Notes and Editorial Reviews
If you’ve been waiting for DG to systematically reissue its complete catalog of Leonard Bernstein recordings, your day has come. Organized alphabetically and sequentially by composer in original sleeve facsimiles, this first of two mega boxed sets covers A through L, so to speak, beginning with Beethoven and ending with Liszt (Volume 2, due in 2015, will go from M to Z).
For multi-composer releases, the longest work determines its alphabetical place in line. For example, Disc 49 with the Franck Symphony coupled with the shorter Saint-Saëns Le Rouet d’Omphale and Roussel’s Symphony No. 3 follows the all-Elgar Disc 48. Similarly, Roy Harris’ Third Symphony gets top billing over its shorter coupling, William Schuman’s Third Symphony, on Disc 50. Good sense also prevails where original multi-LP sets are concerned: the three-LP Bizet Carmen and Beethoven Fidelio each take up two CDs, while the double album originally containing Liszt’s Faust Symphony on three LP sides and Boito’s Prologue from Mefistofele on Side 4 programs each work on its own CD. A 60-page LP-size booklet includes informative and entertaining new essays by Humphrey Burton and Nigel Simeone, plus a forward from the conductor’s daughter Jamie.
Beethoven dominates the first 16 discs, including the generally marvelous cycle of nine symphonies (especially the Third, Fourth, Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth) and overtures with the Vienna Philharmonic, and the idiosyncratic yet highly expressive string orchestra arrangements of the quartets Op. 131 and 135. If the Fidelio is not so well cast and powerfully projected along the lines of Klemperer’s classic version, the Concertgebouw Missa solemnis stands out for its unified tempo relationships and white-hot intensity (the Gloria’s final pages, for example).
The superb Beethoven concerto collaborations with Krystian Zimerman deserve serious consideration; indeed, the Vienna Philharmonic plays much better for Bernstein than its Bavarian Radio Symphony colleagues in the 1976 all-Beethoven Amnesty International Concert (notwithstanding Claudio Arrau at the top of his form in the Fourth Concerto). Historic interest aside, the mostly heavy and enervated “Ode to Freedom” Ninth Symphony celebrating Berlin’s reunification takes strongest shape in the Adagio (for the record, the Scherzo’s first repeat was spliced out for the CD release; it is present in the video version available elsewhere). The sloppy Boston Symphony Britten Sea Interludes and Beethoven Seventh from Bernstein’s last concert would have been better left unreleased.
The next 16 discs contain all of DG’s Bernstein conducting Bernstein material, together with Michael Tilson Thomas’ live 1982 On the Town and the fascinating though ultimately unconvincing White House Cantata (conducted by Kent Nagano), a concert work salvaged from the composer’s ill-fated musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (see my original review of the latter).
The Israel Philharmonic makes up in clarity and vivid detail for what it may lack in the brash, jazzy qualities that the New York Philharmonic brought to the early ballets and the symphonies (I even like Lenny’s gravel-tinged vocals in Fancy Free’s opening tune “Big Stuff”). My jury is still out on the revision of the revision of the revision of Candide and A Quiet Place. As for the operatically-cast West Side Story, I find the “making of” bonus DVD more interesting than the official audio recording, if only for being able to watch how Bernstein’s mood swings play out under pressure while maintaining his professional cool on the podium at all times.
Bernstein’s generally slow and vulgarly pointed Bizet Carmen features Marilyn Horne saving all of her dramatic impetus for the final scene in the title role, James McCracken’s not terribly attractive but vocally hefty Don José, and Tom Krause’s show-stealing (in a good way) Escamillo. The spoken dialogue sounds as if it had been recorded in a venue completely different from the music.
The Brahms recordings waddle about in heavy textures and italicized phrasings, except for the fluid and well-balanced D minor piano concerto where Krystian Zimerman is less mannered than in his remake with Simon Rattle. Imagine Eugen Jochum’s volatile, savage Bruckner Ninth slowed down and exaggerated in the outer movements, and you more-or-less get Bernstein’s 1990 Vienna Philharmonic performance. Little new can be said about the conductor’s total immersion into Copland’s sound world from the populist ballets to the tough-skinned Connotations, except that the DG Bernstein/Copland recordings are only a shade less brash and rhythmically vivid than those for Columbia Masterworks.
However, you can write off the murkily recorded and indifferently played Debussy collection with the Orchestra dell’ Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, as well as a mediocre Israel Philharmonic Dvorák “New World” Symphony that can’t begin to compete with Bernstein’s breathtaking New York version. But the more I hear the “controversial” Elgar disc that my British colleagues panned, the more I’m drawn into the harmonic tension and diverse instrumental character that Bernstein elicited from the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
The Franck symphony’s emotional extremes also gripped my attention, as did the contrastingly “straight”, graceful, and balletic Saint-Saëns Le Rouet d’Omphale and perhaps the most exciting Roussel Third Symphony on disc. Bernstein’s DG Haydn output includes Symphonies 88, 92, 94, and 102, the Sinfonia concertante, The Creation, and the Mass in Time of War, and all attest to my colleague David Hurwitz’s claim that Bernstein was the 20th century’s finest Haydn conductor. The Hindemith and Ives discs remain competitive and compelling.
The collection closes with the aforementioned Liszt Faust Symphony, with the Boston Symphony operating at its peak. Bernstein’s protracted basic tempo and long-lined concentration adds weight and poignancy to the central Gretchen movement, although his earlier New York Philharmonic recording is marginally faster in each movement and equally reference-worthy via its most recent transfer. General collectors may prefer to pick and choose among individually available items, but for completeness and presentation this limited edition speaks for itself.
-- Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com