Leonard Bernstein

COMPOSERS: Leonard Bernstein
LABELS: RCA Victor Gold Seal
WORKS: The Early Years, Vol. 2
CATALOGUE NO: 09026-61650-2
The year was 1946; the month, July, and the orchestra, Walter Legge’s newly formed Philharmonia. Leonard Bernstein, a lissom 28-year-old, charged at Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto like a seasoned jazzer, rousing his London colleagues to like-minded high jinks. High camp, too – especially for An American in Paris, recorded in New York a year or so later. Add Bernstein’s own tough-grained Facsimile and Copland’s jaunty ‘Jingo’ and you have a Kerouac-style period piece, replete with images of smoke and Brylcreem.

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It was almost 40 years since the same American Victor company had lured the great John McCormack from European recording commitments; but the gesture paid enormous financial and artistic dividends. No singer since has imbued the likes of ‘I Hear You Calling Me’, ‘The Lost Chord’ or ‘Kathleen Mavourneen’ with as much feeling, artistry or vocal richness, and Nimbus’s 21-track collection tells the tale in remarkably good sound.

Which only goes to prove that old 78s can still pack a fair sonic wallop. Take, for example, the recordings (Suppé, J Strauss II, Tchaikovsky, Bizet, Grieg, Mahler, Ravel, Beethoven, Wagner, Mendelssohn) that conductor Willem Mengelberg made with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw back in the late Twenties and early Thirties. The hall itself allowed for astonishing clarity and tonal bloom, so that Mengelberg’s rigorously disciplined, tantrums-and-tears Tchaikovsky (Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5) could explode and expand with a dynamic range that was rare even 20 years later.

Explosions of another kind thunder in accompaniment to Wanda Landowska’s Scarlatti, where wartime anti-aircraft guns punctuate the stately strains of Sonata K490. Recording merely three months before the fall of France, Landowska battled on regardless, her sonorous Pleyel harpsichord reigning supreme and recalling the happier worlds of flamenco dance and sultry Andalusian song. No wonder Tolstoy cried when he heard her play.

But Landowska’s defiance wasn’t unique. Catalan Pablo Casals and German Adolf Busch had already deserted their fascist-infected fatherlands. Lonely in exile and determined never to entertain those who entertained oppression, Casals was eventually persuaded to preside over the Prades Music Festival. A magnificent series of chamber music recordings resulted, including the first Beethoven and second Schubert piano trios. Adolf Busch journeyed to America where he reinstated his string quartet, but the greatest monument to his considerable art is a series of pre-war recordings devoted to Beethoven’s late quartets, none being greater than Op. 132, with its profoundly searching Molto adagio.

Beethoven’s steadfast inspirations were pillars of strength in an impossible time. When, in 1944, Chilean Claudio Arrau and Hungarian Joseph Szigeti performed all ten violin sonatas during three recitals at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, privileged audiences witnessed unsuspected depths of interpretative perception. This is Beethoven ‘from the soul’, very much in the manner of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s August 1954 Lucerne Festival Choral Symphony, his last performance of the work. Broad, ethereal and a palpable culmination of an already dying tradition, this was a Choral that Richard Wagner surely would have cherished.

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Postwar, veteran Czech conductor Václav Talich was caught amidst political crossfire: in 1954, his only ‘New World’ was Dvorák’s – and it’s fortunate for us that his recording of the work is so typically strong and spontaneous. Josef Suk’s adorable String Serenade was recorded by Talich in February 1951, a month after the Hollywood Quartet and cellist Kurt Reher made their sublime recording of Schubert’s String Quintet. Testament’s coupling is a performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht that the composer himself sanctioned. ‘It should not be forgotten…’ wrote Schoenberg in his original LP notes, ‘that this work, at its first performance in Vienna, was hissed and caused riots and fights.’ Taking stock, he gratefully acknowledged: ‘But it soon became very successful.’ And the Hollywood Quartet shows us why.