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Bernstein's overly theatrical touch

Here is a small but telling point about this week's episode of ``Great Performances,'' which features Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in Mahler's First Symphony. Someone decided to begin each movement by repeating exactly the same footage of conductor Leonard Bernstein raising his baton in his best eyes-closed, enraptured style, artfully spliced in before the actual downbeat of the movement.

One hardly notices this brief theatrical device. But once you notice it, you realize all over again that, with Leonard Bernstein, music is theater -- choreography and make-believe. Which is not to say that his music is not music. Just that an equivalent power lies between what the ear hears and what the eye beholds.

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It is not by accident that Mr. Bernstein has filmed the complete symphonies of Mahler.

So in keeping with the spirit of the thing, let's first look at this program -- Bernstein Conducts Mahler's First Symphony (PBS, Friday, Jan. 18, 9-10 p.m., check local listings) -- as film, or television. On which account it succeeds mightily.

An intelligent listener sat in the director's chair, for instance. Director Humphrey Burton cues in camera shots with a sensitivity for the structure and dramatic development of the composition. If for no other reason, ``Bernstein Conducts Mahler's First'' is well worth watching for the education one gets in Mahler's way of folding musical forces into the development of the symphony.

Bernstein himself gives constant visual clues as to the direction the piece takes, and this remains one of his special gifts.

This symphony can be taken as little more than sumptuous orchestration, however, and there is something in Bernstein's approach that often pushes us right into that trap. To wit, his annoying habit of taffy-pulling phrases into cute adornments, which all but ruins the energetic danse opening of the second movement. The tempo marking, after all, is Kr"aftig bewegt (powerfully moving). One looks for -- and gets in many recordings -- a hard twist to the lovely phrasing. Not here. I mention this only as an example of many instances in which Bernstein seems far more concerned with the attractiveness of a musical phrase than its ultimate mission in the piece.

What we get from such concern with color and surface is a marvelously theatrical and visual Mahler's First.

But the music is far more than that, as Bruno Walter's tensely beautiful recordings of it show. The work contains a powerful musical engine, which propels one along an inexorable path. But with Bernstein we get a series of gorgeous floats in a long parade.

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Lovely to look at -- and to hear -- but, in the end, not deeply engrossing.

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