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

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 Ravel's colors.

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)