October 25, 2018


Leonard Bernstein: An American in Paris—Music of Berlioz, Milhaud, Schumann, Bloch, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, and Bernstein. Orchestre National de France conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Warner Classics. $24.98 (7 CDs).

     Hagiography appears inevitable in centenary celebrations. Certainly Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) is coming in for his share of it – much of it deserved. Bernstein could be described as a musical polymath: an internationally respected conductor, a composer of traditional and modern classical music and of popular and show music that seems to be standing the test of time, a very fine pianist, a superb educator who used TV as the educational medium that its early proponents hoped it could become, and more. Although Bernstein’s conducting career is most closely associated with the New York Philharmonic, he conducted, often with considerable aplomb, a variety of other orchestras – including, in the mid-and-late 1970s, Orchestre National de France. Warner Classics has done a genuine service to 21st-century music lovers by producing a boxed set of very well remastered versions of many Bernstein performances with this orchestra – plus some first-ever releases of material recorded live in concert, and even a set of four rehearsal excerpts. The result is an exceptionally well-rounded portrayal of Bernstein with this orchestra and in this time period – and there is some excellent music-making as well.

     Note, however, that “some.” You would never know it from the enclosed booklet, which mentions the music not at all and includes only comments from musicians that praise Bernstein to the skies as if he represented the second coming of all that is great in the musical world, but the performances here are decidedly a mixed bag – as were Bernstein’s performances in general. Thus, the genuine service to music lovers that this set presents is not necessarily the one it is intended to present: it shows Bernstein’s very considerable podium gifts, and a touch of his pianistic skill as well, while also making some of his shortcomings clear. Ironically, this makes the seven-CD, nearly seven-hour-long set all the more worth having for anyone who wonders just what made Bernstein so special, so popular, and at times so controversial.

     Two of the discs are devoted to Berlioz, and one of them is a real winner: Harold en Italie, with violist Donald McInnes, is elegant, soulful, and much more symphonically connected (it is essentially a symphony with viola obbligato) than in most performances. The middle movements, in particular, have delicacy of expression and, in the third, some simple and outright joy that make the contrast with the longer and more-dramatic outer movements all the better. But Symphonie fantastique, whose Romantic excess would seem a perfect match for Bernstein’s personal ebullience and sometimes over-large personality, is rather surprisingly tame in its last two movements. The first three are excellent, with an unusually slow Un bal that Bernstein makes convincing and a very extended Scène aux champs that hangs together surprisingly well. But Marche au supplice, although it starts dramatically enough, is almost understated at the end, just when one would expect Bernstein to make it over-the-top. And the bizarre elements of the final Witches’ Sabbath are by and large downplayed, with the exception of the church bells, whose first entry is genuinely chilling and whose repeated tolling makes the atmosphere very eerie indeed. But somehow the final movement never quite coalesces or, more to the point, climaxes with the sort of conclusion that, in the best performances, can leave audiences gasping. It is all right, certainly, and the orchestra plays quite well for Bernstein (throughout this entire set, in fact), but this conductor-with-a-flair-for-the-dramatic never quite lets everything go as far as it can here.

     The disc of Milhaud’s music, on the other hand, is first-rate throughout. It includes La Création du monde, Le Bœuf sur le toit, and four of the 12 Saudades do Brasil. Despite the boxed set’s title, it includes no Gershwin, but on this CD Bernstein shows his flair for jazz and the jazzy very clearly indeed. And the orchestra plays these century-old works as if they are brand-new, their rhythms and harmonies sparkling and their storytelling bright and polished. Bernstein is also in top form on a CD featuring cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who was himself to become an adequate if not especially distinguished conductor in later years. Here Bernstein’s interpretative finesse, along with that of Rostropovich, takes two dissimilar works and highlights considerable emotional resonance between them. They are Schumann’s Cello Concerto and Bloch’s Schelomo, both of which come across here as extended fantasies. The approach works somewhat better in the Bloch than the Schumann, which some listeners will likely find overextended and rhythmically a touch flabby. But this CD shows tremendous rapport between soloist and conductor, and even an interpretation that may not be to everyone’s liking helps make the Bernstein portrait within this boxed set more complete.

     Less rapport is in evidence with Alexis Weissenberg, who is heard in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. It is hard to know whether Weissenberg or Bernstein was the driving force in the shaping of this performance, but the two do not seem to mesh as well as Bernstein does with Rostropovich. Perhaps Bernstein, himself a pianist, had some ideas with which Weissenberg did not see eye-to-eye. In any case, this reading shows one of the downsides of Bernstein’s conducting: listeners who enjoy it will call it expansive, but most will more likely find it bloated and at times just plain slow (Bernstein did have a habit of conducting the music of some composers, notably Beethoven, unusually slowly). This is a 40-minute concerto that here runs almost 47 minutes, and listeners who know the music may well find themselves repeatedly and fecklessly asking the musicians to, please, pick up the pace.

     The Rachmaninoff CD contains material that is more interesting than the concerto, though: four excerpts from 1975 rehearsal sessions of music by Ravel, including Alborada del gracioso, Shéhérazade, Piano Concerto in G, and La Valse. Listeners have to know French to follow what Bernstein tells the orchestra, but even those who do not know the language will appreciate the meticulousness with which Bernstein approaches even the smallest detail of the music, going over and over and over the same passage until eventually, satisfied as regards a bit of the concerto, he says, with a sigh, Gott sei dank. No need to be an expert in German to understand that. Elsewhere, dissatisfied with a portion of La Valse, Bernstein lapses into English, “No good, no good, no good.” But in the half-hour-plus of rehearsal material, he is actually remarkably positive in his comments most of the time, shaping the performances gently but firmly. The insight into his rehearsal style is a highlight of this entire release.

     Ravel is the primary focus of the final two CDs in this set, with the four works heard in rehearsal given in their entirety in performances, and joined by Tzigane for violin and orchestra (Boris Belkin is the violinist) and Boléro, which is heard immediately after La Valse in an excellent juxtaposition: here are pieces in which Bernstein really does cut loose, and the result is thrilling and involving. Marilyn Horne’s warm, elegant soprano voice in Shéhérazade beautifully evokes the dreamlike word painting of Tristan Klingsor, although listeners will have to find the texts online, since, as noted, there is nothing about the music included in this set. Piano Concerto in G features Bernstein himself as soloist, and listening to the whole piece after hearing Bernstein rehearse some of it (playing with the orchestra part of the time and deliberately not playing at other times) adds considerable depth to an interpretation that is excellent in all respects. Clearly, something in Bernstein resonated to Ravel, and the affinity became especially deep when he performed Ravel’s music with a quintessentially French orchestra – and live in concert, where the two final CDs were recorded. The seven-disc set concludes with two suites by Bernstein himself, both of which show just how fully he understood the more-popular side of music and incorporated classical training and thinking into it. One suite is drawn from Bernstein’s music for the film On the Waterfront, and the other, inevitably, is Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story,” whose nine movements encapsulate Bernstein’s most-famous composition while standing very effectively on their own in the concert hall. This exceptionally well-priced set, if intended primarily to elevate Bernstein to an unapproachable level, falls a bit short on that score (which is to say, with these scores). But really, hagiographic impulses aside, Bernstein was a supremely talented and multifaceted musician, although scarcely one who was unequaled in everything he did. There is enough excellent music-making here to remind listeners familiar with Bernstein of why he was so widely admired and why his conducting style was not to everyone’s taste. It turns out that he, like everyone else, had manifest strengths and evident weaknesses. That is not at all a bad thing to learn from this very welcome and much-appreciated release.

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