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Leonard Bernstein. The Original Jacket Collection
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Symphony No. 3 Op. 55 Eroica
Bernstein Talk; How a Great Symphony Was Written [14.22]
Recorded January 1964 and December 1965 [talk]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story orch. Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal
Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront
Recorded March 1861 [West Side Story] and May 1960 [On the Waterfront]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)

Rodeo – four dance episodes
Billy the Kid – orchestral suite
Recorded May 1960 [Rodeo] and October 1959 [Billy the Kid]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)

Rhapsody in Blue orch. Ferde Grofé
An American in Paris
Recorded June 1959 [Rhapsody in Blue] and June 1958 [An American in Paris]
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)

Symphony No. 82 Hob 1; 82 The Bear
Symphony No. 83 Hob 1; 83 The Hen
Recorded May 1962 [The Bear] and April 1962 [The Hen]
Charles IVES (1874-1954)

Symphony No. 2
Bernstein Talk; Leonard Bernstein discusses Charles Ives
Recorded October 1958 and June 1966 [Talk]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)

Symphony No. 7 in E minor Op 55
Recorded December 1965
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5 Op 47
Recorded October 1959
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)

Symphony No. 5 Op 82
Pohjola’s Daughter Op 49
Recorded March 1961 [Symphony] and May 1964 [Pohjola’s Daughter]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)

Le Sacre du Printemps (1913 version)
Recorded January 1958
New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein (piano/conductor)
SONY CLASSICAL SX10K89750 [10 CDs 484.28]


I’ve reviewed a companion Original Jacket collection in this series – the Horowitz collection – and now Bernstein is accorded the same treatment. At first sight the selection seems bewilderingly heterogeneous - enough to defy rational criticism or analysis beyond the speculative. And yet the defining quality is, I suppose, quality – that and distinction in areas acknowledged to be Bernstein’s specialties. The discs cover just over a decade’s worth of recording, from 1958-69. They reflect shards of Bernstein’s own greatness, as virtuoso conductor, soloist and composer and give us two of his elucidatory talks in which he illuminates aspects of the Eroica and of Ives’ Second Symphony. Matters are of course complicated by re-recordings, by re-evaluation in the light of the later Bernstein, the canonical, spiritualised Bernstein and by setting these discs in the greater flux of his own, later self. Better, I think, to celebrate what we have here because this is a set aimed more at the casual collector, not least at its bargain price, than at the specialist who will still have many of these performances on the LP shelves or in subsequent CD releases.

The Eroica receives a noble and strongly personalized reading. The sense of tension in the opening movement is palpable; maybe also too great a sense of rhythmic displacement as Bernstein leans into the second subject. Still, whilst some may consider it insufficiently cohesive, there can be few complaints concerning the Funeral March in which the recording faithfully picks up his pianissimi as well as his strongly delineated sense of strength. The scherzo is notable for the trio being taken at pretty much the same tempo and the finale generates, in Bernstein’s hands, a genuinely seismic attack. Of the West Side Story symphonic dances let’s just say this; the violin entries in the Prologue are razor sharp and indeed the whole thing exudes a fusion of virtuosity and lyricism hard to match, let alone surpass. The Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront – if only he’d written more film scores – is rightly admired, not least in this performance. No time for it here, however, but I played a Bernsteinian game listening to it – he was notorious for running through other composers’ works on the piano, usually with them present, and screeching out the famous names they’d allegedly "borrowed" from. There were a few names I could have screeched as well listening to On the Waterfront.

But Bernstein cultivates the ringing declamation and the chaste intensity of Copland’s Rodeo as few others ever could; I’ve never heard the delicate chiaroscuro of the Corral Nocturne more exquisitely played. The excellence of the Billy the Kid performance is a testament to the NYPO’s collective virtuosity and to the rhythmic impetus they generate – and the powerful fortissimi as well, as in the gun battle scene. Do we really need to sing the praises of the Gershwin disc? Incandescent, scintillating, full of spontaneity and drive, full of animation and colour – unselfconscious rightness from beginning to end and, unlike his later recording, a perfect equipoise between the jazz vamp and concert hall. How wonderfully Bernstein enters in Rhapsody in Blue, uncertain, rather timid, with a sense of improvisatory freedom, his piano cornucopic in its rhythmic flexibility. His cadenza is stupendous, the glissandi provocatively sensational, the whole performance an on-one’s-feet experience. Allied to which the sound quality is superb, orchestral principals heard in all their stunning glory. An American in Paris is equally memorable – panache, virtuosity, ardent expression, idiomatic unfolding of melody, timing and phrasing unimpeachable. The other American disc is devoted to Ives’ Second Symphony and to the talk Bernstein gave on it. Whatever one’s view of the work – I happen to find it cumulatively moving – there’s no doubting Bernstein’s proselytizing energy on its behalf or his control of broader and more intimate matters of structure and thematic development. The many references to other composers’ works and indeed to hymns and slices of Americana have seldom sounded so self-definingly eloquent as here.

The earliest works here are the two Haydn symphonies – and Bernstein was a noted exponent of the repertoire. The Bear - No. 82 - is restless and full of energy but lacks a little pliancy in the first movement. I liked the rest much better; the Allegretto is especially good and the minuet is Beechamesquely pomposo. The Hen is altogether more consistently successful – and the high point is an eloquent and expressive Andante. This was a slightly problematic recording as far as sound quality goes with the strings sometimes too swamped by the woodwind – things seem to have improved slightly here but it’s certainly not a natural perspective. And so to Stravinsky, Mahler, Sibelius and Shostakovich. The Rite of Spring receives another memorable reading, famous for Stravinsky’s own comment when he heard it – "wow" – about as eloquent a critical comment as one could get, unless one reads post-modernistic ambiguity into it. When Bernstein re-recorded it twenty-five years later in Israel he had an unflattering acoustic and a rather less athletic orchestra. In New York power and precision, expressive phrasing and an unusual amount of rubato are the defining features. Bernstein never utilizes the orchestra’s panache for crude superficiality – in fact this is an alluringly sensitive and warm performance for all its Stravinskian wow factor. And as well as these there is clarity and rhythmic élan. There may be those who find it just too yielding and emotive but it’s a memorable traversal nonetheless. Shostakovich’s Fifth receives a powerful and extrovert reading. His tempi are individual and his conception strongly defined. Others certainly hold back in the finale – Bernstein is triumphalist - and take the Scherzo with more sense of textual ambiguity. Nevertheless he delves deep into the Largo, drawing out the vein of lyrical melancholia at its heart. His conception of the work changed very little over the years, indeed deepened in its intensity. The NYPO Tokyo recording of 1979 takes this conception one stage further, broadening and deepening the already established parameters of his interpretation; essentially those of a late Romantic symphony. His later performances were often taped in concert; as with the later live Shostakovich, so with the later Mahler 7. The later recording was even more red bloodedly triumphant than this one though I sense a greater clarity and control in this earlier performance. Either way Bernstein’s grip on detail is extraordinary, his dynamics strong, the lyrical unfolding measured with acumen. He makes the most of the consistently complex tempo changes and his rallentandos, controversial but handled excellently, are part of his powerfully imaginative solutions to the complexities of structure (not least in the finale) in the work. As with the Shostakovich, Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony is strongly etched. I’m in two minds about it; the surging orchestral power is notable, the affirmatory insistence frequently memorable but sometimes, as with the Shostakovich, things can be somewhat too literally external. I prefer his reading of Pohjola’s Daughter that much more.

Ten CDs then, housed in replica LP covers, with LP timings to match, which seem themselves to embody the journey from radical chic to retro chic. Bernstein was a man for most, if not necessarily all, seasons and this box gives us many imperishable first thoughts in repertoire in much of which he was a towering master. The booklet is comprehensive and reprints the LP sleeve notes in English, French and German and has an introductory essay by Sedgwick Clark. As Igor said - wow.

Jonathan Woolf


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