.Leonard Bernstein ( August 25, 1918 – October 14, 1990) was an American conductor, composer, pianist, music educator, author, and humanitarian. Considered to be one of the most important conductors of his time, he was the first American conductor to receive international acclaim. According to music critic Donal Henahan, he was “one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history”. Bernstein was the recipient of many honors, including seven Emmy Awards, two Tony Awards, sixteen Grammy Awards including the Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Kennedy Center Honor.
As a composer he wrote in many genres, including symphonic and orchestral music, ballet, film and theatre music, choral works, opera, chamber music and works for the piano. His best-known work is the Broadway musical West Side Story, which continues to be regularly performed worldwide, and has been adapted into two (1961 and 2021) feature films. His works include three symphonies, Chichester Psalms, Serenade after Plato’s “Symposium”, the original score for the film On the Waterfront, and theater works including On the Town, Wonderful Town, Candide, and his MASS.
Bernstein was the first American-born conductor to lead a major American symphony orchestra. He was music director of the New York Philharmonic and conducted the world’s major orchestras, generating a significant legacy of audio and video recordings. He was also a critical figure in the modern revival of the music of Gustav Mahler, in whose music he was most passionately interested. A skilled pianist, he often conducted piano concertos from the keyboard. He was the first conductor to share and explore music on television with a mass audience. Through dozens of national and international broadcasts, including the Emmy Award–winning Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, he made even the most rigorous elements of classical music an adventure in which everyone could join. Through his educational efforts, including several books and the creation of two major international music festivals, he influenced several generations of young musicians.
A lifelong humanitarian, Bernstein worked in support of civil rights; protested against the Vietnam War; advocated nuclear disarmament; raised money for HIV/AIDS research and awareness; and engaged in multiple international initiatives for human rights and world peace. Near the end of his life, he conducted an historic performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in Berlin to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. The concert was televised live, worldwide, on Christmas Day, 1989 (wikipedia)
While for obvious reasons this wasn’t billed as ”The Final Concert” at the time, there must have been quite a few members of the Tanglewood audience who realized what was happening. In places Tim Page’s notes read like a horror story: the fatally ill Bernstein ”cautious, reined-in, measuring his every motion with gravity and care”, nearly breaking down in the Beethoven, and conducting most of the scherzo ”leaning against the back of the podium, gasping for breath.” I’m glad I wasn’t there.
Painful as all this detail is though, it doesn’t really have much bearing on the central question: what kind of performances are these? In the case of the Four Sea Interludes the answer is, decidedly odd. There’s a strong emotional current running through much of this, but it clogs in too many places, especially in the heavy slurring and dogged tempos of most of ”Storm”—a clear case of emotional overload. The big brass groundswell in ”Dawn” is impressive—as though Britten has (uncharacteristically) been taking lessons from Sibelius—but the similar massive cresendo towards the end of ”Sunday Morning” is out of scale: bell sounds more appropriate to Mussorgsky’s Kremlin than to Britten’s tiny Suffolk fishing village.
As for the Beethoven—well, in spite of what Page tells us I find it quite impressive. Tempos can be on the deliberate side, sound can be overbearing (the recording gives the timpani a fuzzy edge), but there’s surprisingly little pulling-about of pulse, and the expression—more contained than in a normal Lenny performance—has warmth and fluency. The finale, on the other hand, is a struggle in the positive sense (I emphasize that I made my notes before reading the booklet). The huge timpani crescendos aren’t to my taste, but there’s no denying the feeling behind them, or the will within the heroic tonal stuggle of the coda. It doesn’t all work: going through trio repeats both times at Bernstein’s portentous tread is a bit of an ordeal (what it must have been for Bernstein himself defies speculation). I certainly wouldn’t put it at, or even near the top of any list of recommended Sevenths. But I am glad I heard it. Even in such appalling circumstances, Leonard Bernstein was still capable of enriching our understanding of Beethoven. (gramophone.co.uk)
Recorded live at Tanglewood, Lenox, Massachusetts./USA , August 19, 1990
Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein
Benjamin Britten: Four Sea Interludes From The Opera “Peter Grimes” Op. 33:
01. Dawn 3.41
02. Sunday Morning 4.01
03. Moonlight 5.00
04. Storm 5.32
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 Op. 92:
05. Poco Sostenuto – Vivace 16.17
06. Allegretto 9.47
07. Presto 10.25
08. Allegro Con Brio 8.39
The official website: