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New York Philharmonic [10 CDs]
New York Philharmonic $195

This is the fourth of the Philharmonic's boxes of archive material - concert performances that become but a memory for the audience and a statistic on a computer printout - now available in permanent form worldwide. I've often wondered what a Bernstein Philharmonic concert from the 'fifties and 'sixties was like. Now, amazingly, I know!

Despite Bernstein's hundreds of recordings, one could only imagine what must have been some pretty heady events in Carnegie and Avery Fisher Halls - studio recordings might not have the same fervour, and then there's the stuff Lenny never recorded. From Schumann's overture to Manfred (14 November 1943 when replacing Bruno Walter) to Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony (31 October 1989) - neither performance in this set - Bernstein was a Philharmonic man.

So here are 10 CDs, each averaging 78 minutes - 13 hours of music. The earliest taping is from February 1951 (the premiere, 50 or so years on, of Charles Ives's Second Symphony); the most recent, from 1981, are pieces by Aaron Copland and Lukas Foss. In between are lots of things Bernstein didn't record commercially (remember that CBS also had Ormandy and Szell on its books - not that they recorded any of the esoteric offerings here; I exclude Mathis der Maler, one of Ormandy's studio triumphs) and some intriguing concerto collaborations. There are also, typically for these NYP productions, two handsome books totalling 500 pages. These embrace copious notes on the selections, both factual and anecdotal, and Bernstein-reminiscence by NYP members and solo artistes; there are texts and translations, a Bernstein biography ('selected dates'), a list of orchestra personnel, a complete listing of Bernstein/NYP recordings, plenty of pictures and - fantastic - an entire concert schedule. I would have welcomed hearing a 1984 Rite of Spring, Walton's Viola Concerto (Sol Greitzer) and Elgar's Enigma from 1982 (the latter played just before Bernstein arrived in London for his BBCSO concert and DG recording) and, from the same year, Brahms's Second Serenade. I'm curious by an entry for a 1976 concert, the world premiere of four songs by Bernstein 'from a work in progress', which I assume is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, now re-cast (not by Bernstein) as A White House Cantata. Tempting, because not included, are Paul Creston's Janus, David Diamond's Fifth and Eighth Symphonies and Third Violin Concerto, Lukas Foss's Time Cycle and Phorion, and Roy Harris's Seventh. Concertos with Heifetz, Oistrakh and Rubinstein also taunt. I would have loved a live William Schuman Concerto on Old English Rounds - a wonderful piece, which Bernstein did record for a CBS LP not issued in the UK and, to date, not on CD. Let's though concentrate on what is in the set.

Bernstein, of course, commercially recorded most of his favoured repertoire for CBS (now Sony), then again, mostly 'live', for Deutsche Grammophon, first with the NYP, then adding to his American players the Israel and Vienna Philharmonics, Concertgebouw and London Symphony orchestras. Understandably this current selection doesn't duplicate much repertoire - notwithstanding there's probably an amazing Beethoven, Mahler or Tchaikovsky symphony that Philharmonic subscribers still talk about - or include any music of his own; again, Lenny recorded most of his pieces several times.

Not surprisingly, all the tapes here from the 'fifties are mono - and there's quite a few of these - and single-channel persists into the early 'sixties (not specifically detailed in the documentation - 'Mono & Stereo' where there is a mix). I'll give dates and state mono where applicable. Generally, the recording quality is detailed and focussed if, sometimes, dynamically limited; in collections such as this the sound is secondary to the music-making - no-one should be disappointed with the sonics, which have been overhauled with modern technology without orchestral frequencies being subjected to over-coloration or distorted by excessive noise-reduction.

Bernstein: love, heart, energy, communication - he was a big man, a great musician, one with a superb intellect that allowed him full analysis of the music he was working on, wide-ranging in terms of reference and with the persona to inspire something sensational in the concert-hall. He could be inconsistent though, unpredictable, and the Philharmonic's standard of playing may well have declined during his administration as Music Director (1958-69) despite his keenness for detailed and painstaking rehearsals. Who knows what might happen at a Bernstein concert?

It's tempting I think to view each CD as a concert in itself - some do make wonderful programmes and invite complete listening. Although the first CD's opening item, a 1956 Stravinsky Song of the Nightingale, couldn't, in this sizzling, vivid and atmospheric performance, be a finer calling-card, the other tapings on CD1  fall into the 'interesting, glad to have heard, but…' category. Elgar's Cockaigne Overture (1963, mono) transplants Victorian London to bustling New York in a less than poised rendition that may be a scramble at times but certainly explodes into life during the marching-band episode and concludes nobly with a significant contribution from the (ad-lib) organ. To complete the first CD is a spacious, rather aloof Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto with Lazar Berman (1977), which is likeable in its refusal to barnstorm. While one appreciates Berman's quiet playing, with a co-operative Bernstein, there is something a little too restrained about it; no, there's a nonchalance, an inability to ignite, which seems too consciously pre-determined. Yet Berman's poise and self-control compel attention, but his rather unvaried sense of colour is less praiseworthy. Somehow, outside of the atmosphere of being in the hall itself, one wonders why the audience is so enthusiastic. (Bernstein recorded this concerto with Alexis Weissenberg in Paris for EMI.)

CD 2 brings one of those 'concerts' I mentioned earlier. All mono, Virgil Thomson's The Seine at Night is the 1961 'overture', a flowing, very beautiful description of the river, with just a touch of menace I thought, and a firefly-like iridescence at its mid-point. Enter Byron Janis for a 1960 Mozart A major concerto (K448) with the soloist stressing the music's classical aspects - despite a 'thumpy' left-hand at times - offering clean articulation and shapely phrasing; though there is little, I find, truly distinguished. Webern's Six Pieces, Op.6 (1958) follows aptly (every note matters with both these composers) and is a fine example of Bernstein's wide embrace of music and his control of what might be considered more cerebral music. If every note matters in Webern, so too do slips of ensemble. This is a timely reminder that these 10 CDs document one-off performances, not pristine studio jobs, and need to be listened to for Bernstein's insights and a sense of occasion, which do not necessarily invite comparative listening. To close is a marvellous Mathis der Maler, Hindemith's opera-symphony (which Bernstein would record many years later in Israel) played here with fizzing energy, dramatic reference, great intensity and well-balanced textures. The 1956 sound for Mathis is rather more open than for the Webern (the huge crescendo that closes the funeral march - No.4 - is rather compromised).

The third CD includes a major addition to Bernstein's discography - Britten's Spring Symphony (1963, mono). Bernstein premiered Peter Grimes in the US but recorded little of Britten's music. The mists of the opening and the 'pain' of winter unfreezing to spring is especially vivid, the choir living the experience. English tenor Richard Lewis is in fine voice, so too Jennifer Vyvyan and American Regina Sarfaty knows how to put texts across, even if it means she threatens the musical line on occasions; her English colleagues find a better balance between declamation and musical expressiveness. Bernstein, too energetic perhaps in certain numbers - ('The Driving Boy' - with excellent whistling from the boys; 'When Will My May Come?' - Lewis vividly, and valiantly, articulate) - also teases out orchestral details with a composer's instincts (and what a fine composer Lenny was, both in the theatre and concert-hall), charting the last movement's approach to summer with abandon - the entrance of 'Soomer Is I-Coomen In' (sic) is swingingly affirmative.

Completing this CD are two more renditions with soloists. First, an intimate one of Schumann's Cello Concerto with Jacqueline du Pre (1967). Schumann is among my special composers and I love the poetry of this concerto, which is nicely conveyed by du Pre, Bernstein a tactful accompanist. I feel though that she (then 21) wasn't fully inside the piece, or, that hers wasn't a fully developed view at this time. There are some lovely things along the way but this journey is also not without some undue emphasis and technical roughness. Given she recorded it commercially (with Barenboim) and Bernstein essayed it three times (Leonard Rose, Rostropovich and Mischa Maisky), I'm not sure there's enough from either party to justify its inclusion here. Following are four Sibelius songs with soprano Phyllis Curtin (1965, mono) sung in the Swedish texts the composer set. A great Sibelius conductor (Bernstein was of Schumann too, and Haydn, another 'special') he and Curtin revel in the songs' Slavonic intensity and kinship with Tchaikovsky.

Other 'guest' contributions include Seymour Lipkin, an adept and lively pianist in Stravinsky's Capriccio (1962, mono), and Bernstein himself plays harpsichord in Bach's Fifth Brandenburg and piano in Beethoven's Triple (both 1959). The Bach is relaxed in tempo and affectionate in phrasing (ideal!) - John Wummer and Isaac Stern are the pliant flautist and violinist, Bernstein the tinkly continuo until he bursts loose with the big first movement cadenza (even if the recording doesn't fully capture the majesty that Stern remembers). The Triple has an up-tempo opening Allegro (not unconvincing due to Bernstein finding some moments of respite) which is more dance-like than usual. Bernstein's clattery old piano (as recorded) finds him dextrous and impetuous; I'm not sure that violinist John Corigliano (the contemporary composer's late father) or cellist Laszlo Varga are entirely convinced by this bright and breezy approach. However, the slow movement aspires to depth and the finale's Polonaise is both exuberant and pointed. A year earlier Vladimir Ashkenazy made his US debut with Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto, a memorable event preserved in decent sound that reports how tonally attractive Ashkenazy could be; he's also in superb technical shape playing not only with fire, passion and brilliance but also with refinement. He makes a smashing job of the huge cadenza with Bernstein a big, but not indulgent, presence on the podium. This is one of the highlights of the set.

So too is the remaining concerto, part of the most successful CD of all, a superb 'concert'. Following a fleet, incident-packed Magic Flute overture, Wilhelm Kempff plays Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto (both are from the same 1966 programme) with a subtlety, poise, awareness for the orchestra and a leonine grace and dramatic oratory - and his own (excellent) cadenza I assume - that I find spellbinding. Bernstein's purposeful and accommodating accompaniment is suggestive of a very positive relationship with the German pianist. Yet the four performances of this concerto in October '66 were the only time they worked together and Kempff's only engagements with the Philharmonic. This third performance was certainly 'lucky' and is very special. At that concert Bernstein conducted pieces by Harold Shapero and Irving Fine; for this CD we move to 1981 for Foss and Copland. Lukas Foss's Quintets is a real discovery. A five-note chord dominates the piece (very American in its Coplandesque spacing of notes) but not in the space (silence) that initially halts the flow as this chord's permutations are hauled along a 15-minute excursion, gathering strength en route to an 'explosion' of sound (brass fanfares of jarring jubilation). This is a great piece, Bernstein absolutely 'inside' the music of his old friend - "preparing very carefully and giving it a real lift," to quote Foss. Copland's own Dance Symphony (which Bernstein surprisingly didn't record commercially) is another winner, music deeply loved by Bernstein and here shaped, coaxed and exuded very much with choreography in mind and, perhaps, an appreciation of the Paris of the 'twenties which seems an omnipresent feature of this urbane music.

The remaining Americana includes a stunning account of Samuel Barber's Second Essay (1959) and an equally persuasive one of Carl Ruggles's Men and Mountains (1958). The premiere of Ives 2 is a true collector's item. Bernstein certainly found more in it in his two NYP recordings (and not only because he got progressively slower, adding two minutes, then five, to the initial 38) but there's a frisson about this belated first performance that shines through the amazingly good sound as Lenny and the Philharmonic take Ives's quizzical look at the German symphony (a quote from Beethoven 5 rubs shoulders with Turkey in the Straw) at face-value.

I like William Russo's Second Symphony in this its third first performance (18/04/59), so to speak, but I'm not sure why the stratospheric trumpet playing of Maynard Ferguson only appears in the last movement, the symphony's weakest. Up to then, with the Philharmonic's brass section (including Ferguson?) imitating Stan Kenton's outfit, Russo (born 1928) displays a Hindemithian stance while reaching-out for more popular idioms - not 'crossover' but finding a marriage between different styles, a scherzo with 'Afro-Cuban elements' for example. Antiphony One by Henry Brant (born 1913) is another fine piece, one embracing Ives's radicalism and Ruggles's ruggedness (Unanswered Question meets Sun-Treader). It's a shame that the sound is mono (1960) for Brant exploits antiphonal effects of five different groups positioned on and around the platform. Bernstein and his four assistant conductors make wholesome the disparate instrumentation and placements (or is that the mono recording?) - what emerges is a fascinating amalgam of conflict and energy that seems ultimately to be lucidly connected. John Cage's Atlas Eclipticalis with Winter Music (two separate pieces the composer allows combined performance of; the piano punctuations are Winter Music I think) is 'chance music', all to do with stars, maps, a choice of instruments (to which you can add unpitched percussion, or not). Bernstein's (mono) performance of 9 February 1964 is literally unique - make of it what you will, it only lasts eight minutes.

Bernstein's platform announcements for the Brant and Cage pieces are retained as they are for Copland's An Outdoor Overture and Pithoprakta by Iannis Xenakis (1960 and 1964 respectively, both mono). Lenny's spoken introductions are helpful, learned and witty, confirming his stature as a natural and friendly communicator while demonstrating his eclectic embrace of repertoire (this the man who could analyse Beethoven to every semiquaver, improvise at the piano in the style of almost any composer and absorb many musical styles and put them back - Bernsteined - in his Broadway and symphonic scores). Bernstein defies categorisation as both creator and interpreter - to pigeon-holers and those who categorise, he must be infuriating!

It's difficult to think of more diverse musicians (both as conductors and composers) than Bernstein and Pierre Boulez. Both are great! I can't imagine Boulez conducting Bernstein but it's good to have Lenny leading Pierre's Improvisation sur Mallarme I (part two of Pli Selon Pli) with soprano Marni Nixon (1960, mono) together with Bernstein's audience address. Boulez would succeed Bernstein as the Philharmonic's Music Director in 1971 and it's good to have this coming-together in this appealing rendition of music that is more vibrant and suggestive than Boulez's detractors might imagine.

Other twentieth-century European scores include what one senses as roof-raising but audits as a one-dimensional account of Varese's Arcana (the dullish mono sound is not as vivid as for the Prokofiev concerto from the same 1958 concert; Varese's blockbuster was no doubt a bit of a shaker following Vivaldi's two-mandolin concerto!). There's a brilliant rendition of Rodion Shchedrin's Mischievous Folk Ditties (as termed here), better know maybe as Naughty Limericks - humorous, perhaps ironic (although it's very easy to think this with anything Russian and contemporary with Shostakovich) with it's jazz-band drum-brushes, honky-tonk piano and brass solos (which, here, seem to be blowing down Mexico way!). Like Pithoprakta, Shchedrin's work is a collage of sound; his is entertaining and smile-raising, Xenakis's exploits instruments' capacity for sound and effect. In 1967 Bernstein responds wickedly to Shchedrin's 'entertainment', the NY Phil lapping-up the opportunity for display.

Hans Werner Henze's Fifth Symphony has an especial interest. This is the 1963 (mono) world premiere (the third of four performances) of music commissioned for Bernstein and the Philharmonic. This is a piece that's had fair exposure in London recently - Oliver Knussen conducted it not so long ago and Dohnanyi will in 2001 (as part of London's celebrations for Henze's 75th birthday). The composer's own DG recording will be familiar to anyone interested in Henze's prolific output. It might be supposed that this dramatic, energetic symphony - tough, closely-argued Schoenbergian invention contrasted with lyricism and sensuous colours, rather Debussyian - was tailor-made for Bernstein. Probably so, and the Stravinskian clarity will have sealed it for Lenny who leads a confident, vital 'first'.

It appears that Igor Markevich, by 1958 his composing-life over, replaced by one as a top-flight conductor, was around to hear Bernstein's precise and dynamic account of Icare (was the composer at rehearsal?), an individual and intriguing score. (Markevich has turned out with recent CD exposure to be a really fine and fascinating composer; hopefully Jean Martinon will enjoy similar coverage one day.) Icare - the familiar story of Icarus being a reckless sun-treader (!) - another example of Stravinskian clarity, this time informing a ballet score eventually performed as a concert item. Lashings of (non-gratuitous) percussion and complex rhythmic ingenuity distinguish this super piece, Markevich's musical language really quite personal - but if you like Prokofiev, Roussel and Bartok (who wrote to Markevich congratulating him), Icare will prove very appealing. Bernstein's (mono) performance is fabulous (invoking premature applause at one point).

There remain a couple of slabs of German repertoire - two more major additions to Lenny's discography: Bruckner's Sixth Symphony and scenes from Gotterdammerung. The Wagner is a whole concert from 1970, 80 minutes worth, not from a broadcast tape but from an 'illegal' one made by a member of the audience - the stereo sound is very good indeed (one wonders just what equipment Mr Roger Frank managed to smuggle into Avery Fisher Hall. A console possibly - 'hang on Lenny, this thing needs to warm-up a few more minutes!'). Eileen Farrell (Brunnhilde) is in fine voice - rich tone and generous phrasing; Jess Thomas's Siegfried is not as colourful or varied, but his experience in the role is evident. Bernstein's a luxurious Wagner conductor, he loves these scenes to bits and is tenacious when required (and because of the source tape, one really does feel part of the audience).

(The inclusion of this recording - with its 'present' sound - is sufficient to wonder what other bootleg tapes might be available for CD release. I believe that some of the Boulez era is 'lost' because the NYP was not broadcasting then - like Sedgwick Clark (who provides the booklets' 'performance notes') I'd love to hear Boulez conduct Copland's Connotations (and Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, or was that an April Fool?). Now if a NYP edition of private tapes can be arranged… !)

Bernstein's Bruckner (1976) is bold and imposing with some (over-) enthusiastic brass, and if he wasn't a natural Brucknerian (he only recorded commercially the Ninth twice, and seems to have conducted just 6 and 9) he offers a number of perceptions. This performance certainly has a charge to it, albeit some crucial moments of transition are not ideally seamless (they rarely are to be fair; I'm only fully happy with Celibidache and Solti in this respect) but there's plenty of passion, and, of course, Lenny's musical awareness is always apparent. The slow movement is especially good, avoiding mawkishness, but the pushing ahead for the funeral march (from 5'15") doesn't distinguish Bernstein from most other conductors at this crucial point. The scherzo is a romp and the finale is, somewhat surprisingly, quite measured - to advantage. From something I read a few years ago, I had expected to hear Bernstein conduct Mahler's cut and re-orchestrated premiere-performance version. In the event Bernstein plays Nowak as advertised; though like any searching and imaginative interpreter, Lenny does it his way, certainly with regard to dynamics, retards and lingering.

But then I hadn't expected to hear this Bruckner at all - simply an occasional thought 'I wonder what that was like'. Now it lives again, and is live in the best sense. For me this release's highlights are (in order of appearance): Song of the Nightingale, The Seine at Night, Mathis der Maler, Sibelius songs, Magic Flute overture, Kempff's Third Beethoven, Quintets, Dance Symphony, Ashkenazy's Second Prokofiev, Icare, Second Essay, Naughty Limericks, Henze 5 and Antiphony One. I'm pleased to have heard the rest and will return to a number of them with pleasure; only the Mozart, Rachmaninov and Schumann concertos passed me by.

With this issue the already comprehensive picture we have of Bernstein is generously supplemented. There's some real treasures here - the icing on the Bernstein cake. I wonder what the Philharmonic will come up with next?

Colin Anderson

Available worldwide at select Tower Records stores, the 10-CD set with two companion books is $195. It may also be ordered in the U.S. and Canada by calling toll-free 1-800-557-8268. For international telephone orders, call 1-317-781-1861. Foreign and domestic orders may also be faxed to 1-317-781-4608. The set is available online through the Special Editions e-STORE at

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