Maybe once every couple of generations or so a figure emerges in one of the arts with such protean talents that he leaves pretty much all of his contemporaries, not to mention many who came before and most of whom come after, in his dust. Such a figure was undoubtedly Leonard Bernstein, a composer, pianist and conductor of such prodigious skill that he quickly achieved, and then easily maintained, iconic status in the not always as patrician as you might think world of classical music. This exemplary boxed set showcases Bernstein as a conductor (and pianist on one piece), giving a nice cross-section of material with the Maestro working with several different orchestras.
First up are two 1970s concerts with Bernstein's frequent collaborating orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic. Bernstein had famously gone to Israel to conduct during the war for independence, and his ties to the country remained strong for the rest of his life. On this first disc, he leads the Philharmonic in Brahms' beautiful first and third symphonies. Brahms' First, often dubbed "Beethoven's Tenth," is a model of classical form and structure underpinning some of the most glorious thematic material ever written in the symphonic idiom. The first movement especially, with its incessant triplet rhythms, has often reminded me of a sort of mad sleigh ride over the German countryside, a Bavarian counterpart to a similar Russian feeling I always get from Prokofiev's Fifth. Brahms famously spent over two decades (according to him, anyway) crafting this symphony, which came along relatively late in his compositional life, and the care he lavished over every measure is abundantly revealed in this beautiful interpretation. Brahms' Third, which Brahms' friend and conductor of it premiere, Hans Richter, asserted was Brahms' Eroica, is a stylish and forceful piece built largely around the motive of F-A-F, "frei aber froh"--free but happy, perhaps a meditation on Brahms' incipient bachelorhood. Bernstein brings perfect energy and finesse to this reading, making the most of the expressive interplay between winds and strings. In both of these pieces Bernstein, as he often does, seems transported to an ethereal realm where the mysteries of the composition are being revealed to him privately on a note by note basis (there's no denying that as a conductor, Bernstein was not disinclined to "perform" for the camera).
Disc 2 finds Lenny leading the National Orchestra of France in an unusual pairing of composers, Franck's only Symphony, and Milhaud's two charming chamber pieces, "La Creation du Monde" and "Le Boeuf Sur le Toit." Franck's formidable entry into the symphonic repertoire makes a perfect segue from Brahms; it's molded of much the same classical architecture with the same degree of thematic integrity (this time in a cyclical form), though Franck's expressive leanings tend more toward the Wagnerian side than the Brahmsian. Time has somewhat dulled the innovative aspects of Franck's symphony, making its themes seem more commonplace than 19th century audiences found them. The symphony is also rightly famous for its harp-accompanied second movement, which Bernstein conducts with bravura gentleness and restraint. Milhaud might seem like the odd duck in this entire set, but when one considers Bernstein's love affair with jazz, and the French setting of this particular concert, it's really not so unusual at all. Working now with a smaller group of musicians, Bernstein masterfully balances unusual timbres, such as the striking use of saxophone in "Creation." Milhaud mines the incredible depths of Brasilian music in "Le Boeuf," a charming if dissonant trip through South American folk melodies. Bernstein's rhythmic proclivities serve him well here in a dashing and erudite interpretation which the orchestra is obviously having a blast playing.
We finally get to see Lenny tickle the ivories whilst simultaneously conducting (no easy feat, as you may imagine) the Vienna Philharmonic in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 17 on Disc 3. This largely chirpy piece lets Bernstein finger Mozart's florid scalar passages without any very demanding harmonic material to keep in check with the orchestra. The luster of the Vienna Philharmonic's strings and winds is unmatched, and even this relatively by the book Mozart composition sounds wide awake in this reading. Bernstein follows this up with a nice reading of Mozart's Symphony No. 39, the first of Mozart's great closing trio of works in the symphonic idiom before his untimely passing. Bernstein makes the most of the imposing brass fanfares which invigorate the first movement, and elicits some especially fine clarinet playing in the "Landler" dance sequence of the third movement.
Bernstein manages the massive forces required to perform Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on the next disc by marshalling players and singers from a variety of groups, including the London Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, Leningrad's Kirov Theater Orchestra, and several German choirs, as well as a stellar quartet featuring June Anderson, Sarah Walker, Klaus Konig and Jan-Hendrik Rootering. This 1989 concert finds Bernstein in the late winter of his life conducting as if his life depended on it, in an at times playful, at other times almost vicious, interpretation that wrings every drop of emotion out of this piece that too often seems to become background music. There's a vitality to this reading that is missing from even some of Bernstein's earlier performances of this same piece and the choral finale is one of the most magnificent interpretations you will ever hear.
Another German ninth fills out Disc 5, this time the massive and monumental Bruckner D minor (just like Beethoven), again with the Vienna Philharmonic. As is the usual practice with this unfinished symphony, Bernstein opts to utilize only the first three movements which Bruckner himself completed before his death. Traipsing from the clear Classicism of Beethoven to the at times overwhelming Romanticism of Bruckner is at times daunting, but Bernstein keeps a tight reign on what is often a completely unwieldy piece of music that can, in lesser hands, seem like a run-on sentence with no clear subject. The Philharmonic does exceptional work here, especially with Bruckner's gargantuan brass voicings, all of which ring loud and clear and are completely bracing. This concert, taped just a few months before Bernstein's death, finds the conductor perhaps a bit past his athletic prime, but still able to command the patently huge forces of this piece with seeming ease.