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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Le Sacre du Printemps (1910-13)
Capriccio for piano and orchestra (1928-29)
Symphony of Psalms (1930)
Michel Béroff (piano)
The English Bach Festival Chorus (Symphony)
London Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
rec. 8 April 1972, Royal Albert Hall, London.
Region Code 0; Picture Format 4:3; DVD Format NTSC. Sound: Enhanced Mono

In 2012 my colleague, Dan Morgan gave a most enthusiastic reception to a DVD that preserved a 1966 performance of Le Sacre by the LSO and Leonard Bernstein (review). I’ve not seen that performance but if it’s anything like this present one I can well understand Dan’s reaction. Unlike that 1966 reading, which was filmed in black and white, this more recent performance was shot in colour. The production was done by ITV for its ‘Aquarius’ arts programme, and was produced and directed by Bernstein biographer, Humphrey Burton, who has written the booklet notes.

This concert took place on the first anniversary of Stravinsky’s death and the involvement of the English Bach Festival Chorus is worthy of comment. We learn from Burton’s notes that the concert was put on by the English Bach Festival, whose inspirational founder, Lina Lalandi, had persuaded Stravinsky to succeed Albert Schweitzer as president of the Festival in 1966. On Stravinsky’s death she sweet-talked Bernstein into succeeding him and this was his inaugural concert in that role. Bernstein returned at least once more to conduct at the Festival: ICA Classics have previously released on DVD a fine Bach/Stravinsky concert that he gave as part of the 1977 Festival (review). As far as I know, Bernstein was the last president of the Festival: no one was appointed to replace him when he died in 1990.

A few days after this concert Lennie and the LSO made a studio recording of Le Sacre in London. Humphrey Burton relates that this was done using experimental quadrophonic surround-sound techniques. That probably accounts for the ‘wacky’ perspectives that Jonathan Woolf noted in his review and which led him to conclude that, as an audio version, Bernstein’s 1958 New York recording was a safer bet (review). Happily, there are no ‘wacky’ balances here: I’m unsure exactly what is meant by the term ‘enhanced mono’ but the sound is perfectly acceptable.

As we aren’t told otherwise I assume that the concert programme was presented in the same order as we see and hear it on the DVD. Though, at first sight, it may seem odd not to end with Le Sacre I suspect that Bernstein felt the solemnity of Symphony of Psalms was more appropriate to what was, after all, a memorial concert: a note in the booklet records that he specifically requested no applause at the end of that work.

The performance of Le Sacre is superb. The LSO is on top form, offering razor-sharp response: the woodwinds are supple and agile; the brass is potent; and the contribution of principal timpanist, Kurt-Hans Goedicke is imperious and marvellously incisive. As for Bernstein, he controls the complex score superbly. Under his direction there’s no danger whatsoever that the performance will lack any animal intensity or excitement. So, for example, he drives the ‘Danse de la terre’ at the end of Part I thrillingly and the ‘Danse sacrale’ at the very end is abandoned, brazen and cathartic. However, what impresses just as much is the fastidious care that he takes over the quiet passages, balancing every strand with minute attention to detail. Thus the opening of Part II is pregnant with atmosphere and ‘Le sage’ is mysterious and sinister. The very opening of the work is an object lesson in how to direct the complex, intertwining woodwind lines, though Lennie doesn’t appear to do very much: clearly, all the work has been done beforehand in rehearsal. As you’d expect, his conducting can be very animated and it’s not always conventional – at one point early in Part I he conducts by shrugging with his whole body in time to the music. Yet one never feels that his gesticulations represent playing to the gallery; everything he does seems relevant to the music. This is ‘total immersion’ conducting in which the maestro lives every bar of the score.

The result of all this is a magnetic performance which is full of the primitive savagery and energy of the music but which also reminds us that Stravinsky’s score contains a wealth of subtle detail. On this kind of form I wonder if there has ever been a conductor better equipped to translate Stravinsky’s vision into aural reality.

After the interval – I presume – the Albert Hall audience heard two works which, as Burton points out in his notes, were composed in immediate proximity to each other and which require significantly reduced forces as compared to Le Sacre. Michel Béroff, looking very youthful indeed – he was twenty-one at the time – is an agile and effective soloist in the quirky Capriccio. Here again one notices the scrupulous way in which Bernstein balances the accompaniment with its unusual, piquant orchestration. The first of the three movements is light and fleet-footed and after the more serious tone of the middle movement the toccata-like finale is given a spirited and well-pointed reading. This was a shrewd piece of programme planning. By no means is the work slight yet in this context it acts almost like a sorbet between the other two pieces on the programme.

Finally Bernstein gives us Symphony of Psalms. For this the LSO, again in reduced numbers, is joined by the English Bach Festival Chorus. This choir is quite large but that was probably the right decision for this hall and they do a good job. Bernstein invests the austere music of the first movement, ‘Exaudi orationem meum’ with no little power, building the tension as the movement unfolds. There’s rather a lot of audience noise in the extended woodwind introduction to the second movement, which is a pity for this section gives us another example of Lennie’s careful shaping. The psalm that’s set here is ‘Expectans expectavi Dominum’ and Bernstein does indeed invest the music with a real sense of expectancy. Once again the cumulative power of this movement in his hands is striking. There’s excellent tension in the slow introduction to ‘Alleluia. Laudate Dominum’. Once the music speeds up the delivery is very crisp and powerful. Bernstein brings off the slow, solemn ending very well indeed. At the end he lays down his baton and departs the stage, quelling the little outbreak of applause with a gesture of his hand and blowing a kiss of gratitude to his chorus as he passes.

This concert is a great exhibition of Bernstein at work. He obtains splendid performances and generates a genuine sense of occasion.

ICA’s presentation is disappointing in some respects. The sound is perfectly satisfactory. The camera work is good – straightforward and unobtrusive. Humphrey Burton’s booklet note is interesting. Where the presentation falls down is the lack of attention to documentary detail. The track list gives no timings nor does it offer the titles of individual movements. Furthermore, though Le Sacre is divided into eight separate tracks and each of the other works into three tracks, there’s no reference to that in the booklet. Worst of all is the complete absence of subtitles or sung texts – the former would be preferable. So not only do viewers get no idea what the choir is singing – unless they are familiar with the Latin words – but also there are no indications as to which section of Le Sacre is being played. Subtitles may not have been on the original ITV film but surely they could have been added using modern technology.

In one respect, however, modern technology has saved the day. A booklet note explains that in Symphony of Psalms two visual sequences were beyond restoration – though apparently, and thankfully, there were no such issues with the audio track. These two passages have been rectified by incorporating visual images of Bernstein’s annotated score of Symphony of Psalms. This has been done skilfully. I can assure readers that these passages are brief and in no way do these brief interruptions to the pictures of the concert impair one’s enjoyment, nor do they distract. In fact, this is a very elegant solution to the problem.

John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Le Sacre du Printemps