LABELS: New York Philharmonic Special Editions
ALBUM TITLE: Collection: Bernstein Live
PERFORMER: Various instrumentalists & singers; New York Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein
CATALOGUE NO: (available only from www.newyorkphilharmonic.org or tel +1 317 781 1861)
These live New York Philharmonic performances from 1951-81 prompt admiration for Leonard Bernstein’s dedication to the music of his time: 20 of the 33 performances were given while the composers of the works were still alive. Interesting textual decisions abound: in the world premiere of Ives’s Second Symphony, Bernstein trims brief passages from the second, third and fifth movements, and the 1958 performance of Carl Ruggles’s Men and Mountains employs the craggy original ending rather than the quieter continuation of the standard 1941 revision.
Bernstein’s spirit and seriousness are beyond reproach: for example, he achieves more cogent and imposing results in Henze’s Fifth Symphony (at the world premiere in 1963) than did the composer with the Berlin Philharmonic two years later for DG. From relatively accessible music by Markevitch, Barber, Shchedrin and Russo through classics by Hindemith, Stravinsky, Varèse and Copland to avant-garde pieces by Xenakis, Boulez and Cage (whose Atlas eclipticalis rouses the audience to vigorous disapproval), Bernstein is a committed and able supporter of composers who were his contemporaries.
That said, few of the performances here sound revelatory to my ears. The highlights include a bracingly ardent but graciously styled account of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with Bernstein conducting from the keyboard, an intimate, reflective vision of Schumann’s Cello Concerto with Jacqueline du Pré, a burly bear hug of a Britten Spring Symphony and an opulent, dramatically alive rendition of scenes from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung with soloists Eileen Farrell and Jess Thomas in full cry. Elsewhere, the electricity Bernstein generated tends to sound expressively generalised in recorded form. Distinctive touches are nearly as likely to be coarse as insightful – and the two qualities often coexist, as in this probing Bruckner Sixth. Bernstein’s collaborations with pianists Byron Janis, Lazar Berman, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Wilhelm Kempff look intriguing on paper but don’t always come off; in particular, Kempff and Bernstein present two unrelated views of Beethoven’s C minor Concerto. But even if it makes an uneven impression, this set remains invaluable as a collection of historically important performances of numerous 20th-century works – and of fascinating footnotes for Bernstein enthusiasts.