Archives unveil new Bernstein gems

Newly issued live performances among his best

On the 10th anniversary of his death, America's favorite conductor, Broadway composer, and musical pied piper Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) has never been more missed.

Commemorative events have included a rather tentative four-concert series by the New York Philharmonic, the orchestra that never managed to find someone of his caliber after he left its musical directorship in 1969 to devote more time to composition.

Although the Philharmonic has been producing archival sets for some time, only now has the obvious Bernstein tribute appeared. The 10-CD set (NYP 2003/13 available by phone at 800-557-8268 for $195.00) consists of never-before-available live recordings of repertory from Mozart to Stravinsky.

Browsers at the bins in CD shops who marvel at the hundreds and hundreds of Bernstein titles already available may wonder why the world needs more Lenny-philia.

But like all musicians, Bernstein must be judged by the best works he left to posterity, and some of these newly published recordings are certainly among his best.

They include a brisk high-stepping Elgar "Cockaigne" overture and dynamic excerpts from Wagner's "Gotterdammerung" with the stalwart soprano Eileen Farrell. Bernstein had made studio recordings of other works by Elgar and Wagner, but they were slow and heavy, the kind of funeral march approach he often favored after 1978.

In that year, his wife, Felicia, died. His subsequent health problems were sometimes reflected in performances, casting a pall that made slow tempos almost unendurably languid.

By contrast, these Philharmonic archival gems are spiffily energetic.

They feature works he never recorded elsewhere, or not until he struggled with fatigue. Examples are winning readings of Hindemith's "Mathis der Maler" symphony and Benjamin Britten's "Spring Symphony," which have rarely been put across with this kind of infectious charm.

Even more remarkable are the world-premiere performances here of works like Henze's Fifth Symphony and Ives' Second Symphony. Bernstein reminds us of his uncanny gift for conveying to an audience why he loved a particular piece of music and of persuading them to love it, too.

This rare gift even extends to challenging works like Varese's clangy "Arcana" and Boulez's arid "Improvisation sur Mallarme I."

There are missteps here, such as his ill-advised attempt to play a tinny harpsichord in Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, or a Bruckner Sixth Symphony hampered by too much urban angst.

The compilers, led by archivist Sedgwick Clark and a number of Philharmonic execs, probably went overboard in including Bernstein's spoken introductions to a variety of avant-garde pieces, where the spiel is often longer than the music, and sometimes even harder to take.

But overall this set is a revelation of unsuspected quality from a performer who never hid his talents under a bushel, and a sign that the Bernstein we thought we knew reserves some posthumous surprises still.

Other record companies may be getting the same idea - like Deutsche Grammophon, which routinely recorded Bernstein's later performances and issued a vast quantity of them, edited and with studio retakes tacked on.

Its new commemorative six CD-set, "Leonard Bernstein: The Legend Lives On" (DG 469 460-2), contains a never-before-released Mozart Piano Concerto No. 17, which Bernstein leads from the piano with real panache and style.

It had been buried until now in the archives of Deutsche Grammophon, which could not figure what to add to it in order to fill out a CD. Such are the vagaries of the music industry, which can obscure a musician's full legacy.

These commemorative sets create a happy occasion to focus on what Bernstein will be remembered for: his great and irreplaceable musicality.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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