Leonard Bernstein—A Total Embrace: The Conductor comprises a three disc collection of Bernstein’s best conducting efforts. In roughly chronological order, the tracks span from recordings made from 1950 to 1975, the prime years before his performances became erratic due to his failing health. Disc one covers the 1950s, disc two the early 1960s, and the third disc is devoted to the remaining years.
Leonard Bernstein‘s entry into the conducting world in 1943 was dramatic. He became an overnight sensation after being called upon to replace Bruno Walter on only a few hours notice and delivered a performance so compelling that he made the front page of the New York Times. As a conductor Bernstein is probably best remembered for his grandiose arm-flaying gestures and their ability to generate consummate amounts of raw energy from a flagging orchestra. He is credited with reviving the New York Philharmonic upon his appointment to the post of conductor in 1957 and one of the first performances that Bernstein recorded with the Philharmonic, “The Rite of Spring” (1958), remains one of the strongest examples of his conducting technique. By injecting unparalleled forces of energy into the orchestra, Bernstein provided a fresh interpretation that continues to startle listeners today. Also included on disc one is Shostakovich’s “Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47”. Recorded in 1959 after the European and Middle East tour, this performance received ecstatic 20-minute ovations. The earliest recording on this disc is that of the second movement of Ravel’s “Shéhérazade”, recorded in 1950 with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. This is a rare inclusion and makes for an interesting listen. There is a sense of restraint that belies the piece, an indication of Bernstein’s relative inexperience at that time, but with a quiet intensity that is suggestive of his later style.
The second disc contains works recorded entirely with the New York Philharmonic. Despite the wide repertoire, with works by Mozart, Copland, Haydn, Fernandez, Sibelius, Beethoven, Ives, and Mahler, this is probably the least engaging of the three discs. None of this is attributed to the quality of the recordings; rather the lack of chronology of within the disc makes for difficult listening. Nevertheless, there is one singular track that is outstanding: Copland’s “El Salón México” (1961). Given Bernstein’s close student-teacher relationship with the composer, it comes as no surprise that his understanding and interpretations of Copland’s works are first-rate. In return, Copland’s music, radiating and rhythmic, is well suited to the flamboyant conducting style of Bernstein’s. Other note-worthy tracks include a bristling and colorful interpretation of “Symphony in E-flat Major, Op.55, IV. Allegro Molto” by Sibelius, and “The Unanswered Question” by Ives.
The final disc contains the largest selection of works and as a result, it is probably the most appealing of the three discs. While the majority are recorded with the New York Philharmonic, there are several tracks that are recorded by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestre Philharmonique et choeurs de Radio, and the Orchrestre National de France. “Requiem, Op.5, from Dies Irae: Tuba Mirum” by Berlioz is dramatic in delivery and powerful in execution, while Barber’s Adagio for Strings reveals the more introspective and sensitive side of Bernstein.
Sony has packaged together an accessible and affordable collection of the “best of” Bernstein that also serves as the perfect taster for those who are simply looking to sample some new music. Those wanting to learn more about Bernstein would do well to also try the sister collection, Leornard Bernstein—A Total Embrace: The Composer.