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James A. Altena
Fanfare, November 2010

Although Debussy did not figure largely in Bernstein’s repertoire, the conductor had an innate affinity for the composer’s music. We are therefore fortunate to have this concert, from scarcely a year before Bernstein’s death, preserving his interpretations of this repertoire in digital sound. Bernstein’s older Columbia recordings with the New York Philharmonic from 1960–63 are also still in print, although to duplicate this particular program one must acquire two different CDs (one from Sony, the other an ArkivMusic reissue). Those performances, however, are completely superseded by the present ones, both sonically and interpretively. In his later years Bernstein became decidedly self-indulgent, and his performances sometimes assumed bloated dimensions, as in the famous (or notorious) 1989 Christmas Day Berlin performance of the Beethoven Ninth. (I was blessed to attend that concert in person, being resident in East Berlin for my doctoral dissertation research at the time. As an interpretation it verged on the preposterous, but I still wouldn’t have missed it for all the world.) Here, however, he is in top form, eliciting performances with superb clarity of line, pellucid orchestral color and instrumental balance, and moderate tempi that are convincingly right at every point. Debussy is not the first thing I, as someone partial to Romantic German and Slavic orchestral repertoire, think to take off the shelf for personal listening pleasure, but Bernstein leaves me marveling at the sheer genius of these masterworks, providing a joy of rediscovery.

There are of course many performances of these works available on CD; most readers will already have their favorites, so I will not assay a broader discussion that in any case would exceed the bounds of this review. Regarding performances on DVD, this is the only complete performance of Images available. (For whatever reason, Bernstein altered the order of its three movements and placed Iberia in third position.) The Naxos issue with Alexander Rahbari and the Belgian Radio Symphony, which also has the Prélude and La Mer, omits Iberia in favor of the Nocturnes; those are solid performances but not in the same class as these. The only other DVD to feature both the Prélude and La Mer is with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, reviewed negatively by Christopher Abbot in Fanfare 26:2 and positively by Colin Clarke in 32:3. I do not intend to enter the lists of the debates between champions and detractors of the German and American maestros; suffice it to say that in these works I prefer Bernstein’s clarity and sense of motion to Karajan’s lushness and perfumed languor. His DVD has more interesting camerawork to boot, with better lighting and more varied and better close-ups of the instrumentalists. The sound quality is excellent, the recordings having been made for commercial issue at the time. For those with more slender wallets, or who are uninterested in the visual aspects of an orchestral concert, these same performances were issued on CD by DG and are still in print as an ArkivMusic reissue. Strongly recommended.



William Hedley
MusicWeb International, June 2010

In the booklet essay accompanying this issue, Harald Reiter refers to “acclaimed concerts” in Rome in 1989. There’s no way of knowing, however, if the present disc is a recording of a single one of these concerts or an amalgam of more than one. Curiously, video credits roll over the screen at the end of what one imagines to be the first half of the concert, but otherwise we have the impression that we are present at a single event. This is a recording, then, of a concert, quite simply and with no extras. As such, it is a valuable record of a live performance from Bernstein toward the end of his life.

Two quotations adorn the DVD box, one, from Il Giornale, “Bernstein’s Debussy is neither ethereal nor gelatinous, but uncommonly vital, caught in the full light of the midday sun”; the other, from La Stampa, “An unprecedented triumph”. Certainly the audience reacts enthusiastically to these performances, and Bernstein himself seems uncommonly satisfied at the end. His later performances were often characterised by extreme points of view, in particular in respect of tempi. In the first of Debussy’s orchestral Images, Gigues, he adds a minute or so to Haitink’s timing in that conductor’s Philips reading from 1977, but this is mainly due to the slower passages, in particular the closing pages, highly atmospheric at a very steady tempo. Scrupulous attention has clearly been paid in rehearsal to matters of balance, so carefully are the important wind solos given prominence whilst remaining wholly integrated in the overall sound picture. This is a performance of one of Debussy’s more inscrutable pieces—in spite of its being based on The Keel Row—which brings out more than most its atmospheric, impressionist character. Bernstein chose to follow with the third piece, and Rondes de printemps, receives a similarly fine and detailed performance. He then launches the first of the three pieces which make up Ibéria in characteristic fashion, communicating the dance rhythms with his whole body rather than just with the stick. Tempi in the two rapid pieces are again steady, and a comparison with Haitink again—especially when you listen to Bernstein without looking at the screen—confirms the view that the Dutch conductor is more successful at making the music dance. But Haitink’s is a truly exceptional Debussy collection, and a rather unfair comparison, and given the combined sound and vision of this issue, no collector will find Bernstein wanting. There are, in any event, some very fine things in this performance. Orchestral colour is remarkably well controlled, for example, all the more so given that this is a live performance. Then the gradual awakening of the town on the morning of Fiesta day—the third movement of Ibéria—is spectacularly well evoked. Another feature not to be missed is the solo playing, wind and strings, and in particular some truly inspired playing from the principal viola in the first movement.

The second half of the concert begins with Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. This is an expansive performance by any standards—including Bernstein’s own, recorded in New York in 1960—and I don’t think these performers conjure up the sultry heat or the erotic charge as well as do the finest performances available. But once again it is the beauty of the orchestral sound which strikes the viewer: several details usually hidden are clearly audible, and Bernstein and the orchestra conjure up a dramatically rich palette of colours. La Mer again features some very slow speeds, and there are certainly moments when one wishes he would move the music on. In addition, he is remarkably free with rhythm and pacing in linking passages, holding back, luxuriously savouring the moment. Were this not a concert performance, some of these moments might pall on repetition. Nonetheless this is a fine and convincing performance on its own terms. Bernstein drives the second movement to a fine climax, as he also does in the final movement which brings the concert to an end in suitably exciting and crowd-pleasing fashion.

Bernstein was always a very physical conductor, with a tendency toward two-handed, cutlass-swinging baton work, or, in quieter passages, taking the stick in his left hand in order to shape the phrases with his right. Another speciality, frequently encountered, was for both feet to leave the ground. Here, some sixteen months before his death, his arrival on and departure from the platform are stately, and he cuts a sadly tired-looking, and paunchy, figure. His stick technique is impressive, giving a clear yet flexible beat, and further nuances are communicated by facial expression plus whole-body movements rather than by the left hand. Indeed, for much of the concert he holds his glasses in his left hand, and the viewer can spend many a happy minute playing “hunt the specs” when one realises that once again they have disappeared from his face. His gestures are far more economic than they once were, and there is a feeling of thorough preparation about these performances, with little left to chance or spontaneous inspiration on the night.

The camera work is skilful and unfussy on the whole, allowing one to listen to the music. But, as at a live concert, the visual element is an important part of the whole experience. Bernstein is frequently seen in close-up, so we have a better view than the Roman audience of the perspiration dripping from his fevered brow, and even, at one point, from his fevered nose. And as a keen observer of conductors, I could have done with rather less in the way of close-up filming, as Bernstein, of all conductors, should be seen whole! The orchestra, let it be said, are a glum lot. Thank goodness their playing is so communicative, as you’d never guess they were having a good time to look at them. The camera generally finds the right people at the right time, and with fine sound this is as satisfying a way to experience this concert as one could imagine.






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8:04:57 PM, 27 December 2014
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