COPLAND: Sonata for Piano. RAVEL: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in
G. STRAVINSKY: L'Histoire du Soldat. BERNSTEIN: 7 Anniversaries, nos. 1-5.
Philharmonia Orchestra; Members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra; Leonard
Bernstein (conductor and pianist).
Symposium 1372 DVD (F) (AAD) TT: 78:23
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Triple threat. Volume 2 in Symposium's Leonard Bernstein releases. Volume
1 featured Bernstein conducting John Alden Carpenter's Sea Drift, the Shostakovich
Fifth, and Gershwin's An American in Paris. All of these performances come
from the mid-to-late Forties, just after Bernstein had made his famous
last-minute substitution for Bruno Walter at the helm of the New York Phil
and became famous
The CD shows the talented fireball who knocked the socks off the American
musical establishment. We remember Bernstein today mainly as a conductor
and as the composer of a Broadway hit, but we tend to forget his gifts
as a pianist and to dismiss his "serious" efforts at composition.
In the Copland, he practically channels the composer. Many, after all,
thought this Difficult Modern Music once upon a time. Bernstein himself
recalled how he used to play the Copland Piano Variations at parties and
emptied rooms. He plays it (as he played Schoenberg, incidentally) as music,
rather than as modern music, almost as if he can't wait to get to the next
measure because it's all so wonderful and he wants you to hear what he
hears in it. In the last movement, with its ending's quiet recall of the
sonata's grand first measures, Bernstein creates pure magic.
The Ravel, from 1946 (all the other performances come from 1947), may be
the first recording of what I think of as Lenny's Party Trick, where he
plays and conducts the G-major concerto. I made the concerto's acquaintance
through the stereo remake with the New York Philharmonic (which sounds
a lot better, of course, than this mono version). Still, the two versions
exhibit some interesting resemblances and differences. I always thought
of the remake as wild and wooly. After all, it's not all that easy to keep
the piece together when you've doubled your workload. The pianist's hands
are on the keyboard at inconvenient times, and a head fake to the trombones
is probably not a sufficient substitute for a crisp cue with a baton. Although
sharp rhythm goes a long way with me, I must admit my preference for this
stereo version. The other top versions -- Argerich, Benedetti, François,
and so on -- undoubtedly sparkle, but with an elegance I think at odds
with the two outer movements, which emphasize jazz and whoopee. Bernstein
brings out the ferocity that lurks within the concerto. If anything, this
earlier reading goes even farther along that path. The attacks are sharper,
for one thing. However, the mono, crackly sound puts this version out of
bounds as a first choice, although it's a great footnote. You need to appreciate
Bernstein's L'Histoire pops as well, with members of the Koussevitzky Boston
playing at Tanglewood, Bernstein's second grad school after Curtis. Stravinsky's
pared-down, astringent masterpiece sounds less complicated than say, Petrushka,
but that's illusory. Again, rhythms dominate the score, and they give many
conductors fits. Loren Maazel once offered a prize of umpteen-thousand
dollars to any conductor who could conduct the score from memory, as he
had once done. It's a score full of quirks, enormously influential in the
postwar France of the Twenties among such diverse talents as Poulenc, Martinu,
and especially Milhaud. Bernstein's reading brims with -- well -- majesty.
He lets the listener know the importance of the score without slighting
its wit, and the Boston players play with precision and verve. Actually,
the performance reminds me more of Bernstein's Curtis conducting teacher,
Reiner, than of the slightly later influence, Mitropoulos. I think it one
of the best L'Histoires on record.
Throughout his life, Bernstein wrote occasional pieces celebrating birthdays,
memorializing deaths, and so on. The most numerous of them are sixteen
piano works collected in three sets and called "anniversaries." His
first set, 7 Anniversaries, appeared in 1943. Those celebrated include
Aaron Copland, the composer's sister, Shirley, Paul Bowles, and Nathalie
Koussevitzky. I don't know why Bernstein recorded only the first five of
the seven. Even though they're short -- the longest doesn't last three
minutes -- they deserved greater visibility, their ideas good enough so
that Bernstein incorporated many of them into larger works. The elegy for
Nathalie Koussevitzky shows up in the Jeremiah Symphony, for example. The
pieces linger with you all out of proportion to their length. Bernstein
writes with great delicacy and plays these miniatures with extreme inwardness.
In an odd way, these performances foreshadow Bernstein's Mahler career.
The recordings have the usual historical crackle. I didn't mind, but as
they say, your mileage may vary.
S.G.S. (March 2009)