Leonard Bernstein: Historic Recordings 1941-1961
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
For complete track-listing please see end of review
WEST HILL RADIO ARCHIVES WHRA-6048 [11 CDs: 752:17 + CD-ROM]
This 11-CD set houses a plethora of performances and rehearsal material. I must, for the most part, lightly to skim across the surface of the music-making … and music-making it certainly is. Bernstein was incapable of lackadaisical performances or half-hearted approaches - or, at least, not here.
The first disc begins with something of an anomaly; a solo piano recording claimed to be Bernstein’s recording debut. This was made in May 1941 on a 78 put out by New Music Recordings. The music is David Diamond’s Prelude and Fugue No.3 and it’s a useful beginning revealing Bernstein’s solo prowess, his search for new music, and his encouragement - cajoling, caustic or benevolent - of compatriot composers. It’s a pity that the recording quality, or the state of the copy, is so crude. Following this we have a very excitable performance of Schumann’s Second Symphony (Boston Symphony, March 1946). He expends much drama here but much remains exaggerated. Though it’s certainly exciting the Scherzo is brash to a fault and there’s a note of the rhetorical in the slow movement. By no means neat-and-tidy, the finale has one by the seat of one’s pants. This is far more vigorous and unleashed than in Bernstein’s subsequent commercial recordings. The last track is a long 25-minute rehearsal from Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony (Boston Symphony, December 1948). Here one admires Bernstein the wordsmith drawing his players into the blaring forced vulgarity of the thing. ‘As brutally idiotic-sounding as possible’ is one instruction; ‘vomit it up’, even more startlingly, is another. His attention to detail, to dynamics and articulation, but also to the broad ‘meaning’ of the work - its precise characterisation - is both cogent and effective. One can hear that in the actual performance given later on the same day, in which he encourages the Bostonians to coarsen their playing the better to render up the work’s core. This is a worthy appendix to Bernstein’s 1962 New York studio recording.
Disc three opens with a 26-minute rehearsal sequence of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony (Boston, March 1949). The previous year he’d given Boston’s first performance of the work since 1918. It was a work with which he was to remain vividly associated and the studio discs remain imperishable examples of his art. This Boston rehearsal was part of an NBC ‘Dress Rehearsal’ series and we can hear him singing - grunting, really - Urlicht in default of a soloist as well as demonstrating his patient professionalism throughout. Instructions are precise and his insistence on perfectly shaped dynamics, with sectional dynamic balancing, is a constant feature once again here. The subsequent performance, given four days later, can be heard on disc 4. His soloists are Nan Merriman and Adele Addison, later to work closely with him in New York. A local critic noted that, even then, Bernstein was apt to sway and dance, indeed adding; ‘he seems to explode with the brasses’, which sounds right. The performance is vigorous and exciting though not perhaps as detailed as it was later to become. Maybe that’s a corollary of a live concert in which things weren’t quite nailed down exactly; Nigel Simeone’s outstanding booklet notes mention some raggedness chorally, which is true. But it’s a blip really rather than a let-down.
Before moving on to disc 5, one should also note that disc 3 contains a rehearsal of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.15 in B flat, K450 (Boston, November 1949) - mostly from the first movement. He was to make recordings of the work in 1956 and 1966 and this rehearsal reveals a work-in-progress not least when it comes to dynamics and to ensemble. There’s also a 26-minute rehearsal of Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony. ‘Have patience’ Bernstein appeals to the Bostonians in November 1949 in rehearsal for the world premiere which the same forces gave a few days later. Again this valuable segment derives from NBC’s ‘Dress Rehearsal’. Bernstein’s mentor Koussevitzky, who had commissioned the work, declared it to be ‘after Le Sacre de Printemps the greatest composition composed in our century …’ Bernstein is careful in his preparation and his thoroughly professional approach is in evidence throughout. It seems, though, that he was not overly taken by the work and he never conducted it again. No performance of the premiere is known to survive.
The 26-minute rehearsal of Ravel’s Piano Concerto again allows us access to Bernstein’s pianism and to the work he’d first performed publicly back in 1937 when he was studying at Harvard. The process of disseminating his views on colour and effect, and over rhythm and balance is here fascinatingly explicit. His coaxes the Bostonians with precision and clarity; a simple example occurs in his instructions about the trumpet flutter tongue ‘exaggeration’. He is not trying to break down the orchestra’s elegance, exactly, more trying to adapt it stylistically to a work he loved. The full results of his assiduous care can be savoured in the live performance given in New York five days later. As part of that same concert, Bernstein and the Bostonians gave a United Nations Concert in Carnegie Hall. Copland’s Preamble for a Solemn Occasion was performed, with Laurence Olivier narrating the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as if he were Lear on the Heath. There’s a very forgettable Shostakovich United Nations March in an arrangement by Jocobus Langendoen, a Boston cellist. We also hear, in this disc, an 18-minute finale excerpt from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. This is a truncated ‘Ode to Joy’ minus the orchestral introduction. Still, Merriman is the mezzo, Irma Gonzales the soprano, Raoul Jobin the tenor and Nicola Moscona the ever-dependable bass.
Disc 6 opens with a February 1950 New York Philharmonic performance of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. His recordings of the work were made in 1961 and live in 1983 but despite the slightly closed-in recorded sound - obviously not destined for commercial release - this performance, as does the Mahler Resurrection, captures Bernstein’s music-making at fast, lithe white-heat, and generating a tensile fluidity he was, arguably, not to repeat, on disc at least. He plays and directs Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto from the same concert. I’d rather he’d used a conductor as there are some unnecessary and point-making movements that someone like, say, Walter Susskind might have smoothed over. Incidentally, as part of these concerts Bernstein and Heifetz performed Walton’s Violin Concerto. Anyone have a tape?
Bernstein conducts Bernstein in Disc 7, in the shape of the Symphony No.2 The Age of Anxiety. This was the first New York performance of the work. Koussevitzky had conducted the premiere in Boston with Bernstein playing the piano part but here those honours are done by Lukas Foss. There’s slightly more of a dynamic quotient in this broadcast than in the studio recording made the following day though clearly the contours of the music-making are pretty much unchanged. The NYP performance of The Rite of Spring comes from February 1951 and is a fine performance, good in attack, sharply characterised, and alive, but somewhat let down by indifferent recorded sound. Weill’s Threepenny Opera is heard in the Marc Blitzstein version in performance at the Adolph Ullman Amphitheatre during a Brandeis University festival in June 1952. The sonics here are pretty ropey as one would have guessed, given the location. Still, Blitzstein narrates, there is lots of raucous applause and we have the decided advantage of Lotte Lenya heading the cast. This is the version’s world premiere performance so one needs to listen through some of the blasting and acetate damage to what was clearly, a few ensemble slips aside, an exciting evening.
Copland’s Short Symphony (No.2) starts Disc 9. It strongly plays to Bernstein’s strengths in terms of rhythmic vitality, vernacular speaking and intensity. The date of the recording is January 1957. Roy Harris’s American Creed (7 February 1959) tended to be written off as a pastiche of his Third Symphony by some unimpressed critics at the time. However that may be, listening to it now allows one to admire its noble and stirring qualities unimpeded by the need for critical judgements. Bernstein always admired his teacher Walter Piston, whose Concerto for Orchestra he played in this 1959 NYPO Carnegie Hall performance. It is a concerto grosso in effect, as Bernstein himself suggested, and is notable for its luminous intellectual rigour and control - not least a light-hearted central movement and a brassy expressive finale. Irving Fine’s Serious Song is a compact and rather beautiful work, eloquently performed by Bernstein and the Philharmonic in April 1959.
Shostakovich makes another appearance in Disc 10 where we hear the October 1945 recording session of the Fifth Symphony. Like the Billy the Kid recording session, which is also contained in this disc, it was made on 20 October 1959 and not in New York but in Symphony Hall, Boston. We hear long unedited takes with retakes and brief announcements. There is, in effect, nothing really new here as this is the music, a few fluffs apart, that was released commercially. The same is true of Billy the Kid. These are attractive things to have but I wouldn’t call them essential listening given the provenance. The final disc presents Carlos Chávez’s Fourth Symphony, a fine but not over-colourised work kept decidedly on-its-feet in this reading. One of Bernstein’s favourite singers, Jennie Tourel, joins him for four Mahler songs which she sings with artistry and craft. The final work in the set is Diamond’s Eighth Symphony. It’s a formidable work, tough, often granitic with a taut non-committal Adagio opening to the second section prefacing a brusque Theme and Variations. Diamond was good at fugues.
There is, in fact, a twelfth disc, a CD-R containing Simeone’s notes which you’ll want to read. Prepare, therefore, either to crank the handle of your computer drive every time you wish to do so or do like me and print out the lot, and then use a guillotine and fold the sheets into the pitiful simulacrum of a booklet. Then sit on the box for a week and it should all fit nicely.
Seriously, though, this is an exciting and important box. Not everything is equally important and one should be discriminating. Some recording sessions largely replicate the resultant studio discs. Other pieces remained staples of Bernstein’s repertoire for decades to come. Some of the music has been preserved in less than ideal sound. Taken together, this is a rewarding box that will, in large part, bear repeated listening. I enjoyed the rehearsals - do not on any account overlook them as they’re a fundamental part of this set’s success - and also the vivacity and energy of the young Bernstein. These qualities are there in abundance in the Resurrection Symphony, amongst others. His Ravel is marvellous. The Messiaen is historically important … and so on. Try it, if you’re fortunate enough, and in these straitened times be relieved that the 11 CDs are priced as for six.
Vivacity and energy and there in abundance.
Masterwork Index Beethoven Piano concerto 1 Mahler Symphony 2 Schumann Symphony 2 Shostakovich Symphony 7 Stravinsky The rite of spring
CD 1 [67:05]
David DIAMOND (1915-2005) Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C sharp
Leonard Bernstein (piano) rec. 1941
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856) Symphony No. 2 in C major [37:04]
rec. 23 March 1946, Symphony Hall, Boston
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60, ‘Leningrad’ - rehearsal [24:58]
rec. 22 December 1948, Symphony Hall, Boston
CD 2 [69:35]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60, ‘Leningrad’
rec. 22 December 1948, Symphony Hall, Boston
CD 3 [78:41]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) Symphony No. 2 in C minor, ‘Resurrection’ - rehearsal [26:11]
rec. 21 March 1949, Symphony Hall, Boston
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Piano Concerto No. 15 - rehearsal [26:02]
Leonard Bernstein (piano/conductor)
rec. 21 November 1949, Symphony Hall, Boston
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992) Turangalîla-Symphonie- rehearsal [26:29]
rec. 28 November 1949, Symphony Hall, Boston
CD 4 [79:53]
Gustav MAHLER Symphony No. 2 in C minor, ‘Resurrection’
Adele Addison (soprano); Nan Merriman (mezzo)
rec. 25 March 1949, Symphony Hall, Boston
CD 5 [73:16]
Maurice RAVEL(1875-1937) Piano Concerto in G - rehearsal [26:04]
rec. 5 December 1949, Symphony Hall, Boston
Leonard Bernstein (piano/conductor)
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990) Preamble for a Solemn Occasion [6:15]
Laurence Olivier (narrator)
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH arr. Langendoen United Nations on the March [2:05]
Maurice RAVEL Piano Concerto in G [20:41]
Leonard Bernstein (piano/conductor)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Symphony No. 9 in D minor, ‘Choral’ - Finale (excerpt) [18:07]
Irma Gonzales (soprano); Nan Merriman (mezzo); Raoul Jobin (tenor); Nicola Moscona (bass)
rec. 10 December 1949, Carnegie Hall, New York
CD 6 [64:49]
Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945) Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Sz 106, BB 114 [29:25]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 [35:20]
Leonard Bernstein (piano/conductor)
CD 7 [67:07]
Leonard BERNSTEIN(1981-1990) Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety [31:23]
Lukas Foss (piano)
Igor STRAVINSKY(1882-1971) The Rite of Spring [36:44]
rec. 18 February 1951, Carnegie Hall, New York
CD 8 [67:00]
Kurt WEILL (1900-1950) Three-Penny Opera (Blitzstein version)
Mark Blitzstein (narrator); Lotte Lenya (Jenny); Jo Sullivan (Polly Peachum); David Brooks (Macheath); George Matthews (Streetsinger/Tiger Brown); Anita Ellis (Lucy Brown); David Thomas (Mr Peachum); Mary Kreste (Mrs Peachum)
World Première. rec. 14 June 1952, Adolph Ullman Ampitheatre (Waltham MA)
CD 9 [52:36]
Aaron COPLAND Short Symphony - ‘Symphony No. 2’ [15:07]
rec. 27 January, 1957, Carnegie Hall, New York
Roy HARRIS (1898-1979) American Creed [14:08]
rec. 7 February, 1959, Carnegie Hall, New York
Walter PISTON (1894-1976) Concerto for Orchestra [12:58]
rec. 15 February, 1959, Carnegie Hall, New York
Irvine FINE (1914-1962) Serious Song [10:18]
rec. 19 April, 1959, Carnegie Hall, New York
CD 10 [62:57]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 - recording session [45:13]
Aaron COPLAND Billy the Kid - recording session [17:44]
rec. 20 October, 1959, Symphony Hall, Boston
CD 11 [69:18]
Carlos CHÁVEZ (1899-1978) Symphony No. 4, Sinfonia Romåntica [19:37]
Gustav MAHLER Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft [2:35]
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen [6:28]
Das irdische Leben (Des Knaben Wunderhorn) [2:38]
Um Mitternacht [7:07]
Jennie Tourel (mezzo)
rec. 8 February, 1960, Carnegie Hall, New York
David DIAMOND Symphony No 8 [30:48]
rec. 9 October 1961
CDs 1-5, Boston Symphony Orchestra’/Leonard Bernstein
CDs 6-11, New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
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