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Bernstein's `Final Recordings'

His last concert in 1990, as well as unfinished projects, are among this stellar set

IN previous eras, when legendary musicians passed from the scene, music lovers were left with their memories. In the case of Leonard Bernstein, who died two years ago, an entire grouping of unreleased material has now been issued under the sobriquet "Leonard Bernstein: Final Recordings."

When Mr. Bernstein left Columbia Records for Deutsche Grammophon (DG) as his label of choice in the 1970s, his repertoire did not change perceptibly. In fact, much of his DG catalog duplicates repertoire being issued by Sony Classical (which now owns the Columbia and CBS catalog) in a special "Royal Edition" series that will come to well over 100 CDs by project's end.

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What sets the DG material apart is the decision by Bernstein and the label to record everything live, and then correct any errors in special touch-up sessions.

"The Final Concert" differs from the other Bernstein performances in that these are radio tapes of what turned out to be his last public appearance on August 19, 1990, at the Tanglewood Music Festival, summer home of the Boston Symphony.

The recording was deemed good enough to release, and the performances that day, the four "Sea Interludes" from Britten's opera "Peter Grimes" along with Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, were worth having for posterity, particularly since it is one of the few documents of the unique relationship the conductor had with the Boston Symphony.

The Britten is slow and somewhat torturous, but brilliantly effective if one is willing to put preconceptions aside. The Beethoven receives a rich, robust, splendidly old-fashioned performance, one that takes on unexpectedly profound overtones in the usually ebullient final movement.

Bernstein was never predictable. One might have thought his Bruckner would be rather too impulsive and mannered to do the composer justice, but his recording of the Ninth with the Vienna Philharmonic rates as one of the best ever put to CD. It is spacious, dramatic, insightful, and in the final pages, Bernstein attempts to draw out the last moments exactly the way Bruckner scores them, without rushing to make it easier for the horns. It is a brave gesture most other conductors ignore (to the best of my k nowledge, only Wilhelm Furtwangler tried it on a recording dating from the mid-1940s), and the results prove that Bruckner knew exactly what he was doing.

At times Bernstein was known to veer so far into interpretation that the music was distorted beyond recognition. At other times, he seemed to suffuse a work with the energy and insight that made us hear it with fresh ears. Such a performance is his account of the Sibelius First Symphony, also with the Vienna Philharmonic, which is an expansive, dramatic reading at once viscerally exciting and hauntingly beautiful.

Bernstein left several projects unfinished. One was a cycle of the five Beethoven piano concertos with the Vienna Philharmonic and the great Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman as soloist, of which Bernstein conducted three. Mr. Zimerman and the VPO finished the cycle with the pianist conducting from the keyboard. It is a remarkable set by any standards.

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The Bernstein-led performances bubble over with life and emotion. Bernstein allowed Zimerman to be a more active partner than on the two Brahms piano concertos, and the results are some of the finest Beethoven to be heard on CD. Even without Bernstein's presence in the first two concertos, this is a top contender for the best complete set of Beethoven concertos on the market today.

Another unfinished project was a complete Mahler symphony cycle, which was missing only the Eighth Symphony (which he had planned to record with the New York Philharmonic) and the Adagio from the Tenth Symphony.

DG turned to Austrian Radio tapes of a 1975 Salzburg performance of the Eighth with the Vienna Philharmonic, and a UNITEL soundtrack of the "Adagio" of the Tenth, dating from 1974.

The Eighth is one of the great Mahler performances on CD, one which sweeps aside any doubts as to the real value of this so-called "Symphony of a Thousand." There are a few musical blemishes; there were no touch-up sessions here! But they only add to the mood and tension of the performance. And while not a real "Final Recordings" release, it did serve to close out the Mahler cycle.

Bernstein conducted the Berlin Philharmonic only once in 1979, for two performances of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, captured by Berlin Radio (RIAS Berlin).

The performance is by far the best of the three available by this conductor and an extraordinarily exciting and profound account of this fascinating and moving score. And while it is hard to call a 1979 performance a "Final Recording," it is an important addition to the Bernstein and Mahler catalog.

Bernstein wanted desperately to be remembered as a composer of serious music as well a conductor of the highest standard. One of his last symphonic works was a piece that began life as "Jubilee Games" and grew into a sprawling, four-movement "Concerto for Orchestra."

The work does not rank with his best serious music, though it has some evocative moments, and the closing passages are beautiful, particularly as performed by baritone Jose Eduardo Chama and the Israel Philharmonic. Also on this CD, Bernstein, the friend of American music, can be heard conducting David Del Tredici's rousing "Tatoo" and Ned Rorem's contemplative Violin Concerto, with Gidon Kremer the impassioned soloist. Both works are performed with the New York Philharmonic.

Bernstein was one of the few conductors to program string-orchestra adaptations of Beethoven string quartets, and his long-admired account of Op. 131 finally comes to CD, along with the 1989 recording of the Op. 135.

Bernstein reveled in the 19th-century Beethoven tradition, as these performances unabashedly reveal. It was much the same tradition that informed his Mozart as well, to the chagrin of today's New-Age purists, who would leech a piece like the great C-Minor Mass of all its majesty and heart. Not so Bernstein, whose account with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Chorus and four noted soloists is broad, large scaled, and deeply stirring.

In all, the Bernstein legacy is far-ranging and full of mostly memorable works. At his considerable best, Leonard Bernstein was as fine as any conductor in the history of recorded sound. His testament will long be admired for the sheer love of music that inspired him throughout his distinguished career.

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