Well, apparently the obituaries were not premature. Less than a week after announcing his retirement from the concert stage, Leonard Bernstein is dead at age 72.
But this writer, for one, will always wonder what really hastened his demise - the respiratory problems that prompted that decision or the decision itself. "Whatever he did, Leonard was always a performer," Joseph Silverstein recalled last week in the wake of the composer-conductor's passing. With that platform removed, what was left to him?What is left to us is his rich legacy of recordings, spanning both the 78-rpm era and the age of CD video. In terms of repertoire they range from Bach to Brubeck, with two complete Beethoven and Brahms symphony cycles thrown in for good measure.
With the exception of the Beethoven videos, however, that's not where I'd go to recapture Bernstein the conductor at his best. Instead I'd opt for the two Mahler symphony cycles, the first for CBS in the 1960s and the second for Deutsche Grammophon.
Despite their respective ups and downs, both testify to Bernstein's complete identification with this composer, most resoundingly, I think, in the Third, Seventh and Eighth symphonies. Indeed, no recording known to me captures the excitement of a Bernstein concert performance more effectively than DG's video release of his Vienna Mahler Eighth, currently the only form in which it is available. This is ecstatic musicmaking. By the same token, his DG remakes of the First, Second and Fifth symphonies likewise seem to me improvements on their CBS counterparts.
I'd also opt for either of his Schumann symphony cycles, the top nod here going to the earlier of the two, with the New York Philharmonic, on CBS (currently unavailable). I still remember the concert broadcast of the "Rhenish" Symphony - the first time any conductor had played a piece of music the way I had always thought it should go - and the commercial recording that followed is if anything even finer.
No less memorable were Bernstein's pioneering efforts on behalf of Ives and Nielsen, most of which are still available via CD transfers. And although I have not yet heard his latest go-round in the Ives Second, again for DG, his successful redos of the Harris, Schumann and (especially) Copland Third symphonies for the same label give me reason to be optimistic.
Other composers in whose music I usually found Bernstein had something to say include Haydn, Shostakovich and - not surprisingly - Leonard Bernstein. Apart from the music, his conducting on DG's more-or-less complete "West Side Story" still seems to me the principal reason to acquire the album.
Given the sales figures, that shouldn't be too hard to do. Ditto his Copland collections, particularly his "Appalachian Spring" and "El Salon Mexico," which, if I am not mistaken, have never been out of the catalog.
Sadly that is not true of a number of his very finest recordings. Besides the CBS Schumann cycle, I am thinking of the same label's Bloch "Sacred Service" - an unforgettable experience - and Mozart Piano Concerto No. 25, with Bernstein as soloist. The latter may not be the way the textbooks tell us to play Mozart, but for its musical probity and depth of feeling I would take it above any of his Gershwin recordings.
Ditto his recording of Verdi's "Falstaff," which happily is still in the catalog and is still my favorite among Bernstein's all-too-few opera recordings - and that in a competitive field. As for the mono-era material, despite occasional points of superiority, there is little here that the conductor did not record again in stereo to generally fine effect. But I still would not be without his mid-'50s "Creation du Monde" (Milhaud), in which the ensemble features on clarinet no less than Benny Goodman.
What have I still not mentioned? The CBS Sibelius Fifth, long on rhetorical snap, the Barber and Beethoven Violin concertos with Stern and the DG "Faust" Symphony (Liszt), which, like some of the items listed above, seems to be currently in limbo.
And while we're on that subject, let me put in a plug for the old "Omnibus" telecasts, as well as some of the New York Philharmonic Young People's Concerts. Among Bernstein's unique gifts was his ability to connect with an audience, and I know of nothing that demonstrates that better than these old black-and-white programs, which often caught him in the first flush of enthusiasm for the composers in question. If Sony Classical is willing to do for these what BMG has recently done with Toscanini's NBC Symphony kinescopes, we would indeed have something to treasure.
Why? Because like so much of his early music, especially the Broadway scores, they capture the young Bernstein, maybe less in tune with the Mahlerian Weltschmerz that would further lift his interpretations of so much of that composer's music - and spread the finale of Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony to twice its normal length - but full of the vigor, erudition and panache whose coming together in a young man in his 20s and 30s stood the music world on its ear.
That he stretched it out as long as he did is still a cause for wonder.