FIVE PERFORMANCES BY WHICH I'D LIKE TO REMEMBER BERNSTEIN, and FIVE I'D AS SOON FORGET:
1. Mozart's 40th: Yeah, I know--sorry, all of you who don't go for this one, but it DOES THE JOB for me as well as any.....even with Bernstein's own idiosyncratic phrasing in the finale (NY Phil performance, I mean);
2. Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique--Bernstein 1, I'm talking about.....he saw fit to elaborate on it just five years after this 1963 performance, but this particular rendering of this all-time fave of mine, is a BEAUT. He takes his own sweet time all around, and it's apparently not to everyone's taste (for some reason, STEREO REVIEW critic David Hall called this performance "Tchaikovskian"); but Bernstein finds suicidal romanticism lurking in every possible creavice; and even the seeming tastelessness in the last movement's tuba blasts adds perfectly to the atmosphere. The third movement's final thunderclap is DEAFENING--almost every other maestro makes it anticlimactic. In this recording Bernstein shows lingering signs of his Koussevitzky influence (it's a tragedy that that maestro's interpretation never was issued commercially....it led to so much in the present performance); nevertheless, it's a performance one can be thankful for;
3. Handel's Messiah--by no means a complete one, but one that Columbia (to the disdain of the audiophiles) crammed as much as they could onto 2 LPs, with each side exceeding a half-hour. This Messiah's always been my favorite: what it lacks in scholarship, it makes up for threefold in terms of heart and drama.
4. Smetana's Moldau--my introduction to the piece; many a Czech performance has yielded way more woodsy folksiness and natural beauty, but Bernstein's is a spirited reading that "sold" me on the piece;
5. Haydn's Symphonies & Oratorios--little more need be added to the praise heaped on these.....it's where Koussevitzky left his deepest imprint on Bernstein's sytle.
1. Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue--you'll shoot me, I know, for dragging in this well-regarded performance, littered as it is with eccentricities. But Bernstein makes several huge cuts in this piece, INCLUDING MY VERY FAVORITE SECTION: that short part just preceding the pianist's cadenza before the big "romantic" theme appears. It's where the oboe & bassoon (a la Scheherazade) play the first theme in octaves, accompanied by high seconds in the piano--reminds me of chickens pecking on corn. I HATE THAT HE LEAVES IT OUT!!! Of course, Bernstein defends this in his book The Joy Of Music, where he describes the Rhapsody as not a composition at all, but an editing job held by a thin paste of flour & water, and that no cut can affect it at all. I must disagree;
2. Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice--another well-hailed performance, one that more than one critic pointed out revealed details heretofore unheard in the piece.....could it be that said details weren't meant to stick out? There's nothing here that Paray or Gaubert didn't reveal first or better. Bernstein doesn't keep consistency in the tempo relationships at beginning & end: the end's WAY faster than the start. Bernstein committs the same sin so many non-French maestros commit with the tempo of the contrabassoon's solo: too fast, it should be about 80 to the dotted-quarter (it should sound, eerily, like a severed piece of broom slowly, painfully, dragging itself up off the floor....so many interpreters lose the spooky element in this). And Bernstein's up to his old tricks in allowing an accidental banging of his baton against his music stand to be heard in a silent spot;
3. Ravel's Rapsodie Espagnole--He did 2 recordings of this, the first in his bestselling "Bolero" LP of the 50s (Coumbia MS-6011); in fact, this album symbolizes the dichotomy of my affections for Bernstein's interpretive gifts. Whereas his Bolero & La Valse are spot-on, the Rapsodie (perhaps Ravel's most gimmicky orchestral work) has all the seams painfully revealed....clumsy, turgid playing typical of the truculent NYP players who'd bullied Mitropoulos. Bernstein's early-70s remake gave HIGH FIDELITY's critic to remark, "Bernstein knows how to turn a silk purse into a sow's ear";
4, Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre--Though Bernstein commendably tries to maintain a nice gothic atmosphere to this and his Sorcerer's Apprentice (see above), he commits the sin of ROBBING this piece of its big joke: the solo violinist must tune his E-string down to E-flat (making for a tritone--the DEVIL's interval, right?). Concertmaster David Nadien declines. How can I hear this? By the vibrato in Nadien's opening E-flat (he's likely doing the A/E-flat interval on the D & A strtings). Nearly every single other violinist I've heard bothers with this; and moreover, the man screeches like Jack Benny on a good day. This is inexcusable;
5. The Sibelius Symphonies--Sorry, folks, but I've traversed Bernstein's Second & Fifth recordings (NYP) & probably one other symphony in his cycle, and I'm not optimistic. This must be because Bernstein's imagination gets in the way of MY OWN imagination. I prefer a Sibelius conductor who'll stand back at just the right moment & let my own fancies take over; OBJECTIVISM is the key. Naturally, with THIS music, you can't really blame in individualistic interpreter, but it gets in the way for me.
Of course, just to show I'm still ardently pro-Bernstein, I'll trot out my preferences for Bernstein's Beethoven Fifth, his Zampa/Orpheus/Fidelio Overtures, his Bartok Concerto For Orchestra, and virtually any of his Coplands.
Good music is that which falls upon the ear with ease, and quits the memory with difficulty.
--Sir Thomas Beecham