the “Paris” and “London” symphonies. I do not have the same degree of enthusiasm for those recordings, being partial instead to Georg Solti on modern instruments and Sigiswald Kuijken on period ones, but I have found Bernstein’s recordings of the late Haydn masses to be both effective and affecting. Bernstein made a previous recording of this work at the Washington Cathedral in January 1973, as part of a peace protest against the Vietnam War. It featured a pickup orchestra, the Norman Scribner Choir (an
ensemble put together for the occasion by the now longtime director of the Choral Arts Society of Washington), and an uneven quartet of soloists (Patricia Wells, Gwendolyn Killebrew, Michael Devlin, and Alan Titus). James H. North reviewed it in 16:4, commending its spirit but noting problems with the recorded sound. I would add that the obviously heartfelt commitment of the performers to the occasion does not overcome a lot of rather scrappy orchestral and choral work. Here, with digital recorded sound, a stellar solo vocal quartet, and a world-class orchestra and chorus, with everyone in fine fettle, there are no such reservations. The performance—more relaxed than the Washington version—is also a feast for the eyes as well as the ears, as it was given in the massive, ornate, soaring Baroque basilica of the Ottobeuren Abbey in the far southwestern corner of Bavaria. It’s a visual knockout, like having a free museum tour thrown in with the concert, and certainly gives one a great deal more to watch than does the typical concert video. There are no other versions of this Mass presently available on DVD; there are of course several excellent performances on CD, conducted by such notables as Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Richard Hickox, and Helmuth Rilling. Since (including Bernstein) these run the interpretive gamut from period instruments to modern full orchestra and choir, there is something out there to please every taste.
As usual, the Blu-ray release creates a crisper visual picture than appears on a regular DVD, though the difference here between the two is marginal. A brief (4:32) talk by Bernstein about the Haydn Mass is included as a bonus. The soundtracks of both of these performances were also released on separate CDs by Deutsche Grammophon, so if you don’t see the need to duplicate them on DVD, or if you’re one of those people who doesn’t care to watch videos of concert performances, you have that alternative as well. As someone who does watch concert videos with pleasure, I thoroughly enjoyed this, and recommend it unhesitatingly.
FANFARE: James A. Altena