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Leonard Bernstein's timeless masterpieces

Leonard Bernstein’s timeless masterpieces — A collection of the late conductor’s greatest art on recording and video

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Leonard Bernstein’s timeless masterpieces

Much of the magnetism of Leonard Bernstein in performance never quite made it onto records. Apparently no microphone yet devised could pick up the vibrations that emanated from Lenny’s podium — not the famous acrobatics of his younger days, not the sense of his deep absorption in the pure joy of music.

He recorded constantly, and a lavish number of recent discs still await release — some of them a third or fourth go-round of repertory works, but others (including an album of music by American composers Ned Rorem and David Del Tredici) important additions to the catalog.

Of course, the existing Bernstein discography is full of glittering prizes. Among his currently available recordings are no fewer than three Beethoven Ninths (including the recent one from the Berlin Wall). But they aren’t the best examples of Bernstein’s abilities. A list of recommended records would have to begin with West Side Story (the 1957 original cast album, please, not Bernstein’s bloated, 1985 remake with opera singers). And it would continue with:

Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 88 and 92 With the Vienna Philharmonic
(Deutsche Grammophon; CD)
Haydn, among classic composers, always elicited a particular Bernstein sympathy, perhaps because in his own time Haydn himself had been a constant innovator. These elegant, crisp performances are something to cherish.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 With the Vienna Philharmonic
(Deutsche Grammophon; CD)
Of all Beethoven’s symphonies, the Seventh, with its sheer driving energy, seemed closest to Bernstein’s heart. His love for the work shows in this ardent recording (coupled with the Symphony No. 1), which surpasses, but only slightly, an earlier one with the New York Philharmonic (CBS Masterworks; CD).

Mahler: Symphony No. 3 With soloists, chorus, and the New York Philharmonic)
(Deutsche Grammophon; CD, T)
Glorious, overstuffed, larger than life: This, of all Mahler symphonies, demands not to be taken seriously, and Bernstein uses it for a heaven-storming performance, ending with a reading of the rapt finale that stops the breath.

Ives: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3 With the New York Philharmonic
(CBS Masterworks; CD)
These quiet, serious, and eloquent American works came into the repertoire after decades of gathering dust, thanks to Bernstein’s revivals. His urgent feeling for Ives’ powerfully original music comes across strongly.

Verdi: Falstaff With soloists and the Vienna Philharmonic
(CBS Masterworks; CD)
Verdi’s crystalline comedy was the vehicle for Bernstein’s Metropolitan Opera debut in 1964. This gorgeously detailed performance, with Dietrich Fischer- Dieskau’s Falstaff, holds its place with the very best.

On video
Rumors abound that CBS will release the best of Bernstein’s 30-year-old television shows, in which music leaps off the manuscript page into glowing life. But meanwhile there are 12 major releases on videodisc, powerful enough to convince even the most hesitant buyer to acquire equipment for this sharpest of all video media. Far better than the audio discs, they capture the leaping essence of Bernstein in action.

The best of them (all from Deutsche Grammophon) include Mahler’s Second and Eighth symphonies, and two items luckily also available on videotape: the stirring Berlin Wall Beethoven’s Ninth, and — as an exercise in futility handsomely captured — West Side Story: The Making of the Recording, a documentary look at Bernstein’s unfortunate 1985 retake on his musical. Sadly, it underscores even better than the final product just how woeful the members of Bernstein’s operatic cast were in their roles.