Bernstein, New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Bernstein: The Symphony Edition
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
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
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.
Fedotov, violinist; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, Dmitry
Lyapunov: Violin Concerto / Symphony No. 1
Tsintsabadze, pianist; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, Dmitry
Lyapunov: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / Rhapsody on Ukrainian
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
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
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.