Symphony: "Mathis der Maler;" Concert Music for Strings and Brass; Symphonic Metamorphosis ON menu header menu header menu header menu header Themes by Carl Maria von Weber
Leonard Bernstein conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Review By Max Westler
might ask why I'm about to discuss performances that were recorded more than
twenty years ago and have been in the catalogue ever since. The reason is simple
and in no small way embarrassing. Until I came upon this disc in a bin of used
stock, I had no idea it existed. Ever since Bernstein's death in 1990, I've
been wondering why he never got around to recording the "Mathis der Maler"
Symphony, given his affection for
the works of Paul Hindemith. So, my bad. It was there all along. So consider
this review an act of contrition.
But it's more than that too. Enjoy
the Musicdoesn't have a "Hall of Fame," but if we did, this
recording would surely be among those so honored; for here is the single
greatest recording of Hindemith's three most popular orchestral works I've
ever heard. So here's a shout-out to those of you who, like me, missed this
release, or (more likely) passed it up at the time.
Technically, I can't quite say that
Bernstein's Mathis der Maler was
worth waiting for when I didn't know it was there in the first place. But this
performance surely confirms my suspicion that he would have something very
special, very personal to say about this glorious score.
And, turns out, he does. Hindemith was a
scrupulous craftsman; and though his orchestral works are not exactly "conductor-proof," the music does indeed lend itself to straightforward
interpretations. If a conductor is willing to execute the composer's
specifications precisely and just happens to be standing in front of a virtuoso
orchestra, an impressive performance is just about guaranteed. It's not a
coincidence that some of the best-recorded performances of Mathis
have been from an impersonal or "objective" point of view. Here I'm
thinking of Guido Cantelli (with the NBC, currently available from Pristine
Audio), William Steinberg (with the Boston Symphony and recently reissued), and
Herbert Kegel (with the Dresden Orchestra, last seen as part of a collection of
Hindemith's orchestral music). I own all three of these performances and have
listened to them with great pleasure over the years.
But Bernstein is something else again. Though
I'm not a critic who pays much attention to timings; in this instance it's
worth noting that Cantelli, Steinberg and Kegel all take 27 minutes or less to
get through the symphony. Bernstein is only a minute or so longer, but what a
difference that minute makes. I know that some of Bernstein's late
performances were controversially slow; his Sibelius Second Symphony and Enigma
Variations, to take two infamous examples. But here the spaciousness allows the
work to unfold as a unified dramatic arc. For Bernstein, Mathis
is truly a symphony (and not a suite from the opera that shares its name); and
he conducts it as such, from the solemn opening bars of the "Angelic
Concert" to its triumphant conclusion. As one would expect, Bernstein
emphasizes the contrasting elements in the score with an expressiveness and
intensity that are sometimes startling (even if you're familiar with the
music). The second movement ("Entombment") is especially dark and restive,
the sense of anguish almost palpable. The opening of the "Temptation of St.
Anthony" has never sounded more grotesque and menacing. Few conductors were
better at building explosive climaxes; and in that movement Bernstein unleashes
a fierce and charged momentum to spectacular effect.
Bernstein recorded both the Concert
Music and Symphonic Metamorphosis
with the New York Philharmonic for Columbia, now Sony Classical, and as good as
those performances are, these more recent ones shine all the brighter. In front
of a crack ensemble like the NY Philharmonic, Bernstein sometimes allowed
himself to be swept way. Thus those older versions are more impulsive, volatile
— brisker, looser, maybe a tad too generalized. The Israel performances are
more concentrated, varied, and intense. Some conductors have made the
unforgivable mistake of approaching the Concert Music as a light and breezy work, a series of chirpy
fanfares, sort of like The Royal Fireworks
Music on steroids. Even the composer's own performance is fairly
literal-minded, a sturdy run-through without any special distinction or
character. For Bernstein, the Concert Music
is an intensely dramatic piece, and his performance of it emphasizes the extreme
contrast between the slower and faster moments in each of its two 8 minute
movements. The opening is lumbering, dark, and sharply dissonant: the prelude to
a life-and-death conflict projected on a grand scale. The allegro that follows
is urgent, heroic, but it's soon overtaken by a mournful adagio. The second
movement opens with a vertiginous whirlwind of a fugue that leads to another
melancholic interlude. The startling and triumphant finale that rises out of
those ashes has an almost elemental force: think Mahler or Nielsen. This is
hands-down, far and away, the greatest performance of the Concert
Music I've ever heard or hope to hear.
Metamorphosis — a piece whose musical slapstick belies its pompous
title — used to be featured regularly on concert programs, and why not? It's
a winning, ingenious and virtuosic showpiece guaranteed to disarm any
audience's reservations about hearing "difficult" modern music.
Performances are much less frequent these days, for reasons I'll never
understand. If you want to send an audience out into the night with their hearts
aflame and their heads spinning, the Symphonic
Metamorphosis will surely do the trick. Though I have heard some less
than effective versions, this is a hard piece to get wrong. Even so, I've
always admired Rafael Kubelik's version with the Chicago Symphony (on
great-sounding mono Mercury recording from 1951) above all others. But Bernstein
matches Kubelik thrill for thrill, and I'd be hard pressed to choose between
them. It's difficult to select the highlights in a performance that's all
highlights. Bernstein gets just about everything right: the punchy yet
determined allegro, the bluesy wail of the scherzo, and the delicate, wistful
melancholy of the andantino. The concluding movement is for me one of the most
exuberant, life-affirming statements in all of music: a soul-rousing march that
will make you want to stand up and cheer. But I strongly advise against it, for
the barrage of brass and percussion at the climax will knock you off your feet.
And you're probably not insured for injuries sustained during listening
sessions. I know from oft repeated and bitter experience that I'm not.
Though Bernstein had close and affectionate
associations with several orchestras over his long career, the bond he formed
with the Israel Philharmonic was perhaps the most enduring and intense.
Bernstein first conducted the orchestra in 1947, at the very beginning of his
career, and he was a welcome and regular guest until his death in 1990. These
recordings were made just the year before his death, and prove that the
chemistry between conductor and orchestra blazed white-hot even at the end. The
orchestra's brilliant response here is an act of passionate devotion. The
sound is a little bright on top, but otherwise spacious and transparent. The
bass packs a considerable wallop.
If you're a fan of Hindemith's orchestral
music, you need to have this disc. If you're a fan of Hindemith's orchestral
music and (as is more likely the case) already own this disc, well then you're
one step ahead of me, and I salute you.