I was on my way home from work one late winter afternoon when I came across a Sibelius Second Symphony on the radio that so forcefully commanded my attention that I determined to hear it all the way through just to find out who the conductor was. Sorry, but I take a professional interest in such matters. What made this particular performance at once so awful and fascinating was the conductor's utter determination to wrench every last ounce of emotion out of the music. Some conductors do too little; this conductor was doing way too much. I'd never heard a more exhausting, labored interpretation.
The mystery conductor, as I'd already guessed, was Leonard Bernstein; this Sibelius Second remains one of the most notorious and controversial recordings from late in his career. There are certainly others: his Tchaikovsky Symphonies Four, Five, and Six with the New York Philharmonic; that Berlin Philharmonic Mahler Ninth; and the slowest "Enigma" Variations ever recorded with what must have been a nonplussed BBC Symphony Orchestra. One has to admire Bernstein for taking such incredible risks, even if the results were often disappointing.
But happily, it is performances like these Schumann Symphonies that he will be remembered for. Recently the BBC Music Service released a list of the greatest conductors of all time ranked by a poll of living conductors and musicians. Though I had some reservations with the results (only in Cloudcuckooland is Sir Rattle the fourth greatest conductor of all time), I couldn't, wouldn't dispute their consensus choice for the greatest conductor of them all, Leonard Bernstein.
And if proof is needed to support such a claim, this DVD will do nicely. These performances were taped between 1984 and 1986, and released on CD soon after. This marks their first release on DVD, and it is a revelation. Bernstein's Schumann made a dramatic impression on disc, but their overall impact is even more intense on DVD, where one gets to see as well as hear what's going on. And seeing is, of course, believing: Bernstein working at white heat with a great orchestra giving him everything he's asking for and then some. Over the course of his long career, Bernstein forged close associations with many orchestras, the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony foremost among them. But on the evidence of these performances, no orchestra gave him more emotional commitment than the Vienna Philharmonic does here.
But this DVD is of more than documentary
interest. Many critics have pointed out that Bernstein had as deep and abiding
an affinity to the music of Schumann as he did for any other composer (one
thinks of Beethoven, Copland, Ives, and Mahler, for example). It was a
performance of the Second Symphony by Dimitri Mitropoulous and the Boston
Symphony that first made the Harvard sophomore think about becoming a conductor.
And if I'm not mistaken, that same symphony was one of the young conductor's
Some conductors put the emphasis on Schumann's classicism, his lyricism. Recently there have been a spate of original instrument, chamber-sized performances of these symphonies But God love Lenny, he's having none of it. For him Schumann is the link that connects Beethoven to Mahler, and these four works are the very apotheosis of Romanticism. In fact, "Schumann and the Romantic Movement" was a theme for one of Bernstein's first seasons with the Philharmonic. Certainly no conductor has made more effective and expressive use of Schumann's much maligned orchestration. Before Bernstein's 1960 recordings of the symphonies, critics routinely disparaged Schumann's orchestration as being too thick to permit details to emerge clearly. Yet that's exactly what Bernstein is able to do. He produces a big sound -- massive, forceful, and luminous -- that is at once transparent and richly detailed (no small thanks to the playing of the orchestra). Mohammed Ali once said that as a boxer he wanted "to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." That's exactly the effect Bernstein achieves here.
Bernstein's interpretive approach is intuitive,
improvisational, and (above all) passionate, but it is also informed by a
lifetime of study and dedication to the music. There is no shortage of bracing
energy and youthful exuberance; but as fast as Bernstein plays the music in
places, it never seems hard-driven or mannered. There is also graciousness and
warmth. As one would expect, Bernstein is able to represent the many shifting
moods and surprising changes that give these works their boldness and
individuality, but he also shapes the music in an altogether natural way. This
seems to me the biggest difference between these performances and his
groundbreaking 1960 cycle with the New York Philharmonic, which occasionally
sounded a little too impetuous and scrappy. But with the remarkably resilient
and virtuosic instrument of the Vienna Philharmonic at his complete disposal,
these interpretations are authoritative, definitive; it's hard to imagine the
music being played in any other way.
A word on Bernstein's baton technique. Though Humphrey Burton's outstanding production gives us an intimate portrait of the orchestra's response, for much of it we're watching Bernstein conduct. Bernstein has always been pegged as a flamboyant leader with a self-consciously showy technique. That might well have been so. But here it seems clear that his gestures are essentially communicative. You'll see Bernstein ask for something, and almost instantaneously hear the musicians respond. At the big climaxes he asks for everything they have, and that's exactly what they deliver.
Bernstein was nothing if not generous. He gave us
everything he had: the good (his work as composer, conductor, educator), the bad
(his sometimes self-indulgent interpretations), and the ugly (his early career
mongering and occasional pettiness). But if we judge him by the best he
accomplished, his name will long be remembered. For those eager to know what all
the fuss was about, this DVD is a terrific starting point.