La Scena Musicale

Monday, 23 December 2013

Leonard Bernstein: Historical Recordings 1941-1961

Schumann: Symphony No. 2/Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 and Symphony No. 7/Mahler: Symphony No. 2/Beethoven: Symphony No. 9/Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring/Chavez: Symphony No. 4/Harris: American Creed, etc.
Boston Symphony Orchestra/New York Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein
Audio Restoration: Lani Spahr
West Hill Radio Archives WHRA-6048 (11 CDs)
*****



Bernstein has been dead for over 22 years and nearly everything he recorded has been released and re-released. Dozens of broadcasts have been made available too. But there are still treasures to be found. This latest release contains invaluable rehearsal excerpts and some wonderful broadcasts with the Boston Symphony.

Bernstein was a protégé of BSO music director Serge Koussevitsky and Bernstein often conducted the orchestra, especially in the 1940s. Here we have a complete Mahler Second Symphony, a Shostakovich Seventh and a Beethoven Ninth. We also have Bernstein as soloist and conductor in Ravel, Beethoven and Mozart piano concertos. An unusual item is Copland’s Preamble for a Solemn Occasion, with Laurence Olivier as narrator, from a live BSO concert given in Carnegie Hall in 1949.

The set also includes Bernstein’s first commercial recording. He plays David Diamond’s piano piece Prelude and Fugue in C#, a 78 rpm recording from 1941. Throughout his life Bernstein championed the music of Diamond, who was one of his oldest friends. Diamond’s Symphony No. 8 is also included in this set in a performance conducted by Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic in 1961.

There is lots of adrenalin flowing in these performances – Bernstein was a conductor who readily let his emotions run away with him – and some of the performances indicate a lack of preparation. In the rehearsal for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 15 on November 21, 1949, Bernstein can be heard muttering about “not practicing the piano all summer.” Throughout this rehearsal Bernstein seems to have a terrible time controlling the tempo. There are also some Mahler songs with Jennie Tourel from 1960. She was well past her prime, and these performances should never have been released.

Among the truly historic performances is the Blitzstein version of Kurt Weill’s Three-Penny Opera in its world premiere performance at Brandeis University June 14, 1952. Lotte Lenya plays Jenny.

In many cases, Bernstein went on to make commercial recordings of these pieces, and they are far superior in terms of recording quality. But it significantly enriches our understanding of Bernstein to have so many early performances available.
There are 11 CDs in this boxed set and one of them is devoted entirely to excellent, detailed program notes by Nigel Simeone. The set is marked “Not available in the U.S,” presumably for copyright reasons.


Paul E. Robinson

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