musicians believe that Leonard Bernstein was at his absolute
best in Stravinsky. Though as a conductor he became ever
more associated with Mahler, the paradox is that Stravinsky
is an even more evident influence in Bernstein’s own compositions.
Maybe the tight discipline and total lack of forced emotion
in Stravinsky allowed Bernstein the conductor to concentrate
on musical values – rhythmic precision, tonal balance etc.,
rather than being seduced by ‘extra-musical’ issues.
it is, both the ballets here are given splendidly vivacious
and stylish performances, and in between the two we have a
‘first on CD’ track of Bernstein discussing the music of Petrushka
in its historical and stylistic context. It’s not clear where,
or indeed if, this talk has been published in any form previously;
I’d be surprised if it hasn’t, because it is typically lively
and revealing. Bernstein begins by talking about Stravinsky
and his central position in 20th century music,
then continues with a fascinating discussion of the music
of the Petrushka Ballet, and how it relates to, indeed
tells the story. This is interspersed with examples taken
from the recording on the previous tracks. The disc is completed
with a much earlier recording (1960) of the Pulcinella
Suite, bringing the whole up to a cracking 78 minutes,
58 of which are music.
fascinating issue, then, though the chief bone of contention
for many listeners will be the recordings. The Lincoln Center, where this Petrushka was recorded,
has a famously dry acoustic, and that is very much in evidence.
I confess to liking this very much; it complements nicely
the clean contours of the music – its crisp, unpredictable
rhythmic patterns and brightly-lit orchestration. However,
it does suffer, I fear, from a comparison with Stravinsky’s
own recording from around this time, which has the same clarity,
but more warmth as well as even sharper characterisation in
the playing. This is currently available, (also on
Sony, SM3K 46291), and features the Columbia Symphony Orchestra,
an ensemble specially formed for the series of recordings
the composer made around this time.
the same goes for the Pulcinella Suite, with the additional
reservation that the playing is not as assured as in Petrushka;
Bernstein also allows his players to indulge themselves -
e.g. the solo violin in the Serenata - a little more
than is needed in this essentially Neo-Classical music. The
Vivo, on the other hand, with its duetting trombone
and double bass, is given a rollicking performance; listen
out for the trombone soloist knocking his slide on the music
stand, track 29 around 1:05. The Finale: Allegro assai
gets the same treatment, with Bernstein certainly not
underdoing the ‘assai’. Despite the recordings, then, which
will not be to everyone’s taste, these performances bring
out the conductor’s best qualities, and are well worth hearing.