, October 2011
Watching the black-and-white film is like opening a time capsule; the short rehearsal segment shows a middle-aged Bernstein, gravel-voiced and debonair in a white polo neck, concertgoers’ clothes and distinctive eyewear a sartorial snapshot of London in the Swinging Sixties.
Nostalgia aside, this concert shows Bernstein at his charismatic best, directing music by a composer with whom he was closely associated. It’s also a chance to see the players of the LSO, who look more like bank managers and accountants than the top-notch band they were—and still are today. As for the monaural sound and monochrome picture—the latter in 4:3 only—that really isn’t an issue when the performers and performance are as distinguished as this.
There’s a nervous energy here that I just don’t find in the Tokyo recording, the phrasing sharper and more telling as well.
Another startling aspect of this DVD is the heightened sense of vulnerability in the music’s more introverted moments, those writhing, upward figures especially bleak. Indeed, there’s more interest here in terms of colour and texture, of light and shade...The restored visuals are also sharp and well contrasted, not at all like the grainy, soft focus footage one usually associates with such archive material. But really it’s the bipolarity of this symphony that’s most compelling, calm and cataclysm uneasy bedfellows throughout.
It’s been a while since a Shostakovich Fifth has chilled me so, the Largo as desolate as I’ve ever heard it. There’s a concentration here, a unanimity of purpose, that’s just extraordinary. And the interplay of flute and harp has seldom seemed so ethereal, Bernstein wringing every last ounce of tension from those gaunt, spiralling tunes. Thankfully it’s not as overwrought as it might seem, although seasoned Lenny watchers will be mesmerised—or irritated—by Bernstein’s anguished podium antics. Frankly it’s never bothered me, the close-up during that spectral harp passage betraying just how complete the conductor’s connection with this symphony really is. It’s spellbinding stuff, and a tribute to the Beeb’s intuitive camerawork.
The finale is suitably volcanic, the rage and spit of this music superbly rendered. In the tuttis the LSO play with controlled frenzy, the timps and brass as lacerating as you’ll ever hear. But it’s those rare moments of repose that really stand out, Bernstein building the climaxes in a way that’s entirely his own. Remarkably, the recording shows no hint of stress or strain, the cymbals and bass drum powerfully present. As for that pounding peroration, it burns with the whitest, hottest heat, the audience—commendably quiet for December—roaring their approval at the close.
Vintage Lenny; not to be missed.