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Disc 1 - Beethoven - Symphony No 7 & Britten - Four Sea Interludes
Disc 2 - Beethoven - Piano Concerto No 5 & Brahms Double Concerto
Disc 3 - Mozart - Great Mass in C minor & Exsultate, Jubilate
Disc 4 - Mahler - Symphony No 5
Disc 5 - Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue, Copland - Appalachian Spring, Barber - Adagio for strings & Roy Harris - Symphony No 3
Disc 6 - Mozart - Piano Concerto No 17

Boston Symphony, Vienna Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic & New York Philharmonic Orchestras, LEONARD BERNSTEIN
DG 469 460-2 6 discs,
 £39.95    Amazon US $40.58

It is now ten years since Leonard Bernstein died and this set from DG is their present to us for this important anniversary. It is an interesting retrospective of Bernstein's core repertoire, albeit one that is perhaps a little on the conservative side (as a recent NYPO Box set reveals Bernstein was quite a conductor of unfamiliar repertoire). The performance of Mahler's 5th could perhaps have been replaced with another of his Mahler recordings, the Sixth or First, for example, performances equally as energetic and compelling as this ubiquitous recording. Additionally, I could have well done without his last recording of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, an undeniably pain-soaked performance, but one I find unbearable to listen to on a frequent basis. Bernstein could be an indifferent accompanist to soloists (rather like his nemesis Herbert von Karajan), but in the case of Zimerman's Emperor Concerto we find Bernstein somewhere near his best, unlike in the performance of Brahms' Double Concerto which is highly individual and idiosyncratic. Perhaps, however, this is the virtue of this set. It gives us a warts-and-all portrait of Bernstein the eclecticist and master of over-statement.

There are many who still see Bernstein as a Stokowski-like figure, an indisputably great artist but one with so many faults as to render his art controversial. If he was more charismatic than Karajan was or more subjective in his interpretations than Solti, this was often for the better. A Bernstein performance was never a dull experience, and could often be life affirming. I well remember his only Prom performance, a celebrated account of Mahler's 5th (exactly contemporaneous with the performance on this set) that left many who were there shattered and nerve torn. He alone among latter day conductors could make the Vienna Philharmonic glow as it often did under Furtwängler, and on this occasion they were in spell-binding form taking risks with Bernstein they rarely took with anyone else. In the sixties, when he performed often with London Symphony Orchestra, he had a similar effect galvanising the orchestra into extraordinarily refined and electrifying playing. Video footage of Bernstein rehearsing the LSO in Shostakovich's 5th Symphony shows a conductor getting exactly the results he wanted - even if it sounds almost over-sentimentalised.

But Bernstein was never finer than in American music - whether it be in his own (interestingly not included in this anthology) or in that of his contemporaries. The Gershwin is slightly over the top but shows Bernstein ever the showman - and one with a total grasp of jazz rhythm. As was customary with his later recordings the performance is taken from live broadcasts. In the Gershwin this is a slight problem with the inhibition of Bernstein's playing not always as inspired as his studio Rhapsody from 1959. In the great Barber Adagio there are no such problems with the spontaneity of live performance lifting this particular interpretation to unparalleled heights. The Los Angeles strings are wonderfully intense, and poetry and emotion abound in every note. Some may find it lachrymal, even hysterical in the heart-on-sleeves rawness that Bernstein conveys so persuasively. It is a wonderful performance, quite the equal of a rarely heard but never forgotten performance Guido Cantelli recorded with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in the early 1950s. Both the Copland and Roy Harris Third Symphony are beautifully played - vintage Bernstein.

Bernstein's Mahler had two separate phases - his early New York and London phase and his later European one. As Bernstein grew older his interpretations of the Mahler symphonies could broaden significantly in tempo - and not always for the better. His Concertgebouw recording of the Ninth - a great, intense obilisk of a performance - is notable for a profoundly moving final movement which just slips into silence, yet his live Berlin recording is an oddly savage affair with a Berlin Phil prone to slips unthinkable under Karajan's golden regime. Bernstein's first recording of Mahler's Fifth, with the New York Philharmonic, was an anguished performance with an adagietto of unusual sublimity. There is a breathlessness to the New Yorkers playing of this movement which the Vienna Phil match - but don't surpass, even though their playing is if anything more elegiac. Where the Vienna performance is transfigured is in the final movement which Bernstein takes at a considerable pace. It is electric and one the very finest Mahler performances Bernstein ever made.

The Beethoven/Britten disc is fascinating and shows exactly what great music making is about. Bernstein had already made recordings of some of Britten's music in 1961 with the New York Philharmonic - including a dramatic performance of the Four Sea Interludes. This Boston account, recorded live at his last concert, is enormously powerful and is supported by wonderful playing. In the passacaglia the Boston strings achieve a unity of string tone that is simply terrifying. But it is the Beethoven symphony that I find the most extraordinary single recording on this disc. As already mentioned, I wish it were not on this set. The performance is rather like looking inwards at death itself - Bernstein's agony and pain is all too evident. He rather lays himself out, naked and prone, ready for crucifixion. The interpretation is actually a rather straightforward one, spacious and weighty, but it is what Bernstein does with the silences and detail that is so extraordinary. This is at times the most static, static like the reminiscence of the last gasps of a dying breath, and the most exultant Beethoven Seven I have ever heard and in very few performances will you sense the atmosphere of struggle and soul-searching so magnetically. Witnesses at the actual performance speak of Bernstein on the brink of collapse after the second movement, and at having to conduct the third virtually leaning against the podium. Listen to it once then put it away forever.

I think when one comes to assess the pantheon of great twentieth century conductors Bernstein will find himself very near the top. Like Furtwängler and Celibidache he was an individualist - and there can be no higher praise than that. Deutsche Grammophon's production of this set is admirable with two booklet notes and six discs crammed into a standard double CD sized box. However, for some odd reason the actual programming on the first and fifth discs does not match that listed on either the cover of the box or in the booklets and queuing for the American disc is minimal. 

Marc Bridle

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