peteraczel | 18 November, 2009 16:43
Reissues of classic performances conducted by Leonard Bernstein, new recordings of music composed by him—they keep coming. I have never been a Lenny worshipper; his personality always rubbed me the wrong way, at least a little bit; but all this discographic pressure is getting to me. Is it possible that I overlooked something? Maybe I was wrong? Maybe he was as great as they say?
Joseph Haydn: The 6 Paris Symphonies; the 12 London Symphonies; the 4 Masses; Die Schöpfung (The Creation). New York Philharmonic (except one disc w/London Symphony Orchestra), Leonard Bernstein, conductor. Sony Classical 88697/480452 (12 CDs, recorded 1958–1979, released as a boxed set 2009).
Gustav Mahler: Symphonies No. 1 through No. 9; Symphony No. 10, Adagio; Das Lied von der Erde. New York Philharmonic (except No. 8 w/London Symphony Orchestra and Das Lied w/Israel Philharmonic Orchestra), Leonard Bernstein, conductor, various vocal soloists. Sony Classical 88697/453692 (12 CDs, recorded 1960–1975, remixed/remastered and released as a boxed set 2009).
Leonard Bernstein: Mass. Randall Scarlata (baritone), Company of Music, Tölzer Knabenchor, Chorus Sine Nomine, Absolute Ensemble, Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich, Kristjan Järvi, conductor. Chandos CHSA 5070(2) (2 SACDs, recorded 2006, released 2009).
Leonard Bernstein: Mass. Jubilant Sykes (baritone), Morgan State University Choir, Peabody Children’s Chorus, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, conductor. Naxos 8.559622-23 (2 CDs, recorded 2008, released 2009).
Leonard Bernstein: Dybbuk – Ballet (1974); Fancy Free – Ballet (1944). Mel Ulrich, baritone; Mark Risinger, bass; Nashville Symphony, Andrew Mogrelia, conductor. Naxos 8.559280 (1 CD, recorded 2005/2006, released 2006).
The key to understanding Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) is to realize that his spring was wound tighter at birth than yours or mine. He was on the verge of spontaneous combustion at all times, like a Jack Russell terrier pup. That’s why he couldn’t settle down to one thing; his compulsive energies drove him to be all things—conductor, pianist, classical composer, Broadway composer, poet, teacher, broadcaster, political activist, and more. Some think he would have been a greater conductor, or a greater composer, if he had chosen to do that one thing only; this is questionable and unprovable. He was what he was, not what anyone else would have wanted him to be.
His explosive activism, his unceasing interventionism defined both his musical and social personality. To me he was something of a turnoff for many years; I could not relate to his orgiastic dancing on the conductor’s podium nor to his lovefest with the Black Panthers at that notorious 1960s party. There was a documentary film of Lenny in his family circle in the late ’60s or early ’70s, and I remember being struck by his speech mannerisms and body language, which were those of a cheesy Las Vegas celebrity. Today I realize that all that was irrelevant—or maybe relevant only to the extent that it was consistent with his music-making, which is all that remains and all that matters. His interpretations of other composers as well as his own compositions were exuberant, untrammeled, extroverted, high-energy, sometimes verging on vulgarity—just like the man.
His conducting of Mahler is a prime example. I recently saw a film clip of Bernstein in rehearsal, desperately pleading with the Vienna Philharmonic (in horrible German) that they must go to extremes in Mahler, otherwise it isn’t Mahler. After listening to the reissues in the Sony boxed set, I have to agree. This is music of extreme contrasts; its corners, spikes, and ridges shouldn’t be smoothed out but emphasized; and that’s what Bernstein does, while still maintaining the shapeliness of the music, its structure and continuity. He is the supreme music teacher (old-timers will recall those fabulous TV programs); he seems to say, “see, kids, this is the way this phrase goes, can’t you hear it?”—and the calisthenics and contortions on the podium visually illustrate his emphatic scanning of the phrase. It all makes sense to me now. I must confess that after Bernstein other conductors’ Mahler sounds a little bland to me. That’s a reversal of previous judgments.
One must also remember that these 1960s recordings launched the new era in which Mahler became mainstream; previous recordings by Mengelberg, Walter, Mitropoulos, etc., had been regarded as specialties. Bernstein emerged as the new baseline then, not something extreme as later became the conventional view. To me he is again the baseline, from which other performances deviate desirably or undesirably. That perspective is greatly facilitated by the 2009 remixing/remastering, which is quite remarkable. The audio quality of these rejuvenated early stereo recordings is almost on the level of the best current practice. The treble is perhaps less fine-grained and a tiny bit more aggressive; there is a little less air around he instruments; but the dynamic range is wide, the instrumental colors vivid, the bass powerful and well-delineated, the overall realism splendid. Fidelity is no longer the issue in comparison with more recent recordings. What a collection!
The same observations, in somewhat simpler terms, can be applied to the Haydn set. Haydn’s music is also about contrasts and surprises, which are more convincing when vigorously emphasized, as they are by Bernstein. You wouldn’t expect the great Mahler interpreter to be also a Haydn specialist, but he is—and for the same reasons. His didactic scanning of Haydn’s contrasting phrases reveals the metrical structure of the music more clearly than any Karajanesque smoothing possibly could. The symphonies emerge fresher, more original, more powerful (when apropos) under his baton than in other interpretations. I’m not saying that his way with Haydn takes precedence over all others in my judgment; a case can be made for a more rococo approach; but while I’m listening his way is utterly persuasive. Haydn meets Mahler under the eurhythmic teaching umbrella of Lenny. This is the way the phrase goes, kids…crouch…leap…slash… What an instructor!
It must be added that there is not a trace of “period practice” in these performances. No reduced forces, no early instruments, no squeaky nasal strings. The audio quality is not quite on the level of the Mahler set; these recordings have been simply reissued rather than remixed and remastered. The string sound is occasionally a little pinched; there is less air around the instruments; the dynamic range is sometimes a bit strained; but overall the sound is still quite acceptable and enjoyable even in comparison with present-day recordings. Let’s face it, would you rather listen to an ultrahigh-fidelity recording of some vibrato-less “authentic” 18th-century-style bore-fest?
When it comes to his own compositions, Bernstein’s “multiple personality” really asserts itself. They’re all over the place—classical, pop, concert hall, Broadway, dead serious, completely frivolous, strictly formal, loosey-goosey, long, short, restrained, over-the-top, you name it. A few of his show tunes, such as “New York, New York” and “Tonight” are on their way to immortality; whether his serious music will remain in the permanent repertory remains to be seen.
The earliest work in the collection listed above is the 1944 ballet Fancy Free, composed by the 25-year old Lenny and rather derivative in style—Petrouchka meets the blues, with faint echoes of early Copland (whose Billy the Kid and Rodeo were composed just a few years earlier). Overall, it’s a bracing, upbeat piece of music, easy listening and lots of fun. Dybbuk on the other hand, composed 30 years later, is much more serious, darker, more heavy-handed, and rather a bore, at least to my ears. The Nashville recording, which I should have reviewed when it came out, is very well played and idiomatic in style, although the orchestra is not quite world-class. The audio quality is excellent, wide in dynamic range, with considerable immediacy and three-dimensionality.
The Mass is again something totally different, an indescribable hodgepodge of styles ranging from high classical to lowbrow pop, from solemn to comical, from tasteful to vulgar, all of it high-energy and highly committed—like Lenny. It’s a mass in name only; it’s more of a sociopolitical diatribe. Only an enormously talented composer could have created it, and only someone with Lenny’s flaws could have made it so flawed. Some critics consider it a masterpiece, others merely embarrassing. Of the two recordings, the Naxos with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore band is unquestionably superior. The strengths of the Chandos recording are Randall Scarlata as the Celebrant and the boys’ choir of Bad Tölz, but the Celebrant in the Naxos version, Jubilant Sykes, is even better, and Bernstein protégée Marin Alsop has a more idiomatic grasp of the score, especially of the American pop parts, than Kristjan Järvi (Paavo’s brother). All in all, I can’t imagine a more resplendent performance than the Alsop/Baltimore, and the audio is also state-of-the art, with tremendous dynamic range, majestic bass, great transparency, and wonderful three-dimensionality. By comparison, the Chandos sound, SACD and all, is unimpressive and not always appropriate to the music.
To sum up…
So—how great was Lenny, everything considered? I think that as a didactic conductor, as a musical explainer, he had no equal. Admittedly, that’s only one kind of conducting, so the special niches of Toscanini, Furtwängler, Reiner, Karajan, etc., remain unaffected. As a composer, you can call Bernstein interesting, brilliant, lovable, pick your own adjective—but not great. Greatness is very hard to define but easy to experience. I haven’t experienced it when listening to Bernstein’s music. But that’s just one music lover’s opinion.