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The magical touch of the Bernstein baton

By Thor Eckert Jr. / July 25, 1985



Lenox, Mass.

Leonard Bernstein is an event. Whether on TV, on records, or in the concert hall, he garners attention and audiences. Last weekend at Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony in the verdant Massachusetts Berkshire Mountains, he conducted the annual Serge and Olga Koussevitsky Memorial Concert, and more than 15,000 people showed up. There can also be no question that Mr. Bernstein is one of the most impressive and exciting conductors before the public today.

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The Tanglewood weekend was interesting for many reasons. Bernstein conducted a magnificent Brahms First Symphony, one that evoked Koussevitsky's style and even sound as heard on the remarkable recordings with the Boston Symphony. Charles Dutoit, music director of the Montreal Symphony, offered a superb account of Berlioz's ``Symphonie fantastique''; he was joined in a rare nonoperatic appearance by Tatiana Troyanos, one of the leading mezzos of the day, singing the same composer's ``Les Nuits d''et'e.' ' And then there was the story of Polish pianist Marek Drewnowski, who was making his American debut on Bernstein's all-Brahms program, playing the First Piano Concerto (D minor, Op. 15).

The Drewnowski story captured the hearts of Tanglewood patrons, who by concert time Saturday evening were reciting it to friends and seat-neighbors in case they hadn't heard. The tale begins in New York one evening in 1984, when maestro Bernstein was listening to WNCN in New York. He heard a performance of some Scarlatti sonatas that attracted his attention. All he got of the pianist's name was ``ski'' and the Polish label. The station eventually tracked down the recording, a Polskie Nagrania release th at had been substituted at the very last instant for something altogether different.

Deutsche Grammophon (DG) records in Hannover, West Germany, called Poland, only to be given vague answers: It seems Mr. Drewnowski had moved to Italy several years earlier. A few days later, the Hannover phone rang. A voice said something like ``This is Marek Drewnowski, and some joker is trying to tell me that Leonard Bernstein wants to meet me.''

They finally met in Milan (the pianist was living in Rome) when the composer-conductor was supervising the Italian premi`ere of his opera ``A Quiet Place.'' Bernstein offered the Tanglewood date for Drewnowski's US debut.

The pianist made a good impression under very difficult circumstances -- an unknown makes his United States debut in one of the leading summer music festivals, with one of the most celebrated conductors in the world. Nor was the pianist helped by Bernstein taking a slowish, Angst-ridden view of the Brahms concerto, a view that can be communicated meaningfully only when soloist and conductor see eye to eye. Drewnowski was not the pianist for this sort of performance, though he is clearly a

musical and thoughtful performer. In the quiet, introspective moments his playing was eloquent, tasteful, communicative, beautiful. One felt throughout that a gentler concerto -- Chopin, perhaps -- would have shown him off to splendid advantage.

Bernstein's set of the four Brahms symphonies on DG records (2741 023 -- digital) is one of the best available -- for his rich insights, his heartfelt, romantic way with the music, and the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic. At Tanglewood, his First was the equal of the one on that set. He challenges the Boston Symphony players to give their best, and throughout the performance there were sounds and textures one has not heard from this ensemble in quite some time. In fact, there were moments in the stri ng playing that recalled the best of Koussevitsky's recordings -- particularly a Brahms Third where the strings almost burn with intensity. Koussevitsky, it should be noted, championed the very young Bernstein, and through the memory of Koussevitsky, the Bernstein-BSO relationship has remained special. By the fourth movement the orchestra hit top form, and Bernstein was able to guide it to majestic heights.

Unfortunately, the Sunday afternoon concert, under the baton of Charles Dutoit, never really caught wing. A ponderous programming decision placed a Handel orchestral concerto and Mozart's ``Posthorn Serenade'' (D major, K. 320) back to back -- 13 movements of similar music on the first half of the program.

The Schubert Second went well enough, but the special qualities Dutoit brings to his musicmaking were heard to best advantage during the all-Berlioz concert. He accompanied Miss Troyanos with care and poetry. She had her share of troubles with some of the songs, while in others she proved gripping, imaginative, and daring in her use of vibratoless tones and other potentially unattractive effects to make her dramatic points.

Dutoit's ``Symphonie fantastique'' was in the grand French tradition heard on recordings of Pierre Monteux and Charles Munch (both former BSO music directors) -- everything in superb balance, rhythmically alert, musically nuanced, elegant, tempestuous. If the ``Witches Sabbath'' movement lacked the ultimate in frenzy and frightening imagery, Dutoit compensated with thrilling propulsiveness, superb articulation of orchestral colors and blends, and a clarity of sound that allowed all the Berlioz orches tral effects to be heard (and felt) clearly.