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Standards of Symphony

by B.A. Nilsson on February 2, 2011

Leonard Berstein, New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Berstein: The Syphony Edition

There’s much to love and a little to hate about this set, which collects, in 60 compact discs, Leonard Bernstein’s entire symphony repertory with the New York Philharmonic (and a couple of other ensembles) recorded between 1953 and 1976. The key word is symphony: If the work doesn’t have that term in the title, it’s not here. While it would have been nice to flesh the set out with an overture or two, let’s take it on the terms offered. It’s a cornucopia.
The centerpiece—or pieces—of this collection are complete symphonies by Beethoven and Mahler. The Beethoven were recorded from 1961 to ’64, and feature more aggressive performances than Bernstein turned in a decade and a half later in a cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic. Similarly, the Mahler (1960-67, with No. 10’s adagio from 1975) maintains its status as a groundbreaking series that turned on a generation of listeners to that composer.

All the symphonies of Bernstein, Brahms, Schumann, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky are here, along with 19 by Haydn, six by Shostakovich, four apiece by Mozart and Nielsen, three by Schubert and Schuman—and tons of one-offs, some a single sampling of a more prolific composer (Bruckner, Vaughan Williams), some the composer’s only such piece (Bizet, Shapero), some mighty warhorses (Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” Symphony).

As these recordings were originally LP-issued, many were hailed as groundbreaking events. In some cases, these were the symphonies’ stereo debuts, so the recording’s fidelity and presence were cause for celebration. While the orchestra had long been a virtuoso ensemble—it counts Toscanini as one of its long-ago music directors—Bernstein inherited a spanking bunch of players and refined their sound even further, enjoying what by today’s standards was a close and continued relationship with his group, something the jet-lagged Gergievs of the world no longer achieve.

Also, it was an orchestra of celebrated individuals, with Julius Baker on flute, Harold Gomberg the famous oboist, and legendary clarinetist Stanley Drucker burnishing many recordings with their compelling sounds.

The expanded dynamic range and cleaner ambiance available in the digital era have changed the sound of recordings, but the best of these older sessions call attention to their age only through a whisper of tape hiss—something that goes away as your ears quickly learn to ignore it.

My two complaints lie with the lack of program notes and the sequencing of the pieces. Program notes—the back-of-the-record-jacket essays—were my initial classical-music classroom. Because these recordings all were previously issued, those essays already exist. If the cost of putting them into the set’s accompanying booklet were too prohibitive, Sony could have set up a web page to do the same. Wikipedia only goes so far in this realm. Back in the days of 78s, when a symphony required a set of several records, the notes came on pages tucked into a sleeve inside the cover. To compensate for lost pages (and to hawk more of Sony-predecessor Columbia’s discs), visionary producer Goddard Lieberson issued a hardcover book of those essays, which were a model of easygoing scholarship.

The symphonies on this set are presented alphabetically, which means that one Beethoven symphony follows another, ditto Haydn, ditto Mozart. I’m delighted that I no longer have to flip over a recording of Sibelius’s Second between movements, but I’m also not eager to hear another Sibelius symphony in succession.

Would it have been too much to mix it up a bit? I fear that this is a radical notion in the classical-recordings world, but those 80 compact disc minutes are more than enough to juxtapose two or three symphonies in a pleasing array. The alternative, of course, is to rip and rearrange the discs yourself. Whatever the case, this massive set is a nicely priced treasure trove that reminds how vital the Bernstein era was to our appreciation of this corner of the repertory.

Maxim Fedotov, violinist; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, Dmitry Yablonsky, conducting
Shorena Tsintsabadze, pianist; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, Dmitry Yablonsky, conducting

The young Prokofiev, a student in St. Petersburg, noted that one his professors, Sergey Lyapunov, was nicknamed “St. Serge . . . referring to his exceptional piety and the nobility of his countenance.” Lypaunov was by 1913 quite the old guard in Prokofiev’s eyes, but subsequent mentions in the student’s diary were filled with respect—unusual for the otherwise snide, often snotty Prokofiev.
Most of Lyapunov’s music fell by the wayside. After all, there were Rimsky-Korsakoff and Tchaikovsky for the old school, Rachmaninoff representing the last hurrah of the romantics, and Stravinsky already shaking things up.

So these two new releases from Naxos give us works that have no grounding in familiarity and distinguish themselves, on initial listenings, as much by who they remind me of as by the charm of the pieces themselves.

And they are charming in a broad, sweeping, brassy way. Listen to Lyapunov spin out his ideas in the first movement of his first movement and, sure, you’ll think Tchaikovsky. Four noble brass chords; a subservient answer from the strings. And again. And then the melody rolls out, slowly, portentously, soon hitting a Brahmsian passage of winds over plucked violins.

Which is not to deny the composer his own identity, but I always look for something to cling to when wandering in the unfamiliar. If anything, that movement soon presents a picture of Lyapunov as a bit of the anti-Tchaikovsky, resisting the other’s habit of never letting a good tune go, developing his material in fascinating ways. If the scherzo is pure Peter Illyich, then the slow second movement has Sibelius in its ears.

There’s no possible way to avoid comparing Lyapunov’s single-movement Violin Concerto to the one written 10 years before by Glazunov, but this one culminates in a long and fiery cadenza before its short wrap-up, and has to be as much fun to perform as to listen to.

The mantle of Liszt hangs over the works for piano and orchestra, although it’s Liszt by way of Rachmaninoff. Again, both concertos are single-movement, episodic works with a good deal of virtuoso passagework, and the Rhapsody on Ukrainian Themes, which puts to use folk material that was always one of the composer’s interests.
Both discs feature the Russian Philharmonic (actually, the Moscow City Symphony) conducted by Moscow-born, Yale-educated Dmitry Yablonsky, and the forces sound excellent. Likewise, violinist Maxim Fedotov and pianist Shorena Tsintsabadze bring amazing chops to bear on the solo parts, reminding us that such talent isn’t always in the major local concert halls.