Leonard Bernstein '39, D.Mus. '67, Bernstein Century. Sony Classical, 10 compact discs, $9.99 each. Leonard Bernstein, composer and conductor. The Age of Anxiety (Symphony no. 2), Serenade after Plato's Symposium (SMK 60558); Bernstein on Jazz (includes W.C. Handy's St. Louis Blues and Howard Brubeck's Dialogues for Jazz Combo and Orchestra) (SMK 60566); Kaddish (Symphony no. 3), Chichester Psalms (SMK 60595).
Leonard Bernstein, conductor. American Masters (includes symphonies by Roy Harris, Randall Thompson, and David Diamond) (SMK 60594); Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 6 (Pastoral) (SMK 60557); Aaron Copland, The Second Hurricane, In the Beginning (SMK 63155); Claude Debussy, The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian (SMK 60596); Anton Dvo(breve)rák, Symphony no. 7, with Bed(breve)rich Smetana, The Bartered Bride and The Moldau (SMK 60561); Gustav Mahler, Symphony no. 7 (SMK 60564); Maurice Ravel, Boléro, Alborada del gracioso, La valse, Daphnis et Chloé (SMK 60174). The New York Philharmonic, and others. Visit "www.sonyclassical.com" for information about other releases in the Bernstein Century series.
Sony classical has now twice reissued much of its Leonard Bernstein catalog. In 1992 and 1993, more than 100 compact discs emerged as the Royal Edition, each CD cover featuring a lovely watercolor by H.R.H. Prince Charles, though I don't think that helped sales. The new Bernstein Century series will also total more than 100 discs, but it is banking on Bernstein's draw as a pop icon. (The publicity materials tout "never-before-used photos," and the backs of the cd cases sport tinted portraits of Bernstein reproduced in rows, à la Andy Warhol.) If it weren't such an obvious marketing ploy, you could consider it a tribute that Sony Classical cedes the entire century to Bernstein, even though August 25 would have been only his eightieth birthday.
In truth, the series should be titled Bernstein A-Little-Bit-More-Than-A-Decade: almost all the recordings date from his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic (1958-1969), while he was under contract with Sony Classical's forerunner, Columbia Records. It was during this time that Bernstein's fame reached superstar proportions. He began presenting the televised Young People's Concerts and enjoyed phenomenal success from the stage and film versions of West Side Story--all while revitalizing the Philharmonic and beginning his lifelong advocacy of jazz, Mahler, and the work of American composers.
The 10 most recent discs of Bernstein Century summarize his musical and extra-musical passions. They include a great recording of Mahler's seventh symphony, with the sudden shifts between high seriousness and ribald humor intact. An example of Bernstein's lauded ability to teach is here in What Is Jazz, two longish explanations of the inner workings of a music he loved. And American composers like Aaron Copland, D.Mus. '61, Roy Harris, Randall Thompson '20, A.M. '22, and David Diamond make appearances, as do Bernstein's own compositions: Chichester Psalms, two of his three symphonies, and Serenade after Plato's Symposium.
The interpretations have Bernstein's inspiring trademarks--the sweep and swelling of the string sections, the driving rhythms, the exaggerated contrasts in colors and tempi, the deep sense of humor--but the release itself seems to cut corners. Liner notes are too brief and, eager to pay tribute to Bernstein, say too little about the music; transcriptions of lyrics and spoken narration are incomplete and confusing; and the remastering of previously issued recordings seems less than ideal. Bernstein's thrilling 1964 version of his third symphony, Kaddish, sounds claustrophobically close in this reissue, muddying some of the expansive melodies and tone colors in the last movement.
Many critics have noted that Bernstein's recordings, remastered or not, are a mixed bag. Although his Mahler is the stuff of legend, his Beethoven can sound quirky and disorganized. The recording of the Beethoven Pastoral Symphony, for example, has moments so lush it almost convinced me to take up shepherding. Unfortunately, it also has some jarring shifts in tempi and sloppy entrances.
Recordings are merciless in a way that concert performances aren't, and after repeated listenings, you get the feeling that Bernstein made more sense when his conducting was seen as well as heard. From the athletic grace of his youth to the gangly, marionette-like movements of his later years, he remained an enthralling visual presence. And, like the natural teacher he was, he probably simplified or distorted a point here and there to make it clear.
Most listeners won't quibble about tempi and ensemble work, remembering the impact the man had on classical music worldwide, even if that was due as much to his charisma as to his musicianship. My grandmother, never a classical music lover, claimed to "love Leonard Bernstein"--and probably heard more great music because of him. So, besides his birth, we might also celebrate another significant anniversary for the Bernstein legacy, on November 14. That date will mark 55 years since Bernstein filled in for the ailing Bruno Walter to conduct a nationally broadcast concert of the New York Philharmonic. The now legendary performance transformed him into the Leonard Bernstein, initiating his status as the most recognized American conductor of his time. He never relinquished that position, and his fame and talent continue to make him vital today.