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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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The Leonard Bernstein Collectors Edition: Sibelius - Elgar - Britten
CD 1
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)

Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39 [41:18]
Wiener Philharmoniker/Leonard Bernstein
Edward ELGAR
(1857-1934)
Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 Enigma [37:53]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
CD 2
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)

Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43 [51:30] Wiener Philharmoniker/Leonard Bernstein
Benjamin BRITTEN
(1913-1976)
Four Sea Interludes from "Peter Grimes", Op. 33a [18:11] Boston Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
CD 3
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)Symphony No. 5 in E flat, Op. 82 [35:34]
Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 105 [24:54]
Wiener Philharmoniker/Leonard Bernstein
Rec. Live: Watford Town Hall, Apr 1982 (Elgar); Vienna, Musikverein, Grosser Saal, Oct 1986 (2); Oct 1988 (7); Feb 1990 (1); Vienna, Konzerthaus, Grosser Saal, Sept 1987 (5); Lenox, Tanglewood Music Center, Boston, Aug 1990 (Britten). DDD
The Leonard Bernstein Collectors Edition
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 474 936-2 [3 CDs: 79:06 + 69:38 + 60:45]


Here is what is left behind of a project Bernstein had to record the complete Sibelius symphonies for the second time. The sessions took place live in Vienna. Unfortunately he did not live long enough to complete the cycle. His first Sibelius cycle was made during the 1960s and issued on CBS and most recently on Sony Classical first in France and finally world-wide via Sony UK. Bernstein is a doughty Sibelian and put him with the Vienna Phil and you have the potential for something special. After all they produced some exceptional Sibelius with Maazel in the 1960s and before that with Sargent in the 1950s.

In 1967 his NYPO reading of the First Symphony ran to 37:53. By 1990 in live concert it was 41:18. However speed is not everything. While I have not recommended Okko Kamuís Sibelius 2 because of its unduly protracted pace, Colin Davis surprised me with the power of his Kullervo which is by far the longest playing of all the Kullervos. Some may find Bernsteinís italicised and supercharged approach too much. Personally I find it irresistible leaving many respected competitors seeming routine by comparison. Only in the very last five minutes do the hesitations and emphasis raise transient doubts. Bernsteinís rip-snorting attack, accelerations and decelerations and especially his way with the brass is very special. Under this treatment Sibeliusís music scrubs up with a sort of super-virile youthful energy. Just taking two examples: in the second movement of No. 1 I have never heard the triple forte attacks at 8:40 delivered with such unanimous stabbingly venomous acid-spitting precision and the same goes for the same hammer-smacks at 7:01 in the finale. If the conductor dwells with Mahlerian languor on the rounded peace of the end of the andante he certainly sustains the spell without a tremor. This version would not perhaps register with such favourable impact if the orchestra had been a lesser instrument but the VPO, often driven sedately by others, here proves that this massive Mercedes-Benz of an orchestra can sprint and strike like an AC Cobra. The weight of tone produced by the orchestra is a joy in itself. However, first recommendation still has to go to the extraordinary Barbirolli on EMI Classics.

As for the Second Symphony this plays for 51:30 against his 1968 NYPO recording at 44:23. This duration is considerably in excess of even Kamuís timing. Bernstein uses the slowest of pacings and wide separations of the pizzicato notes in the Tempo Andante second movement. On the other hand his Vivacissimo speeds along with the velocity and hell-for-leather momentum I noted in the finale of the First Symphony. This is intriguing but not mainstream. It works better than the prolix Kamu (an outstanding Sibelian in other works, by the way) but it is a once-in-a-while listen when you are tired of the mot juste. Few conductors have achieved the silvery spiritual purity that comes with Bernsteinís way with the VPO violins at 5:34 in this version of the finale. The monumental evolutionary pacing of the last pages of this symphony produces a memorably epic (some will say Ďdistended) effect and the musicís resonance in the hall is allowed to decay most atmospherically.

If you are looking for outstanding recordings that are closer to the mainstream then try the following. Some of the greatest Sibelius Seconds are in the hands of Ormandy (Sony), Beecham (BBC Legends) and Barbirolli on Chesky (RPO), The bellowed out conductorial Ďyawpsí fomenting incandescent intensity from the orchestra stand out as the equivalent of the eccentric de Pachmannís oral asides to his audience during his Chopin performances. Here they incite the BBC Symphony to one of its most molten performances. The Barbirolli/RPO seems like an expensive proposition on Chesky because thatís all there is on the disc. However it is a white hot reading superbly recorded in splendidly vintage analogue by Kenneth Wilkinson for Readerís Digest.

In the Fifth the manic stridulation of the violins at 7:02 in the first movement has never registered with such imposing force. Again this runs to 35:34 against his 1961 32:38. The great swinging theme in the first movement tolls very slowly indeed -a sort of slow-motion majesty crushing in its weight, magnificent in the prominence accorded to the brass. And this applies also to the monumental lively resonance of the last few moments of the work with those colossal jack-hammer impacts. It works! It is perhaps a notch down from the pressurised intensity he brought to bear for the First Symphony but there is much to appreciate here even if we do sometimes suspect that this is Bernstein communing with himself rather than with the listeners. Much the same applies but even more so to the Seventh. This is another very expansive version (try 4:56 forward) which for all its glowing textures is not able to hold a candle to Ormandy and the Philadelphia (Sony) or to Mravinsky and the Leningrad Phil (Melodiya). Too personal by half.

Bernsteinís highly individual way with the four Sibelius symphonies shows him prepared to live dangerously. The musicianship is impressive in every case but in matters of exegesis some will find the Fifth difficult to stomach. There are no such doubts about the First though.

The three discs are filled out with two British works. The Elgar orthodoxy turned on Bernstein for having the temerity to take Enigma at such an expansive pace - a full 6:10. It is as if the conductor deliberately chose to view this ikonic movement through the tinted spectacles of Mahlerís adagietto. The music survives and glows in a new and refreshing way. Only in the great EDU finale did I find myself having doubts especially in the last few moments. As a once-in-a-while experience this can be an inspiringly provocative palate cleaner after which try Norman del Marís version with the RPO (DG).

The Sea Interludes from Britten's Peter Grimes were recorded live at Bernstein's final concert in Tanglewood on 19 August 1990, just two months before his death. It is such a pity that he did not include the wonderful grey-green Passacaglia. Unlike the other recordings here you can hear the odd cough and splutter and creak. While the conductor may indeed have been frail the Interludes do not suffer in any way. Bernsteinís personality registers, or if you like intrudes, in the extremely steady Moonlight episode and in unusually emphasised rhythmic adumbration in the Storm. If you want to intrigue a roomful of musically knowledgeable guests play the Storm movement and await the reaction. Then immediately play the first movement of Arnold Baxís Sixth Symphony conducted by David Lloyd-Jones (Naxos). Surely Britten must have known the Bax Symphony written a decade earlier. If he did not then the resemblance is a most unusual coincidence.

Like the other boxes in the Leonard Bernstein Collectors Edition the discs are in very light paper slip cases. The three CDs are housed in an over-sized robust fold-down box. James Hepokoskiís new liner notes give full details and are colourful and considered.

These are provocatively expansive readings which comprehensively reject orthodoxy or the routine. In some cases the mix is just too much but others, such as Enigma and Sibelius 1, affirm what an extraordinary musician Bernstein was. He became even more so in his last decade.

Rob Barnett



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