Lennie Redux

Dan Davis

[April 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:4.]

What best becomes a legend? Reissue status. But sometimes even legends languish in record company vaults until the marketing suits figure out ways to turn them into corporate cash cows. These alchemists have now discovered the recipe. Take one part magical artists superior to today’s crop, one part nostalgia, one part technological advances, mix, and voila, a reissue series to set mouths watering. It worked for other labels, and now Universal (né Polygram) has uncorked the treasures of the Decca catalogue, gussied them up in 24/96 remastering downsampled (Decca calls it “noise shaped) to 44.1kHz/16-bit stereo, and released them in a new series with uniform covers, logos, and facsimiles of the original LP covers, the latter, alas, only on the back of the pamphlets.

An alternative route to milking the vaults is taken by Sony, which shrewdly looked at today’s crop of podium nonentities and realized that the recorded output of a real conductor like Leonard Bernstein could profitably recycled ad infinitum. Sony’s previous Bernstein excavation project, the Royal Edition (adorned with insipid cover paintings by Great Britain’s underemployed Prince of Wales), is being replaced with a new series, “Bernstein Century.”

We’ll look at that welcome development, but first, let’s see what Decca’s Legends offer. A group from the first release batch brought fond memories of the wonderful London ffss and ffrr LPs I grew up with, very good to great performances in very good to great sound. As befits a monster first release it’s impossible to choose the top two or three, so I’ll highlight a representative sample and offer thumbnail comments about several others. But there isn’t a clinker in the bunch I heard, although some Decca Legends titles never struck me as the stuff of legends.

I was most curious about the Tebaldi-Bergonzi-von Karajan Aida [Decca Legends 460978] since I missed its previous incarnations. I recall criticisms about the sound: the orchestra was supposedly too far forward, with the singers often swamped. Maybe that’s why I didn’t get it when it first came out; I like voices upfront and close-up on records, though I’ll readily admit that it’s the other way around in a big opera house. Anyway, this remastering sounds fine to me; the orchestra placed along the speaker plane and the singers just behind them. There’s stage movement (naturally — it’s a Culshaw production) and there’s typical Wilkinson/Decca sound — robust, detailed, always involving. At realistic volume levels (the CD is cut lower than usual), when the brass cut loose you get their burly power and edge; when the singers emote, their voices are full-bodied and surrounded by a halo of house sound (Vienna’s Sofiensaal).

This is a compelling Aida, especially for those who revel in a virtuoso orchestra going through its paces. Under von Karajan, the Vienna Phil plays with breathtaking elegance and refinement, not perhaps the ideal attributes of a Verdian pit band but undeniably riveting, as are the conductor’s tempo choices, often slower than usual. In 1959, Tebaldi was a great Aida even if she was in fresher voice for her earlier mono recording. The rap on Tebaldi was “beautiful voice, bland singing,” a criticism that applied to some studio recordings but never to her live stage performances, where her ravishing spinto soprano always caught the essence of the characters and the emotion of the music. Here, she’s anything but bland; even a cursory audition of her “O patria mia” proves that. Bergonzi is a characterful, stylish Radames, Simionato a terrific, full-bodied Amneris, and the rest of the cast is vocally fine. So I’ll go along with the “legendary” status accorded this performance; it’s among the choice stereo Aidas on disc, though I prefer RCA’s mono 1955 version with Milanov and Björling, also at mid-price. Tebaldi’s first version with Mario Del Monaco as an exciting Radames, still awaiting CD reissue, is preferable to this one too, as are several other contenders, but you can never have too many Aidas.

The Curzon-Szell version of Brahms’ massive First Concerto [Decca Legends 466376] was an instant classic when released in 1962 and recommending it in 2000 is still a no-brainer, especially in this impactful remastering which doesn’t fully ameliorate the shrill string sound I recall from my old London LP. The catalogue includes excellent versions by Gilels, Arrau, Solomon and others that, in different ways, equal Curzon’s insights. My current enthusiasm is for a live 1962 Munich performance with Claudio Arrau’s volatile pianism burning up the keyboard and Rafael Kubelik conducting like a latter-day Furtwängler [Orfeo C 500 991B]. Curzon’s performance is an interesting contrast to Arrau’s; but his shallower tone and aristocratic approach are as valid and Szell’s passionate accompaniment, symphonic in scope and classic in outline, support his conception.

Which just goes to show that stereotypes often don’t match reality. The supposedly stodgy Arrau actually was an exciting pianist and Szell belied his iceberg reputation in live performance and sometimes, as here, in the studio. He screws up the tension in the orchestra’s opening statement and then, through judicious rubato and a warming of the string tone, makes the second subject come alive, offering a mini-lesson in great conducting. As for Curzon, he gets to the heart of the music, playing with rapt concentration and understated drama. The way Curzon sustains the Adagio is wondrous, never losing the line despite what may be the slowest version on record (at 16 minutes it’s well over two minutes slower than the controversially slow Glenn Gould-Leonard Bernstein concert performance from 1962). With Boult, Curzon’s Franck is on a similarly lofty plane, and the Litolff is a worthy filler.

The disc of Radu Lupu playing Schubert’s infinitely absorbing Impromptus [Decca Legends 460975] is another winner. Lupu is a keyboard poet, and Schubert’s lyrical gems seem made to order for his artistry. He sings the gorgeous melodies with limpid, radiant tone. The intimacy Lupu achieves in the G-flat Impromptu makes one feel the pianist is playing for you alone, an effect heightened by the engineering. There’s a luminosity to Lupu’s traversal of these bittersweet works that’s irresistible; his pianism glitters with subtle lights and shades that illuminate the music. His elegant pianism doesn’t stint on the dramatic contrasts, nor does he neglect the dark poetry that pulls these gems into deeper regions. There are many fine versions of these classics; Lupu’s stands with the best.

That comment applies to others in the series, such as the baritone version of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, with Leonard Bernstein leading an inspired Vienna Philharmonic, tenor James King and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau [Decca Legends 466381]. Sir Georg Solti’s Mahler 8th is another, its 1971 sound (Wilkinson again) powerfully present in a remastering superior to its earlier CD release; more transparent and detailed, climaxes less constricted [Decca Legends 460972].

If for some inexplicable reason you don’t own (in any format) Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, Schumann’s Five Pieces in Folk Style, or Debussy’s Cello Sonata as played by Mstislav Rostropovitch and Benjamin Britten, get Decca Legends 460974 immediately. The overly critical may find that Debussy’s fragile innards are slightly creased in Slava’s bearhug (I don’t), but the Schubert and Schumann never sounded better than under the fingers of these great artists. The recording puts them in the your listening room, miraculously present, capturing every tonal nuance and drawing you into the music as few discs can.

On a less exalted plane, but interesting nonetheless, is a 1967 Brahms Concerto No. 2 with Wilhelm Backhaus, Karl Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic. This is a piece requiring a young man’s chops, but the 83-year-old Backhaus’s burly, straightforward approach convinces here, as it does on its discmate, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27, from 1955 [Decca Legends 466380].

Finally, Decca Legends 466377 offers Istvan Kertesz’s brilliant version of Bartók’s opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, featuring Christa Ludwig as the ill-fated bride and Walter Berry as a patient, saddened Bluebeard. I’ve always loved Dorati’s performance on Mercury but Kertesz is in the same league, drawing full, warm sounds from the London Symphony and aided by Decca’s spectacular engineering (Wilkinson again, at Kingsway Hall).

Audiophiles should be aware of a strange problem afflicting some of these discs. At what I’d call normal listening levels (i.e., below the level that drives the neighbors to call the cops) they sound fine, but on some systems, at loud, or what audiophiles call “concert hall levels,” electronic artifacts become apparent. In the Curzon Brahms First, this is revealed in an electronic screech over the high violins. In the Aida, a similar overlaid electronic artifact intrudes on Tebaldi’s high notes. I didn’t hear it on my system but one golden-eared listener complained about it and when I brought it to a friend’s house, his solid-state system reproduced it too. Consider this a word to the wise.

No such oddities afflict Sony’s Bernstein series, although the sound varies from excellent to pretty bad, depending on the original recording, and the transfer. Taken as a whole, though, the typical Bernstein Century disc offers decent sounding transfers of fine performances.

“Underrated” is hardly a word most people would think of in connection with Leonard Bernstein. At his death in 1990, he was a revered figure whose concerts and recordings enjoyed both popular and critical acclaim. But in his years at the helm of the New York Philharmonic, his popularity with audiences was matched by the disdain of the critics, who were by turns patronizing or hostile.

Why? For one thing, a Eurocentric bias made it tough for any American conductor, much less one whose informality was the antithesis of the god-like maestro. Bernstein was “Lenny,” but would anyone dare call Toscanini “Artie,” or Furtwängler “Willie?” Familiarity bred, if not contempt, suspicion about artistic worth, especially of one who broke other taboos, too. He talked a lot, in concerts and on the tube. He tried to educate the masses to good music. His showmanship included objectionable podium tricks — ass-wiggling, balletic leaps and frenzied poses that seemed calculated to excite audiences at the expense of the music. Add to these factors such as his relative youth and the abundance of world-class conductors (the other American Big Five orchestras were then led by Reiner, Munch, Szell and Ormandy).

There’s a myth that the irrepressible, somewhat immature “Lenny” ultimately morphed into the wise older conductor whose intensely personal vision is best found on his later recordings for DG. Well, Lenny was a lot better than many of us would admit in those long-ago days. Beneath the pop star trappings and audience-pandering was a serious musician, as we hear on these “Bernstein Century” reissues.

The crowning glory of the series is, of course, Bernstein’s Mahler cycle with the New York Philharmonic, now sounding better than ever in Sony’s remastering. Many, including myself, prefer these more vibrant, less exaggerated (though still extremely subjective) performances to his later DG cycle. But there was more to Bernstein than a compelling personal view of Mahler. A lot more. A recent batch of Bernstein Century recordings reminds us that he was an excellent conductor of the classics and an indispensable champion of American music.

First out of the box is his 1962 recording of Bach’s St Matthew [Sony SM2K 60727]. At first glance, it seems noncompetitive: it’s in English, with cuts, unfamiliar soloists, and the big-band Bach that’s out of favor in these days of desiccated “period” performances with “authentic” instruments, wretched countertenors and all-male choruses.

But a few minutes listening is all it takes to sweep reservations away. I prefer original language performances because the sound of the text is itself part of the music –just listen to a Verdi opera in German translation and you know it’s all wrong. But the translation (credited to a Rev. Dr. Troutbeck) fits the music, and whatever’s lost is compensated for English-speakers by immediacy. The cuts are regrettable but not fatal. The soloists range from good to mediocre, but the dramatic verve of the performance shines through.

In a 16-minute spoken analysis on the second disc, Professor Lenny repeatedly emphasizes the dramatic nature of this most operatic of oratorios. His conducting underlines its human, as well as cosmic, drama, relating Bach’s musical gestures to his emotional message. Anyone can conduct a Mahleresque St Matthew if he were so inclined but few could keep the intense drama from overflowing the Bachian framework. Lenny does.

So this St Matthew is more than a simple reminder of the Bernstein magic; it’s also a recommendable version of a work whose inexhaustible riches demand a variety of interpretations. My own preferences are for the mystical Furtwängler (EMI, also heavily cut), the devout Klemperer (EMI, an incredible all-star cast of singers) and the middle-of-the-road Wöldike (Vanguard), but the Bernstein is a worthy supplement.

I haven’t heard a Bernstein-led Beethoven symphony in many years, so the 1964 New York Eroica came as a pleasant surprise, as did the full, vibrant sound Sony’s wrung from the originals. The orchestra’s spread across a wide, deep stage and the recording is detailed and involving. Those whiplash opening E Major chords hit you right in the solar plexus and the rest of the performance is crisp and straightforward, leavened by just enough personal touches to make it Lenny’s own. The big surprise for me was the relatively distanced Funeral March, where you’d expect some heavy breathing. Checking other Eroicas, I found Bernstein’s timings closest overall to Erich Kleiber’s 1955 Decca Vienna version — they’re within seconds of each other in every movement. Lenny talks on this disc too, a 14-minute analysis of the conflicts at the core of the first movement.

The fantastical, innovative music of Berlioz made for a natural fit with Bernstein’s fantastical, innovative conducting style, as we hear in his first, 1961 New York, version of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy [Sony SMK 60696]. Originally requested by Nicolo Paganini, who wanted a big, flashy virtuoso piece, Berlioz turned Harold into a classical symphony (though programmatic) with viola obbligato based on Byrons poem Childe Harold. Paganini, of course, never played the work but today’s violists love it. And why not? It’s stunningly beautiful.

William Lincer, then the Philharmonic’s first violist, is a discreet, sometimes nasal-toned soloist. His languid statement of the pensive opening viola theme is phrased with the tenderness of Jussi Björling singing a melting tenor aria. Bernstein leads a performance tilted toward the dramatic (what else?) with a whirlwind ending. I prefer it to the more classical conception of Sir Colin Davis, if not to such really great Harold’s as the Markevitch (DG) and William Primrose’s RCA Boston recordings (with Koussevitsky and Munch), where Berlioz’s idiom and his tenuous balance between the classical and Romantic, lyric and dramatic, is caught more naturally.

The filler is an early cantata for solo mezzo-soprano, La Mort de Cléopâtre, movingly sung by Jennie Tourel, one of Bernstein’s favorite collaborators. By 1961 Tourel was past her prime but her sensitivity to the text makes it easy to listen past her somewhat clouded vocalism. She means what she sings and it comes across, aided by Bernstein’s sensitive orchestral accompaniment.

Bernstein had the clout to record more American music than any other conductor, and it’s amply represented in the Bernstein Century series. One important recent release includes Harold Shapero’s Symphony for Classical Orchestra, a 44-minute, four-movement symphony written in 1947 but sounding as if it belongs to the era of Haydn and Beethoven [Sony SMK 60725]. Depending on your outlook, it’s either hopelessly outdated or it’s a daring anticipation of the 1990s vogue for imitative pastiche. The ghosts of Haydn and Beethoven loom large, but an even stronger thumbprint is left by Stravinsky’s neo-classic period. Influences aside, it’s a strong work, graceful and tender (especially its sweetly sung Adagietto) and undeserving of neglect. The Symphony languished unheard for years after this 1953 recording. André Previn took it up in concert and recorded it for New World Records in 1988, after which it again lapsed into limbo. Both recordings are good. Timings are quite close, but Previn’s sounds a bit more laid back and Bernstein’s more urgent, a matter of sharper rhythmic profile and stronger accents.

Don’t let the disc’s “mono” tag put you off, because the Shapero and its discmates, Nikolai Lopatnikoff’s Concertino for Orchestra and Luigi Dallapicola’s Tartiniana, are mono with plenty of presence and bite. Only a touch of hardness in the massed violins and a slight airlessness in the Shapero betray the recording date. The Lopatnikoff is a neat example of perky neoclassicism and the Dallapicola, a blend of neo-Baroque and modified twelve-tone serialism, is quite fetching.

One of the earlier Bernstein Century releases, Sony SMK 63164, devoted to the music of Lukas Foss, is a real find. Like Dallapicola, Foss is a modernist with a love of the Baroque and his Phorion deconstructs Bach with loving graciousness. The CD also includes the lovely Song of Songs with Jennie Tourel, but the prime attraction is the orchestral version of Time Cycle. It’s a brilliant setting of time-related poems and prose by Auden, Housman, Kafka and Nietzche separated by quasi-improvised interludes featuring a chamber quartet whose delicate commentaries act as foils for the songs with orchestra, superbly sung by silvery-voiced soprano, Adele Addison. I compared the sound with the original Columbia 6-eye, MS 6280 and while the LP has a bit more air and spaciousness, Sony’s transfer runs it a close second.

Sony’s mining of its enormous Bernstein catalogue is bringing forth treasures such as these discs, along with staples that have never been out of the catalogue. Here’s hoping they’ll release all the Bernsteins they’ve got.