Bernstein Conducts Bernstein and Beethoven

100th Anniversary Sparks Flood of Reissues

Bernstein Conducts Bernstein and Beethoven

Except for those living in caves, everyone must know that this year marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, on August 25, 1918. According to the Bernstein website, over 2000 concerts, recitals, and opera and musical theater productions of his work have already occurred or will occur during this year alone. Meanwhile, his two record companies, Sony (née Columbia) in the first half of his career, Deutsche Grammophon (DG) in the second, are celebrating with copious reissues of—well, in DG’s case, everything.

Inasmuch as both labels have never ceased repackaging their Bernstein holdings since his death in 1990, there’s a lot of duplication. Within the last five years alone Sony reissued all the conductor’s recordings of symphonies, concertos, and occasional pieces for orchestra in two big boxes, and DG did likewise even more recently with its entire Bernstein catalogue, albeit differently packaged from the latest set released in March of this year. First up, however, are the composer’s own recordings of two of his musical theatre masterpieces, West Side Story and Candide. The handsome new boxes include complete lyrics, lots of photographs, and substantial notes (Andrew Porter’s essay on the several versions of Candide is by itself worth the price of that set). And each comes with an invaluable bonus in the form of a DVD: the Barbican concerts that served as the basis for the Candide recording and the outstanding documentary made of the West Side Story sessions. However, except for the DVDs, long available separately, there’s nothing in either set you don’t have if you bought the originals.

This West Side Story is controversial for the composer’s decision to cast full-fledged opera singers, headlined by Kiri Te Kanawa’s Maria and José Carreras’ Tony. Yes, the casting makes nonsense of the white/Puerto Rican gang and family conflicts, Te Kanawa sounding a mature British, Carreras, whose character is of Polish descent, more Hispanic than anyone else in the cast. No matter, with Bernstein at the helm the performance crackles with electricity. No, it doesn’t—cannot—displace the 1957 original-cast, but it wasn’t intended to. Not least of the many values of the operatic treatment with its too-heavy voices and the singers’ strange (in context) accents—only Kurt Ollmann (Riff) and Tatiana Troyanos (Anita) sound remotely idiomatic—is its reminder that West Side Story is often performed as an opera in opera houses throughout the world. The recording is first class in its brilliance and dynamic range.

If West Side Story isn’t the greatest work of the American musical theatre, then Candide surely is. It’s difficult to believe this marvelously entertaining, almost peerlessly sophisticated piece folded after only 73 performances of its initial 1956 Broadway run. The show was fraught from the outset with Lillian Hellman’s lethally didactic adaptation of Voltaire’s comic masterpiece; the director Sir Tyrone Guthrie himself likened his direction to “a freight train heavy laden on a steep gradient,” exonerating only Bernstein’s music from censure: “If ever I have seen it, the stuff of genius is here.” This version not only restores the cuts from the first run but also places them in proper order. The cast could scarcely be bettered, notably Jerry Hadley, appropriately sincere and vulnerable in the title role (“Candide’s Lament” deeply affecting and gorgeously sung) and a dazzling June Anderson as Cunégonde (her coloratura “Glitter and Be Gay,” with its stratospheric high notes, is dispatched with hair-raising virtuosity).

Here the operatic treatment works a treat because Candide is genre bursting: part opera, part operetta, and part musical. The restoration of the cuts proves revelatory, coming as they do from the composer’s golden years when his melodic gifts seemed inexhaustible. Comedy, burlesque, parody, and homage all rolled into one, “My valentine to Western classical music,” Bernstein called it (at one point there is even a complete twelve-tone row), Candide is by turns unendurably funny, powerfully moving, and, at the end, unashamedly inspirational. While there are several very good or better recordings, this one has special authority and vitality. The concerts filmed for the DVD took place in December 1989, less than a year before Bernstein would be dead.

Third in DG’s opening salvo is a double release of the conductor’s second cycle of Beethoven symphonies, from 1980, with the Vienna Philharmonic recorded at concerts in 1977–79 in Vienna’s Musikverein. Never out of the catalog in some form, this set has long since acquired classic status, so it’s hardly necessary to review the performances, which are magnificent. Suffice it to say they’re bold and vigorous, intense and lyrical, probing yet powerful, highly dramatic, full of large, sometimes violent contrasts and grand gestures (“Vor Gott” held for an eternity in the last movement of a truly visionary Ninth). Listening to them again I am struck by how relatively broad the tempos now seem. They didn’t appear so back in the 80s, but since then, conditioned by the “authentic performing-practices” movement, the whole zeitgeist of playing Beethoven symphonies has shifted: orchestras smaller-scaled, even chamber-sized, sometimes with period instruments, sonorities lean and dry, vibrato minimal or absent, structures tightened up and ship shape, tempos approximating, even equaling the composer’s metronome indications (long considered unreliable). By contrast, Bernstein’s is romantic, expressive Beethoven, deep in feeling, rich in sentiment, and all the better for it. I know of no other cycle that radiates such palpable joy in the music and music making. The day the new vinyl box arrived I sat down to sample a passage here, a movement there and wound up listening to three complete symphonies in succession (halted only because of outside obligations), such are the magnetism, involvement, and sheer vitality of these revelatory performances.

If I’m not mistaken, this is the last wholly analog Beethoven symphony cycle. The recordings are warm, rich, rounded, a little dark overall but very beautiful and natural, characteristics preserved on the original CD releases. For the new, smartly packaged compact-disc set, DG has done a complete remastering that includes adding a good bit of digitally sampled reverberation, not just from the Musikverein but also, curiously, from Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. This was to create a 5.1 surround-sound mix for the Blu-ray audio-disc included in the set. Lack of multichannel playback prevents me from commenting upon that mix, but the added reverberation folded into the new two-channel mixes is not an unalloyed virtue, the augmented spaciousness impressive yet by no means entirely natural or realistic. Tonally the new mix is brighter, cleaner, and more dynamic and also cleaned up in other ways, e.g., about a minute into the first movement of the Second, somebody drops something in the left channel; clearly audible on the original vinyl and all previous digital issues, it and similar intrusions have been edited out of these CD/Blu-ray remasterings.

Deutsche Grammophon has pulled out all the stops for its new vinyl set. The lavish presentation encases each symphony in its own beautiful jacket or gatefold adorned with original photographs and notes. The recordings are half-speed mastered from the analog tapes and distributed over more LPs than before so that no side exceeds 29 minutes. The 180-gram surfaces are pristine, quieter than those of many audiophile labels; an included voucher accesses a free digital download. While the mixes are different from those for the CD/Blu-ray, eschewing the added reverb and retaining the extraneous noises, the tonal balance is similarly brighter and airier, noticeable especially in the violins, the trumpets, and a distinctly reedier oboe, yet also with bass deeper, better-defined, more focused and ample.

Inasmuch as, unusual for him, Bernstein very publically praised the reproduction of the original mixes in 1980, these new, different-sounding mixes raise aesthetic issues too complex to address here. Let me just say that there’s an integrity and an unprocessed character to the original analog mixes that remain very appealing and that I initially preferred, particularly to the latest CDs. However, the more I listened to the half-speed-mastered vinyl the less sure I became because there’s no denying the attractiveness of the greater dynamic range, the cleaner, clearer, more well-ventilated textures, the greater apparent light and extension up top, and the improved definition, detail, and power at the bottom. If you’re at all tempted, know that the vinyl set is a numbered limited edition.

But whether on vinyl or in digital, Bernstein’s Beethoven continues, preserved in all its glory, and that is what really matters most.