Leonard Bernstein: The Symphony Edition

Album review
Leonard Bernstein: The Symphony Edition

Leonard Berstein

The Symphony Edition

Label: Sony
Media: CD
Genre: Classical

The latest in Sony’s continual repackaging of its Bernstein holdings, this blockbuster portrays the conductor as a world- striding interpreter of symphonies: 60 CDs in an LP-sized case containing most of his Columbia (aka CBS or Sony) studio recordings with the New York Philharmonic—107 works, including seven complete cycles (Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Sibelius, Bernstein, plus all Haydn’s Paris and London Symphonies). Recommendation is a no-brainer: $97— $1.62 per CD!—from Amazon; it’s a better value than any bargain label’s, especially since these are performances by one of the greatest conductor/orchestra partnerships in history. I can’t think of another conductor whose recorded legacy could yield comparable breadth, depth, stylistic command, interpretive genius, and orchestral brilliance in the symphonic literature from Haydn to Bernstein’s own contributions to the form.

That’s the good news. But why only one each of symphonies he recorded more than once for Columbia? Compleat collectors want everything, and Bernstein often radically varied his interpretations. Despite lots of empty space in the oversize booklet, documentation is skimpy (requiring checks of previous releases to determine which recordings of duplicated works were chosen), while the absence of anything about the music is a disgrace. Nor does Sony specify which remasterings are used, though happily sonics are substantially improved over the LP originals.

Most of the core literature is here, conspicuous exceptions being no Bruckner except the Ninth, nothing British save Vaughan Williams’ Fourth, and no Rachmaninoff at all. Many off- the-beaten-path items, however, are here, including superb readings of Goldmark’s Rustic Wedding, Roussel’s Third, Chavez’s Sinfonia India, etc. I went immediately past recordings long and justly celebrated— Mahler, Haydn, and Schumann cycles; Thirds by Beethoven, Copland, Nielsen, Harris, and Schuman; Fifths by Nielsen, Shostakovich, and Sibelius—to Dvorak’s New World, tremendous in Bernstein’s cumulative sweep and drive.

The New York Beethoven cycle had languished on my shelves, especially once the Vienna one appeared. Big mistake: these vigorous, purposeful readings positively brim with life and vitality (like the revelatory Eroica, and a Second I’ve never heard bettered). The Brahms and Tchaikovsky cycles are similarly red- blooded and muscular, worlds away from the dark, brooding DG recordings. In general, the New York Philharmonic decade finds Bernstein a faster, leaner, more fiery, volatile, and joyous conductor than the grander, weightier, more introspective, and heavily expressive globe-trotting maestro of his last decade.

Bernstein’s Mozart is here more straightforwardly energetic than insightful, and several performances remain controversial—an overheated (though terrifically exciting) Franck, a Prokofiev Fifth freighted with Mahlerian angst, an overwrought Dvorak Seventh, a Sibelius Second that trowels on the rhetoric. But these are exceptions, the rule being the electrifying rest of the Sibelius cycle; or Vaughan Williams’s Fourth, a powerfully edgy, abrasive reading; or Symphony of Psalms, gloriously personal and deeply expressive, Bernstein’s restrained romanticism very different from Stravinsky’s own austere recording. Yet after hearing him do the work in concert, the composer himself exclaimed, “Wow!”—an apt response to most of these performances.

More Info

  • primary artist, Leonard Bernstein
  • CD

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