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Franz SCHUBERT (1797Ė1827)
Symphony No.9 in C, The Great, D944 (1825) [47:24]
Maurice RAVEL (1875Ė1937)
Piano Concerto in G (1930/1931) [20:36]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
Philharmonia Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein (piano; conductor)
rec. 1957 Boston, Mass. (Schubert); 1 July 1946, London. ADD
Experience Classicsonline

Leonard Bernstein was certainly a phenomenon. It seemed that he could do anything; teach, conduct, compose, play the piano, write books, lecture. Later in life, to quote the booklet notes, he got ďÖ carried away by the show business ÖĒ, thought that he was Gustav Mahler re-incarnated, and had the unfortunate habit of self indulgence. However, in his early career there was a vitality and the spark of inspiration in everything he did and this burnt bright and clear. Here are two very special performances, where Bernstein is firing on all cylinders and everything is just right.

The Schubert gets off to a good start with the slow introduction, well-paced and given in a rock steady tempo, never diverting from it and setting the scene for what follows. The transition to the Allegro section is masterly and off we go. The tempo is just about perfect, a spritely two-in-a-bar, the woodwind hemiolas perfectly articulated. Splendid stuff and we can only lament that the exposition isnít repeated for who wouldnít want to be allowed to hear more of this excellent music making? The tension is well controlled throughout the development section, the dissonances coming as shocks within the tonal context, then the almost nonchalant move into the recapitulation, with quiet concentration. Best of all, is the way Bernstein slightly increases the tempo for the coda, as he should, almost hitting the perfect one-in-a-bar tempo, allowing the music to dance along, making the most of the final statement of the big horn theme when it reappears to close the movement, and not allowing the music to descend into a banal rallentando through the final chords. Bravo. Bravo. Bravo. This is, quite simply, a magnificent performance. 

Some may find Bernsteinís tempo for the slow movement a bit on the fast side; itís certainly faster than the walking pace Iím sure Schubert had in mind, but you accept it quite quickly and when you do it works well. There is certainly no hint of hurrying and the climaxes are very well built. 

The scherzo is held back a little and Bernsteinís tempo really allows every note to be heard. The precision of the playing is marvellous. Thereís fire in the belly of this interpretation, a feeling of not all being well, itís disturbing for we start to realize that this isnít a pleasant little dance, itís another of Schubertís unconscious Totentanzs which I feel in much of his later music, the result of his being told, in 1823, that he had contracted syphilis and that his days were numbered. The finale is given at breakneck speed, high in tension, thrilling, disturbing, elemental. 

Bernstein chooses one tempo for each movement and sticks to it rigidly, which makes for more cohesion within each section, and doesnít allow for any romantic wallowing, which can so easily creep into this music. 

This is an interpretation given at white heat, and itís the nearest, with the exception of GŁnther Herbig at the Proms some twenty years ago, any conductor has come to my view of an ideal interpretation of this difficult score. The recorded sound isnít brilliant - it must come from a radio broadcast but we are given no details, indeed the front of the booklet tells us it was given in 1958 and the rear of the box states 1957! Ė in fact itís a bit muddy; but who cares. This performance is tremendous!

Playing and conducting Ravelís G major Piano Concerto was one of Bernsteinís party pieces and he first gave it in London in 1946. Itís a real winner. This performance is lively and most enjoyable, thereís a freshness to it which, for me, is lacking in his later Sony recording with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra Ö good though that performance is. However, surely this isnít a live performance as the release tells us but the studio recording Bernstein made in London for the date given for the performance is also the date he made the 78s! The recording also sounds as if it comes from 78s made in a studio rather than a live performance. This transfer is not of the best, thereís some distortion and a bit of wow, but the performance shines through. This recording is available elsewhere but donít let that put you off getting your hands on this stunning Schubert 9, The Great C major, the Great Bernstein.

Bob Briggs


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