Bernstein Recordings Never Die

by Sedgwick Clark

Leonard Bernstein is one of the few artists whose recordings have continued to sell after his death, and last fall Sony Classical reissued a “limited edition” set of the conductor’s 1950s-70s symphony recordings, most with the New York Philharmonic. But it sold out before I could rehear the CDs, and this write-up has been sitting in my computer awaiting a second run, which is now at hand again to beguile the Christmas gift crowd.

Many of these recordings are my favorites of the works, and those happy with a classy coffee-table presentation need look no further. It’s a beautiful looking design, to be sure, but an utterly impractical fit in a CD collection. The box is LP size and two and a half inches thick. One must lay the box flat and remove the top to get to the CDs. A plastic divider holds four stacks of the 60 CDs, each encased in a cardboard sleeve. Without long fingernails, one must often resort to an implement to pry the bottom-most CD from the holder. For three months while I spot-checked the discs, the box shuttled from room to room in fruitless search for a home. I was tempted to discard the box and file the discs on my conventional CD shelf, but the spine copy is infinitesimal, with titles of the works too dark to be read without klieg lights and a magnifying glass. The 32-page b&w booklet with two adoring tri-lingual tributes to Bernstein and a mixture of familiar and rare photos has no notes on the symphonies; no texts and translations for choral works. Nor is recording info as specific as in earlier CD releases.

Nevertheless, these are Bernstein recordings, and in general I prefer these more spontaneous Columbia/CBS recordings now on Sony Classical to the later, more carefully coiffed Deutsche Grammophon ones, usually with the Vienna Philharmonic, which many see as his “mature” statements. Tempos are broader on DG—sometimes egregiously so—and often preferred by European critics. DG has released most or all of them in smaller, more manageable bargain sets, but the only ones I can recommend unreservedly are the American and Haydn sets, the latter containing an irresistible “Oxford.”

My Sony picks:

Beethoven: Exciting and unpredictable. I prefer Bernstein’s “smaller” symphony performances, especially Nos. 1 and 2, over the uneven-numbered later ones, where he is concerned with making Big Statements. I found the DG remakes cautious and overly refined, an opinion reaffirmed after rehearing the recently reissued CD set.

Bizet: Symphony in C. Less than immaculate ensemble, but what joie de vivre!

Copland: Organ Symphony and Third Symphony. His Copland is indispensable.

Dvořák: Symphony No. 9. An exciting “New World.” Avoid the bloated DG.

Harris: Third Symphony. Also indispensable, as most of his American rep is.

Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 82-88, 93-104. The staff of life. Also available in a handy set of all his Haydn for the label.

Hindemith: Symphony in E-flat. Revivified Hindemith! (Also get his recording with Isaac Stern of the Violin Concerto—gorgeous melodies, sparkling wit, my favorite Stern recording.)

Ives: Symphony No. 2. The height of Ivesian Americana, superb on all counts. Avoid the sleepy DG.

Liszt: A Faust Symphony. Romantic drama with tumultuous conviction.

Mahler: Symphonies Nos. 1-9. Yes, we know that others championed Mahler first, but these are the recordings that brought about the Mahler Boom. Some, such as the Third and Seventh, are still unsurpassed, even by Bernstein.

Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5. Peerless performances of the life-affirming “Sinfonia espansiva” and the profound, wartime Fifth.

Prokofiev: Classical Symphony. The New Yorkers sound downright tipsy in this jolly, Haydnesque interpretation.

Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3. Schumann was in marital bliss when he wrote his “Spring” Symphony, and no one captures the music’s unbounded joy like Bernstein. The “Rhenish” is equally vital.

William Schuman: Symphonies Nos. 3, 5, and 8. The rip-snorting Third is one of the great American symphonies, incomparably rendered here by Schuman’s most galvanic interpreter. Far superior to his DG remake of 25 years later.

Shostakovich: All of Bernstein’s Shostakovich CDs have good points, but the Fifth is one of his half-dozen greatest recordings, taped at Boston’s Symphony Hall on the way home from the Philharmonic’s famous Soviet tour in 1959. For me, it has no competition.

Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 1-7. Big, broadly paced, and hyper-emotional—right from the Russian tradition. Numbers 5 and 7, in particular, are immensely powerful.

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4. A searingly intense interpretation of this explosive 20th-century masterpiece.


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