Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Magnificat in D, BWV 243 [32:36]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) Mass* [20:30]
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
IDÉALE AUDIENCE DVD 3085308 [56:00]

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, ‘Quia fecit’.

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 results.

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.

John Quinn

An unfamiliar view of Leonard Bernstein conducting small scale works with great care and affection.