Leonard Bernstein Conducts
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840–1893)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor Op. 36 [40:38]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Egmont Overture Op. 84 [8:27]
Maurice RAVEL (1875–1937)
La Valse [12:06]
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
rec. New York City 1958 (Tchaikovsky); Leningrad 28 August 1959 (Beethoven); Moscow 24 August 1959 (Ravel)

DYNAMIC IDIS 6577 [61:08]

I recently reviewed another IDIS (Dynamic) CD of 1950s performances digitally remastered by Danilo Prefumo; that was an album of Hans Knappertsbusch conducting Wagner. I made the comment that some noise-reduction technologies, used today to remove clicks, pops and other surface noise from source recordings, can also reduce the dynamic range, sap the final product of vibrancy and presence, and generally result in a “flat” sound. Even more than the Wagner disc, this release validates all of those complaints.

A pity, because these are very good performances of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, Beethoven’s Egmont overture, and Ravel’s La Valse, all taken from live broadcasts by the New York Philharmonic and a young (barely 40 years old) Leonard Bernstein. The Tchaikovsky sports a volcanic first movement, hard-driven and emotionally volatile; well-characterized and somehow Italianate pizzicato playing in the scherzo; and lushly romantic string playing in the finale (starting at 4:14). The brass are shaky in the first-movement introduction but after that initial blip the NYPO plays impeccably for the duration; the final coda justifiably sends the audience into a frenzy, although it is a curious fact of the remastering that the applause has more presence and power than the music did.

The Beethoven and Ravel are from a NYPO tour of the Soviet Union in August 1959; Egmont was recorded in Leningrad and La Valse in Moscow. There are no liner notes, so I cannot tell you much about the circumstances behind this cultural occasion. But the Beethoven is a good, if not particularly notable, performance in the grand tradition (broad tempi, big orchestral sound), again hampered by the constricted sound, especially at big moments when the whole orchestra clamors to be heard. The from-the-deep beginning of La Valse, on the other hand, is probably about as clear as we could ask for, and the performance is excellent, though maybe not as sensual, opulent, or “Gallic” as Dutoit (Decca) or Boulez (DG). The main sonic defect here is that the percussion entrances tend to “break up” the sound at moments like 2:30 and 3:50.

The performances, then, are as good as you would expect from Bernstein and his orchestra, but casual collectors will really have no reason to choose this disc over the abundant competition. Bernstein himself recorded all of these works in the studio, although the New York Tchaikovsky Fourth on Sony is very different from this one: a suspenseful slow burn taking 47 minutes to this performance’s 41; comparing the two is indeed fascinating. If you’re a Bernstein collector, then, don’t hesitate. But exciting, artistically distinguished recordings can be had in crisp digital sound featuring conductors like Dutoit on Decca and Boulez on DG (Ravel), Immerseel, Dausgaard and Judd (Beethoven), or Ivan Fischer, Daniele Gatti, and Mariss Jansons in the Tchaikovsky.

If you’re a Bernstein aficionado, or want to hear the substantial differences between his live and studio Tchaikovsky, this is a good album to have on the shelf. But there are many great performances of these works, in better sound and perhaps with more enticing couplings. The choice is yours.

Brian Reinhart

Great performances but I have no fondness for the remastering… see Full Review