Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Magnificat in D, BWV 243 [32:36] Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Anny Mory (soprano); Patricia Parker (mezzo); Rodney Hardesty (counter-tenor);
John Mitchinson (tenor); Paul Hudson (bass)
English Bach Festival Chorus; *Trinity Boys Choir
English Bach Festival Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
rec. live, 16 April 1977, St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn
Latin, English, French, German subtitles
Region Code 0; Picture Format NTSC/4:3
There’s a photograph of Leonard Bernstein in rehearsal on the
box of this DVD. It shows the sort of view that many people
might feel is typical of him. It could scarcely be less
appropriate to the two performances that are preserved here.
You will look in vain for the perspiring, emotional Bernstein
that one has seen conducting, say, Mahler or Tchaikovsky. Instead
what we see is a much more restrained maestro but one who is
no less engaged with the music. Bernstein is neat, dapper even,
in a black tuxedo. He is very economical in his gestures, though
he becomes somewhat more animated as the Bach piece progresses.
The impression given is of a man who is enjoying directing two
quite intimate performances. He takes evidently scrupulous care
over the detail of both works, being, perhaps, especially watchful
in the Stravinsky.
I have no idea how Bernstein came to be conducting a fairly
small-scale concert in St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn for the
English Bach Festival in 1977. Classic Archive’s “documentation”
is inadequate, containing no notes whatsoever about either the
music or the performances themselves. Apart from technical details
about the DVD and production credits, they provide nothing more
than the names of the performers and a track-listing. I can’t
readily recall seeing such woefully inadequate documentation
accompanying a premium release.
Having got that out of my system, what of the performances?
Bernstein is pretty steady in the tempi he adopts for the Bach.
The speeds for several movements – especially the faster ones
-are significantly slower than one is accustomed to hearing
nowadays. At first I found this disconcerting but my ears soon
adjusted and though some of the speeds may verge on the stately
– the opening chorus, for example – the music always has life.
With the exception of John Mitchinson I can’t remember hearing
– or hearing of – any of the soloists but all do well. I do
part company with Bernstein a couple of times when he makes
a significant rallentando at the end of a movement –
the very end of the work is one place where he does this. The
other rather glaring example occurs at the end of the bass aria,
If you want evidence of the great care that Bernstein takes
over this performance watch the ‘Suscepit Israel’ movement.
This is sung by the ladies of the chorus and the conductor shapes
every single phrase with loving care. This is not to imply that
the music doesn’t flow or that Bernstein is micro-managing;
neither is the case. At the end of the Magnificat I had the
distinct impression that Bernstein had greatly enjoyed conducting
a piece that mattered to him and that he was pleased with the
The forces required for Stravinsky’s Mass are modest; the choir
is accompanied by an ensemble of five woodwind and five brass
players. Here, the English Bach Festival Choir takes a breather
and gives way to Trinity Boys Choir. It’s a difficult work in
every sense and makes significant demands on the choir and on
the various soloists drawn from it. To be honest, I’m not really
the best person to comment on this performance because I’m afraid
that this particular work by Stravinsky – austere and Spartan
– leaves me cold. At the very start I wondered if the Trinity
trebles were a little bit tentative – and who could blame them
if they were in the face of this challenging score – but any
confidence issues are soon laid to rest, I think, and the singing
is good. In this I think the choir is helped immeasurably by
Bernstein. He stands quite close to the performers and conducts
with great precision and clarity. One has the impression that
the performance has been scrupulously prepared and at the end
the maestro seems fully satisfied.
The performances originated in a BBC TV programme, ‘The lively
Arts: Bernstein at the English Bach Festival’; in those days
the BBC used to take music on television seriously. The director
was Brian Large and his direction and the camera-work are both
excellent. For many people, used to seeing Leonard Bernstein
conducting the world’s leading orchestras in big symphonic works
these performances will probably come as a revelation – as they
did to me. It’s almost as if we see here the private rather
than the public face of Bernstein. This DVD offers an unfamiliar
view of Leonard Bernstein conducting small-scale works with
great care and affection and, as such, it’s an important document.
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