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Bernstein Conducts Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann
(forms part of the 'Leonard Bernstein Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon Collectors Edition')
CD1
Franz Peter SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No.8 in B minor, D.759 'Unfinished' (1822) [26.36]
Symphony No.9 in C, D.944 'The Great' (1828) [50.09]
CD2
Symphony No.5 in B flat, D.485 (1816) [29.48]
Concertgebouw Amsterdam/Leonard Bernstein
rec. Grote Zaal, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Holland, June 1987 (D .485), Oct 1987 (D.759, D.944)
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.56 'Scottish'd (1842) [39.14]
CD3
Symphony No.4 in A, Op.90 'Italian'c (1833) [30.17]
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.107 'Reformation'c (1830) [30.55]
Overture 'The Hebrides', Op.26 ('Fingal's Cave')d (1832) [09.54]
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
rec. Frederic R. Mann Auditorium, Tel Aviv, Israelc Oct 1978 (Op.90, Op.107)
rec. Kongress Saal, Deutsches Museum, Munich, Germanyd Aug 1979 (Op.29, Op.56)
CD4
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 1 in B flat, Op.38 'Spring' (1841) [33.09]
Symphony No. 4 in D minor Op.120 (1841) [32.24]
CD5
Symphony No. 2 in C, Op.61 (1846) [42.30]
Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129a (1850) [24.22]
CD6
Symphony No. 3 in E flat, Op.97 'Rhenish' (1850) [34.44]
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54b (1845) [31.26]
Mischa Maisky, celloa
Justus Frantz, pianob
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
rec. Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, Austria, Feb 1984 (Op.54, Op.120), Oct 1984 (Op.38, Op.97), Nov 1985 (Op.61, Op.129)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON DG 00289 477 5167 [6 CDs: 77.11 + 69.11 +  71.28 + 65.33 + 66.52 + 66.10]

This release 'Bernstein Conducts Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann' forms part of the Deutsche Grammophon 'Leonard Bernstein Collectors Edition'. It says on the front of the six disc box set, 'Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon'. This could prove rather confusing for some, as this particular box contains only Bernstein's recordings of thirteen key Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann scores. The other DG recordings he made are in other box sets in the same series. The blurb in the booklet states that in this edition, "for the first time, all the recordings of a particular composer or group of composers that Leonard Bernstein made for Deutsche Grammophon have been brought together in a single compact edition, with new liner notes and documentation."

Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918 - October 14, 1990) was unquestionably a musician of unparalleled versatility. He achieved worldwide renown throughout a career spanning nearly five decades. He was an inspiring teacher, a wide-ranging composer, author, media broadcaster, musicologist and a gifted concert pianist. However it is as a conductor that Bernstein will be best remembered. With his death aged 72, I believe that the music world was deprived of one of the greatest musical talents of the twentieth century and it is no exaggeration to say that that millions throughout the world felt a profound and irreplaceable loss. The adoration of Bernstein as a conductor was not always exclusive as his often idiosyncratic interpretations of the standard repertoire frequently attracted detractors. For example, the composer and critic Virgil Thomson, perhaps the most influential American music critic of the 20th century, was highly disparaging of Bernstein's conducting prowess.

Music writer and Bernstein biographer Peter Gutmann in his excellent on-line essay entitled, 'Leonard Bernstein A Total Embrace of Music' provides a fascinating insight into Bernstein's conducting style. Viewing early documentary film footage of Bernstein conducting, "show him to have been mostly wild and uninhibited on the podium. Interestingly, for Mozart and Beethoven he lapsed into a chaste, traditional function of time-beating with expressive accents, much as other conductors did for all music. For overtly emotional music, though, Bernstein flung himself at the orchestra, making desperate, clutching gestures with his bare hands, as if trying to wrest music out of the very air before him. Only after 1957, in order to compensate for back problems, did Bernstein resort to using a baton. Even then, his face continued to reflect a full gamut of extreme emotion, from excruciating pain to overwhelming bliss. No musician could possibly play routinely when the leader was so overtly involved and enthused."

Signing for Deutsche Grammophon, in 1976, Bernstein's collaboration with the distinguished German affiliate of the huge Philips/Polydor organisation was a fruitful one; in effect launching the final phase of his conducting career. Bernstein was a conductor then at the heights of his powers and his partnership with the German 'yellow label' allowed him freshly and eagerly to re-assess and re-create the music that he had been conducting since his spectacular big-break debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1943. The start of Bernstein's recording career in 1944 was as a freelance but exclusive RCA Victor artist. Bernstein's RCA series of recordings are now largely forgotten, eclipsed by his huge output for the Columbia and Deutsche Grammophon catalogues.

Bernstein's appointment with the New York Philharmonic, in 1958, neatly coincided with the beginning of the stereo era. In that year Stravinsky's ballet Rite of Spring effectively launched Bernstein's stereo recordings with the Columbia label and the New York Philharmonic. This Columbia alliance would ultimately boast over 500 works to become the largest discography of any classical artist at that time. In fact, Bernstein made so many recordings that I have yet to see a definitive listing of all the recordings that the maestro made throughout his career. By the early 1970s Bernstein's output for the Columbia label had dwindled to only a handful of recordings. Deutsche Grammophon was however eager to replicate Bernstein's earlier successes with new recordings, encouraging Bernstein to record new repertoire and with a wide range of orchestras.

Within the first two years of their association, an ambitious pace was set in the Deutsche Grammophon recording studio. Commencing with the Liszt Faust Symphony with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Stravinsky's Mass and Les Noces with the English Bach Festival Orchestra, Boito and Strauss opera scenes with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Bernstein's own Songfest with the National Symphony of Washington, DC and the Symphonies 1, 2 and Chichester Psalms with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. The alliance continued to flourish up to Bernstein's final live performance at the Tanglewood festival, in 1990.

Inspection of Deutsche Gramophone's sizeable Bernstein catalogue reflects the richness and breadth of his recording experience. The thirteen scores contained on this release were made over a nine year period between 1978 to 1987. Bernstein used the forces of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in Holland for Schubert, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in both Tel Aviv and Munich for Mendelssohn and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in Austria for Schumann. It is stated that all the recordings were all made under 'live' conditions, which actually means that in the production process Deutsche Grammophon captured not only actual performances in front of live audiences but also utilised dress rehearsals and some subsequent 'repair sessions'. This process, although not fully authentically live, thankfully preserves the genius of Bernstein; then in his prime.

The first scores contained on this set are Schubert masterworks; the 'Unfinished' Symphony, the Symphony No. 9'The Great' and the Symphony No.5 with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and recorded at their Amsterdam stronghold. With the Concertgebouw, Bernstein makes no concessions to the 'authentic performance' movement, providing interpretations that are deeply Romantic in style; whilst respecting the greatness of the music in a completely traditional and a profoundly fulfilling way. Bernstein is clearly in his element with the music of Schubert, especially in the Unfinished Symphony which has been described as the first true Romantic symphony. The highly popular work is lovingly played by the Concertgebouw and with considerable intensity Bernstein emphasises the wonderful sweeping themes, especially in the sweetness and suffering of the allegro moderato movement. Few conductors can secure the mood of radiant optimism that Bernstein is able to achieve in the andante con moto from his Concertgebouw players. In the opening movement of the Symphony No. 9 'The Great', Bernstein provides swift and intensely urgent playing and I especially enjoyed the dancing allegro section. The playing of the blissfully ardent andante con moto movement is I feel very special. Bernstein's Amsterdam orchestra provide a lusty reading of the scherzo and the final movement given a performance of exceptional rhythmic energy.

The set includes four of Mendelssohn's best known works; the Symphony No.3 'Scottish', Symphony No.4 'Italian', Symphony No.5 'Reformation' and the 'The Hebrides'('Fingal's Cave') Overture. In these Mendelssohn scores Bernstein conducts the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and made the recordings in Tel Aviv and in Munich. The booklet notes explain how performing the music of this profoundly gifted descendant of German Rabbis, with a Jewish orchestra, the cultural pride of Israel, would have undoubtedly appealed to Bernstein on many counts. Bernstein's achievement was particularly impressive, since on purely artistic grounds the Israel Philharmonic was not considered to be of the same standard as other world-class orchestras in much of the repertoire that he insisted that they record with him. Bernstein's readings do not strictly adhere to the letter of Mendelssohn's written instructions, yet remain deeply faithful to the inherent spirit of his scores. I especially enjoyed Bernstein's reading of the Symphony No.3 'Scottish' and the conductor's unbridled enthusiasm for this score soon becomes apparent in the impassioned opening movement. Bernstein takes the Israel Philharmonic along at a fair pace in the joyous scherzo, offering Mendelssohnian high spirits and youthful abandon. The prevailing gentle mood of the adagio is successfully conveyed by Bernstein and his Israeli players. In the closing movement they blend nobility with an impressive growing power.

Bernstein's collaboration with the great Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra filled the majority of his Deutsche Grammophon years, yet it was a puzzling alliance on the face of it for observers. From now on the centre of focus for the ardent Zionist Bernstein moved increasingly from New York to Vienna, a city viewed by many as one of the most anti-Semitic in Europe. Furthermore, Bernstein's association with the VPO actively contributed to the profits of a record company that had been firmly rooted in the fortunes of the Third Reich. William Lincer, a principal violinist of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, summarized the apparent contradiction stating, "They gave flowers to Mr. Bernstein today. Twenty-five years ago, they probably killed fifty of his relatives." Bernstein's earlier experiences conducting in Vienna had been most dispiriting as the players were openly hostile, even disparaging his new Symphony No. 3 'Kaddish'. Quite possibly, as a matter of ego and possibly with an element of revenge, Bernstein could not resist the thought of moulding this recalcitrant group around to his will. Perhaps it was inevitable that Bernstein's overwhelming love of music would eventually find its home with the superb VPO who were steeped in the Austro-Germanic symphonic performance tradition that he loved so much.

The set concludes with six of Schumann's finest scores; the Symphony No. 1 'Spring', Symphony No. 4, Symphony No. 2, Cello Concerto, Symphony No. 3 'Rhenish' and the Piano Concerto. Bernstein had the services of the VPO, who were generally considered to be the finest orchestra in the world, recording the works in their Musikverein home in Vienna. Bernstein was to champion the music of Schumann throughout his career and always insisted in using the composers own orchestrations, rather than utilise the so-called 'improved' orchestrations that other composers, notably Mahler, had had created. Bernstein's music making is fresh and detailed, often slow, frequently freer in tempo and magnificently performed. I feel that Bernstein's approach is admirably suited to these highly Romantic Schumann scores which have been the undoing of many prominent conductors over the years. Schumann wrote the Symphony No. 1 'Spring' in a outbreak of red-hot activity, a disposition that Bernstein and his Vienna players so expertly portray. In the opening movement Bernstein captures Schumann's confidence and innocent joy. I especially loved the interpretation of the scherzo's demonic fun and in the final movement Bernstein and the VPO are superb with Schumann's rich orchestration where they emphasise so many lovely details. Bernstein and his Vienna players are also most impressive in the Symphony No. 3 'Rhenish' where their interpretation is one of innate spontaneity and joyousness, right from the thrilling syncopated opening to the stately polyphonic finale. In the Cello Concerto Mischa Maisky proves himself to be a bold and expressive soloist. Maisky profitably demonstrates his technical prowess with the required virtuosity in the passages of brilliant pyrotechnics of the opening movement. The soloist blends admirably with Bernstein and his Vienna players, especially in the heavenly slow movement. Under Bernstein's direction the performers are quite superb and convey marvellously the troubled spirit of Schumann's fragile masterpiece. Schumann's Piano Concerto is not a vehicle for hair-raising virtuosity but the score is supremely eloquent. Pianist Justus Frantz is splendidly supported by Leonard Bernstein and the VPO, yet is only able to offer a rather standard interpretation. Compared to many of my favoured interpreters of this score, such as Kovacevich, Vogt, Perahia, Argerich, Lupu, Kempff et al, Frantz does not balance the score's blazing drama and inherent poetry with the same proficiency.

I was highly impressed with the warm and well balanced sound quality provided by the Deutsche Grammophon engineers. The annotation is decent enough and focuses mainly on Bernstein and his relationship with Deutsche Grammophon. Little is said about the works themselves which was rather disappointing..

Leonard Bernstein was unquestionably a twentieth century musician of unparalleled talents. This six disc set showcases the mature Bernstein at his finest with these Romantic interpretations of undoubted masterworks from Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann. A superb testament to Bernstein's art.

Michael Cookson



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