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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K 453* (1784) [35:32]
Symphony No. 39 in E flat major, K 543 (1788) [34:42]
Wiener Philharmoniker/Leonard Bernstein *(piano conductor)
rec. Grosser Musikvereinssaal, Vienna, 3-11 October 1981. DDD
Video Director: Humphrey Burton
NTSC 4:3 Colour; Region Code 0 (worldwide); PCM Stereo; DD 5.1; DTS 5.1
EUROARTS 2072098 [72:13]


Several DVDs feature Leonard Bernstein, but if you want to see and hear him playing the piano, there’s only this one. While not as well known as the last six concertos, No. 17 is in my view as fine as any of them. A good choice, too, for a soloist who isn’t a concert pianist; after all Mozart wrote it for a pupil, Barbara Ployer. This means it isn’t as technically demanding as the concertos Mozart wrote for himself yet still shows off the pianist’s talents.

And this is an accomplished performance. Bernstein, here at the age of 63, plays and conducts without score and you can appreciate his smiling enthusiasm for the lightness of overall approach yet also verve of accent where required. The wind players are unusually placed just for this concerto on the far right of the stage, where they and piano conductor can easily see one another. From the first movement orchestral introduction the strings are sweet and stylish, with an intimate feel even though the articulation in the passages for full orchestra is suitably lively. The second theme (tr. 2 1:58) leans slightly to give its singing nature a soulful touch. The piano’s entry is relaxed, smooth yet flowing. There’s fastidious differentiation, as you might expect, between those passages where the piano is accompanying the orchestra, e.g. from 4:45 and where they are equal partners, as from 5:08.

Bernstein fully realizes and always observes that the piano never dominates the orchestra in this work. If its material or expression needs special emphasis or clarity it has a solo. This doesn’t mean he isn’t capable, where warranted, of firm chords and left-hand work, as from 6:50. Yet by contrast he brings a lovely gentleness to his statement of the third theme at 8:50. The sheer grace of his playing at times is quite disarming. This is aided by the cool tone of the Bösendorfer piano. His playing of Mozart’s cadenza has by turns wistful reflection and melodic resilience.

In the slow movement you notice the warmth of the strings, the freshness of the wind, the affectionate approach and the easy, broad flow, albeit rather more Adagietto than the marked Andante. One element of the firm string bass is down to the rank of four double basses. The aria style of the piano solo has both poise and contemplation, though the showy ornament to the top E flat at tr. 3, 16:42 (continuous timing) is a distraction.

The joy of being a piano conductor is wonderfully caught. Bernstein is able in this role both to encourage expressiveness from the solo orchestral wind players - in this instance a rising figure stated in turn by bassoon, oboe and flute - and is then able to match it at 17:07 with the same emphasis and point on the piano. Immediately after this his pianism achieves a lovely sotto voce against whispering strings and in general the progress of this aria is a blend of delicacy and tension. Accept that there is a tendency lovingly to survey the trees and forget the wood and just enjoy. The cadenza here is fully introspective.

The finale is light, smiling and a demonstration of fine interplay between piano and orchestra. Mozart’s starling, who could whistle its theme, would have to do so very aristocratically in this company! In the first variation (27:03) the piano solo is gentle and playful, bolder in the second (27:46), in the third (28:28) of a more frolicking nature, inspired and noticeably nifty in echoing the woodwind. The fourth variation (29:22) is of a more clouded, musing nature, vividly contrasted by a slowing up of tempo. The fifth variation (30:27) is resolute. The coda (31:56), which at least starts very fast as marked, makes even more of a contrast because of the preceding slowing up.

Humphrey Burton’s direction makes for a well balanced mix of pianist, conductor and orchestral involvement. There are some particularly fine shots of Bernstein’s hands, in the slow movement cadenza with one rear angle shot almost from underneath them as they play.

I compared the only other recording of this concerto currently available in the UK, that by Dezso Ranki with the English Chamber Orchestra/Jeffrey Tate (Brilliant Classics 92819). This is also from a concert in Vienna, in this case the Austrian Imperial Palace at Schönbrunn, a reminder that the work was written for that city. Here are the comparative timings:-

Timings

I

 II

III

tt

Bernstein

12:38

12:47

10:07

35:32

Ranki

12:07

11:12

7:51

31:35

Tate, aged 48, and Ranki, who was 40 years of age in 1991, the copyright date of the DVD, give us crisper, more streamlined Mozart. In the first movement the singing lines are clear. The second theme is sufficiently smooth but the momentum is kept up. There’s more edge to the performance, partly because a smaller orchestra – only two double basses on view here – can play with more attack without being strident. The Hungarian pianist Ranki plays a Steinway piano so his tone is more crystalline than Bernstein’s. He’s admirably fluent but not as poetic as Bernstein. This is partly because he seems less able to relax until, paradoxically and to very pleasing effect, he gets to the cadenza.

He achieves a moving inwardness in his solos in the slow movement and displays a plainer, purer singing line than Bernstein’s. The clarity and expressiveness of the ECO wind playing is also appreciable. But generally Bernstein finds greater subtlety and nuance, partly through a visibly and aurally closer relationship with the orchestra. Ranki’s cadenza is, however, very successful though quite different from Bernstein’s. Ranki’s is glistening and extrovert.

The finale finds Ranki and Tate at their most engaging. The orchestral introduction is witty in its pert pointing. Ranki shows stylish line in variation 1. The second variation is vivacious with a whiff of abandon about it. In the fourth, not slower, Tate uses the minor key to give a tinge of exotic colouring, not to change the tone like Bernstein does. There’s the same mix of camera shots but the camera work is less stylish than for Bernstein, perhaps partly owing to the location. Sound quality is similar, both DVDs being available in surround sound, but the Vienna Philharmonic’s tone is richer and blend smoother. So all in all I find Bernstein’s more leisurely performance more attractive.

The second item on this DVD, Symphony 39, is essentially the same interpretation as Bernstein’s CD live recording made at the same time and now available in a Deutsche Grammophon Trio set (474 3492). But a different team produced this DVD, with different editing criteria, so it’s not absolutely the same. The CD timing at 32:46 is nearly two minutes shorter and, while this may be accounted for partly by the shortening of natural pauses in the concert, including violins quickly retuning for the finale, the DVD performance is itself slower. I timed just the music of the first movement introduction which is 3:01 against the CD’s 2:53. While the CD has more body, there’s more brightness and resilience in the DVD sound, though that might partly be an effect of the surround sound available with the DVD. In any event I prefer its greater vibrancy.

It also tells you much about the role of the conductor. I was reminded of Andre Previn’s story about Pierre Monteux. Previn was rehearsing the London Symphony Orchestra and Monteux asked him “Are they playing all right?”. When Previn said yes, Monteux responded “Then try not to get in the way.” Often, as in the finale here, Bernstein’s role is surprisingly often ‘hands off’, just a matter of encouragement and telepathic enjoyment, or if you prefer, bouncing back in your enjoyment as conductor the enjoyment you wish the players to have and convey.

In the Minuet it’s about bounce and firmness of accent. In the slow movement it’s regularity of overall flow then shaping of phrases and especially the cadences, the ends of phrases. In the first movement, and often later, it’s about revelling in the sheer panache of the Vienna Philharmonic – the double bass tally now at six, by the way – and just letting them play. The result is splendid attack which is also stylish.

There are some characterful Bernstein moments. An imploring kiss (tr. 5 46:08) at the first violins at a quiet passage at the end of the recapitulation of the first movement first theme. Looking like a sculpture of a weeping saint (tr. 6 54:29) during the flute solo in the slow movement. But this is all within the framework of a response to the music that’s so heartfelt and affectionate; how could the players, like us viewers, not respond? But, let me emphasise, Bernstein very much trusts the players most of the time to present the firm and full sound that they do.

It’s a fine performance with all repeats observed. In the first movement introduction the breadth and sleek grace of the first violin line is quite arresting in response to the ceremonial fanfares of pomp and weight. The insistent quaver/semiquaver rest/semiquaver rhythm is shown to be a very effective device in securing the tension with its alternating soft and loud delivery well realized. The first theme of the main body of the movement enters smoothly (tr. 5, 39:33) but is soon supported by the beaming strength of trumpets and horns which have splendour without glare. The strings are as vigorous as you could wish in these louder passages yet can show a winsome, smiling sheen in the second theme at 41:07. The development is brief and here rugged before an intimate, affectionate return to the first theme. However, the later violins’ descents are more racily, even precipitously, delivered.

The slow movement, not that slow as it’s marked Andante con moto, has some momentum as well as fastidiousness in its silky first violins, becoming more wistful and a touch slower towards the end of the first theme’s second strain. The second theme (tr. 6 51:07) is at first stormier but come the idyllic second part featuring clarinets (52:19) the storm seems something of an aberration. The woodwind writing in the development is perhaps savoured a little over-indulgently.

The Minuet, on the other hand, goes with a fair zip and the clarity of texture is appreciable. The trio glories in a glowing, singing clarinet which is presented in a pleasingly contrasted softer focus in its second part. The finale is bouncily festive, its second theme (tr. 8 63:22) providing a little relief in its courtly playfulness. The development is mettlesome and the perky bassoon in the recapitulation a particular joy.

I compared the Vienna Philharmonic 12 years earlier, conducted by Karl Böhm in 1969 (DG 004400734133). Here are the comparative timings

Timings

I

 II

III

IV

tt

Bernstein

12:03

9:51

4:13

8:26

34:42

Böhm

8:44 (11:14)

7:49 (8:44)

4:20

4:23 (8:24)

25:16

Böhm, then aged 75, looks much faster than Bernstein but in fact it is because he omits the first movement exposition repeat, the slow movement repeat of the second strain of the first theme and both exposition and second half repeats in the finale. I’ve put in brackets in the heading the timing effect of including these repeats. Böhm is still faster, except in the Minuet, markedly so in the slow movement.

Böhm’s approach, admirable in its way, is much more rigorously classical than Bernstein’s. Structurally it’s very explicit with great thematic clarity yet fewer smooth contours. The sound, also available in surround, is well rounded and full-bodied but rather dominated by the strings’ sheen. Filmed in studio conditions with orchestra and conductor marooned on a specially constructed attempt at architectural modernism, there’s a feel of the laboratory about it. There may be a glimmer of a smile on Böhm’s countenance once or twice, but I might just have wished for it.

The first movement introduction lacks the tension of Bernstein’s. The slow movement second theme is more alert but by no means stormy. Böhm’s Minuet is a little more solid. When Bernstein bounces, Böhm chugs along. His trio, however, is consistently mellifluous. And his finale is scintillating with a kind of military precision. For Böhm, classical means neat and a touch severe.

Bernstein is altogether more yielding and, in any case, isn’t upholding a classical ideal. As this Euroarts DVD booklet note appositely quotes him: “Classical music by a great Romantic, eternally modern music by a great Classicist.” It’s as good a way as any of trying to describe Bernstein’s vividly coloured and dramatic manner which is nevertheless underpinned by a fundamental classicism. I wouldn’t term it a challenge to historically informed performance. Rather Bernstein applies the Vienna Philharmonic’s luxury veneer to his highly responsive approach to Mozart and does so to distinctive effect.

Michael Greenhalgh



 


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