Lenny's lasting legacy.
Composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein's reputation is forever assured thanks to such Broadway masterpieces as West Side Story--his collaboration with Stephen Sondheim--and Candide, which features the coloratura lavender anthem "Glitter and Be Gay." Equally memorable are Bernstein's documented declarations in private of his publicly flaunted bisexuality (prompting one New York Times reviewer to call his Mahler conducting "effeminate") and his larger-than-life, kiss-everyone-in-sight personality, which caused one of his friends to cable him, on the morning of his 1973 concert for the pope, "Remember--the ring, not the lips."
Now, 10 years after his death at age 72 from lung failure, a spate of new and rereleased recordings enables us to re experience Bernstein's immeasurable musical importance. Most exciting is Bernstein Live!--a 10-CD New York Philharmonic Special Editions set containing 13 hours of previously unissued concert performances of Bernstein conducting his orchestra (available only from the Philharmonic or Tower Records). Highlights include the world premiere of Ives's Symphony No. 2, its finale much tauter than in Bernstein's later Deutsche Grammophon recording; the young Vladimir Ashkenazy dazzling in Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2; Maynard Ferguson on trumpet screaming through Russo's jazz-inspired Symphony No. 2; Jacqueline du Pre sounding quite different in Schumann's Cello Concerto than in her reading with her husband, Daniel Barenboim; and Eileen Farrell and Jess Thomas starring in 80 minutes of positively thrilling, well-recorded scenes from Wagner's Gotterdammerung. While sound quality of other selections varies, the rarity, level of inspiration, and range of repertoire make this set invaluable.
DG's Leonard Bernstein: The Leg end Lives On is a six-disc set that includes remasterings of such classic concert recordings as Bernstein's final performance; his Vienna Philharmonic version of Mahler's Symphony No. 5; a late recording of Copland's Appalachian Spring; and Bernstein at the piano playing both Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 17. The sonics, a major improvement over the original harsh and thin-sounding early digital pressings, warrant repurchase for those who love these performances.
The Mahler No. 5 provides ample evidence of Bernstein's conductorial mastery. The first two movements are filled with terror, Bernstein's conducting miraculously mirroring Mahler's personal drama and neurotic swings of feeling; the famed adagietto trembles with heartfelt emotion, the mood of tenderness increasing when the orchestra swells in volume. Such magic also distinguishes the riveting Gotterdammerung "Dawn" sequence on the New York Philharmonic set, the orchestra progressing from stillness to a positively orgasmic display of morning's first light (gloriously celebrated by the great soprano Farrell). When the music's grandeur matched Bernstein's own, both were magnificent.
Among new releases of Bernstein's compositions is Hyperion's The Age of Anxiety, in which fine sonics complement Dmitry Sitkovetsky's conducting of pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin. Reference's Bernstein, conducted by Eiji Que, features a newly arranged suite from Candide plus first-time orchestral arrangements of five obscure songs.
Most significant is DG's release of several of Bernstein's most political compositions. A White House Cantata, drawn from Bernstein's uneven but biting Broadway show 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (a collaboration with Alan Jay Lerner), exposes sexism and racism in various presidencies. Better music graces DG's Bernstein Conducts Bernstein reissue, combining the wonderful Serenade After Plato's "Symposium" (which Paul Moor's 1990 Advocate appreciation called "one of all literature's greatest paeans to homosexual love") with the remarkable Songfest, a gorgeous cycle of American poems for six singers and orchestra. Highlights include Walt Whitman's "To What You Said," and a groundbreaking duet on Songfest combines Langston Hughes's "I, Too, Sing America" with June Jordan's "Okay, `Negroes.'" Thanks to these great recordings, Bernstein's voice and musicianship ring out anew with strength and beauty in the new century.
Serinus is a music reviewer, musician, and editor of Psychoimmunity & the Healing Process.