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<<  -- 4 --  David Wilkins    LEONARD BERNSTEIN 1918 - 1990

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The other new DG issue raises a number of tantalizing questions. It's called 'Lenny / Leonard Bernstein -- The Legend Lives On' (DG 469 460-2 : 6 discs). Given the wealth of recordings that Bernstein made for DG after leaving CBS (nowadays Sony, of course), you do have to wonder who chose these particular performances to best represent his recorded legacy and on what basis. I believe that there are two discs here that no music-lover should want to be without, two more that Bernstein 'completists' would consider to be essential to their collection and an additional pair that are interesting in their own way but fall considerably short of library recommendations for the works in question.

The two indispensable items are a disc of American music and a truly stunning performance of Mahler's 5th symphony which has long been considered a top recommendation. With the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Bernstein gives a considerably freer (and slower) performance of Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' than he did with the NYPO in 1959 but it still overflows with sparkle and unmistakable affection. The performance of Copland's 'Appalachian Spring' digs deep into the lyrical heart of this beguiling work and that of the Barber Adagio is an object lesson of sustained emotional power. The 3rd Symphony of Roy Harris (something of a Bernstein calling-card) could not find a more dedicated advocate for its 18 minutes of striving nobility. The Mahler performance, with the Vienna Philharmonic, was recorded live (as became the habit in the latter part of his career) and is, indisputably, I believe, one of the greatest pieces of music-making ever committed to disc. Although Bernstein might have over-egged the cake in his claims for almost single-handedly effecting the Mahler revival, there is no doubt that his particular identification with this composer produced many of the finest of his conducting achievements. The 5th Symphony was a particular favourite (his score of the work was buried with him) and he and the illustrious orchestra with which he established a rapport of unlikely magic are on cracking form. The fiery, anguished neurosis, the death-obsessed languor, the near-unbearable nostalgia, the triumphant defiance -- all the characteristics of this music seem to find an ideal counterpart in the conductor's own psyche.

Elsewhere, the Mozart C minor 'Mass' receives a weighty performance of currently unfashionable virtues. Bernstein was always closer to the more generous spirit of Haydn and recorded surprisingly little Mozart. Included in this set, however, is a previously unreleased performance of the G Major Piano Concerto (K. 453) where he directs the VPO from the keyboard. It is not at all self-indulgent in any of the ways that you might expect. In fact it is always stylish, well-considered and, in the Figaroesque finale, delightfully witty. It is definitely one that the 'completists' among us will be very glad to have access to at last. The other disc in that category is 'The Final Concert' -- recorded with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in his beloved Tanglewood just a couple of months before his death. A riveting performance of the Britten 'Sea Interludes' reveals how much he admired the music of this one-time acquaintance whose problems were, in some ways, so similar to his own but whose character was so very different. It is coupled with a granite-like, almost Klempererish Beethoven 7th Symphony with an Allegretto of tangible valediction.

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Copyright © 31 October 2000 David Wilkins, Eastbourne, East Sussex, UK

 

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