Yesterday, I accidentally came across a YouTube video of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the finale of Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 88, which is one of the composer’s bounciest, most ebullient movements, and therefore one of the bounciest, most ebullient in all music. And I was transfixed: After a tiny initial tempo beat with the baton, the conductor dropped his arms and stood there, letting the orchestra play the entire movement, indicating directions entirely with facial expressions. (Link here).
He was conducting with his face. It was brilliant. Every fleeting emotion played across his face, as if he were the music. And each expression came a half-second before the orchestra reacted, so Bernstein wasn’t following the music, but leading it. Extraordinary. It was one of the best performances of that finale I’ve ever heard, with a naturalness and clarity, but more important, a joy and spontaneity.
I go back a long way with Lenny. When I was a mere bairn, I watched him on the Young People’s Concerts and I remember his explanation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the Omnibus TV show. I was just six years old in 1954, so I don’t remember much of what he said, but I remember the set, with the score of the symphony on the floor, so he could position his players on their staffs to show what they were doing. I was fascinated.
Since then, Lenny has been a part of my life. Sometimes a small part, in the background, sometimes I spent extra money to buy one of his recordings over a cheaper Turnabout or Vox recording, with the trust that I would be rewarded by something special. I usually was.
I heard Lenny conduct at New York’s Philharmonic Hall (later Avery Fisher Hall, now David Geffen Hall — it changes as much as the names on ballparks). I remember a rousing version of Debussy’s La Mer with the New York Phil. But mostly, I heard Lenny via recordings, first LP and then CD. There were also videos and TV presentations.
I don’t deny that Lenny talking could be hard to take, with that resonant basso voice that he seemed to be in love with, and sometimes a ham actor’s thesbianicity. But if you can get past that surface, what he says is almost always revelatory, precise, and true. I listen to his Harvard lectures over and over, and despite some tedious Chomskian linguistic folderol, really insightful. (He drops the Chomsky in the latter lectures, thank god).
But it is the music that really counts. For many, Bernstein was the great podium presence of the second half of the 20th century. The singer Christa Ludwig, who performed with Lenny often, once said she worked with three truly great conductors: Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan and Bernstein, but the difference was, she said, “Bernstein was a genius.”
Others have commented that when he conducted, he “became” the music. A member of the Vienna Philharmonic told my old friend, the late music critic Dimitri Drobatschewsky, “Name one other conductor who, just by standing in front of the orchestra, could make them play better than they thought they could.” Bernstein seemed to have a special relationship with the Vienna Phil, and many of his later recordings were with them.
Lenny had his detractors, who thought he was showing off in front of the audience and orchestra, or that he exaggerated details, or — especially later in his career — dragged tempos. But, as critic David Hurwitz has said many times, “Every time I think Bernstein has distorted something, I look in the score and see that it is exactly what the composer had notated. He was truer to the score than almost any other conductor I know.”
It is true that for Lenny, as for Old Lodge Skins in Little Big Man, “Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t.” But the best recordings have something to give that few others can match: commitment, power, emotion, persuasiveness.
I have chosen 10 of Lenny’s recordings that for me summarize his best. There are many others. He was especially great with Haydn, with Beethoven, with Mahler, with Stravinsky, with Shostakovich. And Modern music — if it was tonal or polytonal, like Milhaud — he made it all just bounce.
We’ll start with Haydn’s Paris Symphonies, that is symphonies Nos. 82-87, including “The Hen” and “The Bear.” It is pretty well consensus that Bernstein’s Paris Symphonies are the reference recordings. Sprightly, bright, witty, energetic and beautifully played. Bernstein was always good in Haydn, and I would have listed his Creation here, or his Nelson Mass or Tempore Belli Mass. You can’t go wrong with Bernstein and Haydn. In comparison, almost everyone else just feels soggy.
In roughly chronological order, we come to one of his most controversial recordings ever: the live recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony from 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bernstein substituted the word “Freiheit” (“freedom”) for Schiller’s “Freude” (“joy”) in the finale, caught up in the moment’s exhilaration over the fall of East Berlin and Communism. Actually, he only does it once, and later reverts back to the original. But it is jarring when you hear the baritone intone it at the start of the finale. Yet, I am listening to it now as I write this and it is an absolutely thrilling version of the Beethoven’s greatest symphony. Members of six different orchestras came together and meld perfectly under Lenny’s baton. It is my go-to version of the symphony. It is a symphony played so often (I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard it live) that it has lost some of its magic as occasion, but here, it magnifies that sense of occasion. Despite the mutilation of the “Freiheit,” but because of the intensity and emotional engagement of the 20-minute Adagio — more like a prayer than anything else. (Roger Norrington takes it in 10 minutes of throw-away carelessness.)
Then, there’s Berlioz’s Grande Messe de Morts, or Requiem. There are few decent recordings, and most fail for exactly the same reason: They attempt to make sense of the thing, toning it down into something “normal.” That is the issue with Colin Davis’ version. But Lenny lets it all hang out. What is fevered and hysterical, comes across as fevered and hysterical, just as Berlioz wrote it.
If there is any symphony from the 19th century more Haydnesque than Bizet’s Symphony in C, I have yet to discover it. It is fresh, bright, tuneful and unendingly happy. The composer wrote it in 1855, when he was 17, and it remained unplayed until 1935 and I feel pity for all those audiences who, for 80 years could have been enjoying it, but never had the chance. Lenny was the perfect conductor for its joie de vivre and rhythmic snap. It is as if Bizet wrote it with Bernstein in mind.
Lenny recorded Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony at least twice, once with the New York Philharmonic, in 1964 for Columbia, and then again in 1987 for Deutsche Grammophon, with the same orchestra. What a difference. The first — an excellent version — takes about the usual 45 minutes. The second comes in at just a chip under an hour. Most of that extra time comes in the finale, which in the second recording is wrenching and heartbreaking. One critic wrote that it “devastates the emotions. … At the end of the last movement, the despair is complete.” Of course, the performance has its detractors, with some finding it distended and, as one always hears the complaint against Lenny, “is more about the conductor than the composer.” Poppycock. This is Tchaikovsky titrated and distilled into pure essence.
Lenny recorded Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring many times, also, but there is no quibbling about the one to go to. It is his first, from 1958 with the New York Phil. When the composer first heard the recording, his only response was “Wow!” Lots of conductors have the measure of the Rite, but there is a rhythmic vitality, a violence and explosiveness to the 1958 recording that has never been matched, even by Lenny.
Just seven years after Stravinsky’s blast, came Darius Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le toit (“The Bull on the Roof”), which he says he wrote as “fifteen minutes of music, rapid and gay, as a background to any Charlie Chaplin silent movie.” It is a piling up of Brazilian tunes, in several keys at once, and is as bright and toe-tappy as anything. Indeed, it becomes an ear-worm and you will be hearing its tunes over and over in your head for the rest of the day. The Bernstein recording also features La Création du Monde from 1923, which is a fully realized jazz composition for a ballet about an African creation story. This is Lenny in his element. You can just see him dancing on the podium with happiness and joy.
Then, there is another highly controversial recording — his DG performance of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Lenny, playing the piano part himself, plays it not as a jazz riff, but as if it were, from bottom-to-top, a classical piano concerto, rather like Ravel’s Concerto in G. Critics miss the easy jazzy element of famous performances by Earl Wilde or Oscar Levant, but Bernstein’s version seems to those who adore it (as I do) as a perfectly genuine alternate view. And it is gorgeous. Did I mention that? Absolutely gorgeous.
Dimitri Shostakovich wrote his massive Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad” during the German siege of that city in 1942. It is a piece that defeats many orchestras and conductors; it is very difficult to keep it from diffusing into long, undigested sections. Lenny keeps it going as a single directional line from beginning to glorious end, and the Chicago Symphony has the cojones to perform what is asked of them. Almost everyone agrees, this is the Leningrad Symphony to hear.
Finally, I’ve kept last (and out of order), Mahler, which sometimes seems like Bernstein’s personal property. It isn’t, of course, but he brings something special to his Mahler performances, and none more so than with the Ninth, which he recorded at least six times (1965 NY Phil; 1971 Vienna Phil; 1979 Berlin Phil; 1979 Boston Symphony; 1985 Concertgebouw; 1985 Israel Phil). It is perhaps the Mahler symphony Bernstein felt closest to. Only four of these are genuine releases, not bootlegs, and among them it is hard to choose, but I suppose I migrate to the late Concertgebouw recording. Berlin has the intensity, but there is a major cock-up in the finale when the trombone section failed to play in the climax (apparently an audience member had died of a heart attack directly behind the brass section and there was some commotion that distracted the players). But listening to any one of them seems as if the music becomes more than music; it is a direct communication from one soul or heart to another. There are other great performances of the Ninth — it seems to draw out the best in most conductors — but there is something extra in the Bernstein versions, something more immediate, more direct.
That is a list of 10 (or more), but I feel I’ve left out so much. There’s his Bartok Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste; there’s two complete surveys of Beethoven symphonies; there’s his Copland, his Ives, his Schumann, his Sibelius. And so much more. But I believe the 10 I’ve chosen are not just great, but peculiar to Lenny — and I choose the word carefully. He was an idiosyncratic conductor, but all the personality that went in to his performances meant they are often memorable in a way more straightforward ones are not.
Many moons ago, when I was a snotty college kid, I went through a period of disdaining Lenny. I bought the canard that he was shallow, heart-on-sleeve and bombastic. I wuz a idjit. One should never let the opinions of others block your ears. There is a world of difference between words and sounds, and the sounds are always more meaningful. I am older now, have experienced a great deal more of living, discovered depths in myself I hadn’t understood, and now Lenny’s insistence on finding the marrow is what I value. My ears are opened to what is gifted to me.
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