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The Power and Passion of Leonard Bernstein

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The Power and Passion of Leonard Bernstein

by Francis Merson on August 25, 2017 (August 25, 2017) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now
The conductor, composer and educator would have turned 99 today. In 2012 we looked back at his incredible career.

This article first appeared in Limelight's February 2012 issue and was published online August 16, 2012.


Conductor, composer, writer, teacher, legend... Leonard Bernstein is a towering figure of 20th-century music; classical and popular. Works such as West Side Story have defined the American stage, while his performances with orchestras rank among the most electrifying in the history of recorded music. In the article that follows, we hear the inside story of Bernstein's musical life from those who knew him best; his friends, family and colleagues.

If a screenwriter working for Metro Goldwyn Meyer in the 1940s was asked to provide a character sketch of a great American classical musician (then almost a hypothetical entity), the result might have looked very much like Leonard Bernstein. A humble background – the son of poor immigrants who sail to America in the quest for a better life. Prodigiously talented – able to compose, play and conduct with dazzling fluency. Charismatic. Dashing good looks. A man who could surmount all boundaries through sheer force of will and self-belief. The “manifest destiny” of musicians…

It sounds corny, but it’s only a few factoids short of reality. Bernstein’s parents, while not exactly penniless, were very far from the cultural patricians their son would become. Samuel Bernstein ran a hair and beauty supply business in a suburb of Boston, and was hostile to his son’s musical aspirations; after one of Leonard’s early successes as a pianist he remarked, “All this applause is nice, but where’s the money?”

Born in 1919 and named Louis, the first Bernstein child was always called Leonard in the family, or Lennie (a diminutive he would later change to the marginally less Jewish “Lenny”). Although no Mozartian Wunderkind, by the time he enrolled at Harvard in 1935, whispers went around the school of a “boy-prodigy” who could decipher a score in seconds and play it on the piano. The natural musical gifts of Bernstein were indeed prodigious, and are often eclipsed in the accounts of biographers and historians by the man’s sheer celebrity. (John F. Kennedy once remarked Bernstein was the one man in America he’d hate to run against). 

Bernstein became the youngest person ever to conduct a New York Philharmonic subscription concert when, in 1943, he filled in at the last minute for an ailing Bruno Walter in a concert of Schumann’s Manfred Overture and Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote. Bernstein (who performed with a hangover, having been out partying the night before) was an overnight success. Like so many prizes others slave to acquire, Bernstein took celebrity in his stride, adopting some of the capriciousness of the superstar, but none of the malice, according to Ilmar Leetberg, who worked for Bernstein in London.

For a star of his magnitude Bernstein has surprisingly few naysayers, perhaps because he became the champion of so many. As a conductor, he avidly promoted homegrown composers Copland and Ives – even in the all-engulfing maelstrom of Schoenberg’s 12-tone school. Bernstein described Copland as “my only teacher”; but, to Bernstein’s credit, he also programmed Milton Babbit – a composer whose recondite experiments were the antithesis of the Copland (and Bernstein) school. In Bernstein’s own compositions, two strains interwove: Americana and Jewishness. Works such as the Jeremiah and Kaddish symphonies see Bernstein struggling with ideas of faith from a secular Jewish perspective. While in the ballet Fancy Free and musical West Side Story, he created a sound that is as unmistakeably American as Rhapsody in Blue (a work Bernstein himself quoted as quintessentially American in a Young People’s Concert). Nowadays, however, it is the wildly eclectic Mass that is gaining ground in concert programs, says his longtime personal assistant, composer Craig Urquhart.

Classical music in America pre-Bernstein was largely an imported luxury item, produced by so many Russians, Germans and Greeks… He was the first American conductor to become music director of a major US orchestra, when he took over from Dimitri Mitropoulos at the New York Philharmonic in 1966. And he was the first American classical musician to become a household name (admittedly more for West Side Story than for his successes on the concert platform). He brought untold exposure to the New York Phil, even bringing it to Australia on a 1974 tour covered by Sydney Morning Herald critic Roger Covell.

Through the Young People’s Concerts in the 1950s and 60s, he made the NYPO America’s most televised, and perhaps most broadly influential, classical ensemble. As an educator and role model, his work was crucial to the careers of countless professional musicians active today, as Markus Stenz recalls in his reminiscences of studying with Bernstein at Tanglewood.

As a conductor, Bernstein brought charisma to the podium. His approximate contemporary, Herbert von Karajan, despite his aura of Euro glitz, was essentially an ascetic, overshadowed by an allegedly unsavoury past. By contrast, Bernstein was what Jews call a mensch, a fully rounded human being – warts and all. He was voted second only to Carlos Kleiber in a recent BBC survey of the most admired conductors, and his recordings with the New York, Vienna and London symphony orchestras run into the hundreds. The highlights of this mammoth catalogue are chosen by Limelight‘s critic Greg Keane.

Bernstein also represented a new breed of conductor: collegial and down-to-earth, winning over orchestras with charisma rather than tyranny, according to New York Philharmonic double bassist Orin O’Brien.

O’Brien remembers with awe his performances of Mahler, a composer whose revival is linked most closely to Bernstein. Sure, Mahler had been programmed often by Mitropoulos in the 1940s, to crowds of 400-500 – but only under Bernstein could Mahler sell out a concert. And it was Bernstein who truly heralded in the age of Mahler in a 1967 essay entitled Mahler: His Time Has Come. His affinity with the composer ran so deep that Bernstein, in his last days, asked to be buried with the score of Mahler 5. Decades earlier, he had told a TV audience he understood Mahler so well because, like the Austrian composer, he felt himself to be “two men locked up in the same body – a composer and conductor”. He would wrestle with this, and other, dualities throughout his life, as his eldest daughter Jamie Bernstein recounts.

Indeed, the idea of ambivalence is central to Bernstein’s struggle as a musician and as a personality. He was also conflicted by his need for a comfortable family life and desire for freedom as a gay man. Indeed, he would leave his wife, the actress Patricia Monteleagre, in 1976, only to return to care for her when she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. And earlier in his life, he was torn between the concert platform and Broadway; even today his name is still most closely tied to his Great American Musical, West Side Story. The corner of Broadway and West 65th Street on Manhattan, home to the NY Phil’s Lincoln Center, now bears the name “Leonard Bernstein Place”. In a fitting testament to a man who straddled these two worlds, Broadway and the classical music stage are now joined in perpetuity by the name of Leonard Bernstein.

Studying with Bernstein

Markus Stenz Conductor
The German conductor studied at Tanglewood in Bernstein’s 70th birthday year. It was a summer he would never forget.

Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony, is the hub for young conductors, and in fact Bernstein himself went to Tanglewood to study with Koussevitzky. Very fortunately I was able to pass the audition in 1988. It was the year Bernstein turned 70, so he didn’t have as much time for us as he would have had in a “normal year” – although what was “normal” with Bernstein I don’t know. There was a train of people that followed him. The numberplate on his convertible actually read “No1Maestro” – that was how he cruised around Tanglewood. I spent a whole summer there studying with him in New England. That summer was everything I wanted it to be and more.

Bernstein had the most precise way of seeing what was in his students and thus uncovering talent, or weakness, or possibility. He was very direct but always absolutely inspirational with his comments. There was no um-ing and ah-ing, just a very natural way of triggering the next phase of his students’ study. Sometimes the trigger would be an image, or an analogy, or just, “Do it again, do it again.” 

I remember working with him on Brahms 3, and before I knew it we were talking about German landscapes. It was obvious to him that, to bring out something that he wanted me to see at that moment, the best image to use maybe would be scenery from North Germany. It had a certain unreal factor about it because we were in the most beautiful and luscious New England summer. But it was a wonderful stimulus: think beyond the music, think beyond what’s printed. It was very liberating.

We also were able to attend his rehearsals, which were an absolute masterpiece in craftsmanship: not a second was wasted. It was not flamboyant, it was not about inspiring the musicians. It was about beat three in bar 16 and, “Do this again, smoother.” At any given moment Bernstein was able to change gear from being inspiring and stimulating to being effective – diagnosing the problem and giving a one-word remark to fix it.

As a conductor, Bernstein had unlimited technical possibility and an imagination that goes so freely beyond the written page. That becomes particularly obvious when you listen to his Mahler recordings: his interpretation is just so full of personality and life, and it goes way beyond the usual thinking. 

Bernstein, My Father

Jamie Bernstein Daughter
Bernstein’s eldest daughter tells of a man torn between the joy of composition and the passion of live performance.

Journalists always ask my brother and sister and me when we realised our father was “Leonard Bernstein”, and we came up with a collective answer. It happened when we were watching The Flintstones on television and Betty and Wilma were on their way to the Hollyrock Bowl to hear “Leonard Bernstone” conduct. That was when the penny dropped and we realised our dad had hit the big time. But, in truth, I realised who he was before then; it was gradual. There was the Young People’s Concert with the New York Philharmonic on television when I was five years old. He mentions me in that concert and points up to the balcony where I was sitting. So from five years old I realised there was something going on because my dad was on television.

The best thing ever as a child was being invited to go along on tours. It was hilarious seeing our father on stage as the grand maestro, then joking around with him behind the scenes. It was endlessly fun and very deluxe: we flew first-class, stayed in gorgeous hotels and saw things ordinary mortals might not get to see. The great thing was that our dad never took it for granted. I think that’s one of the reasons he would bring us along, because he could see things again with new eyes through us, and it kept everything fresh for him.

Throughout his life, it was really like there were two different sides to him and his personality. There was the introverted, late-night, solitary worker, the composer, and then there was the very gregarious, very relating-to-people kind of guy – the outgoing maestro and communicator. They were both equally strong aspects of his personality, but it was very hard for him to go from one to the other and switch gears, and it got more difficult for him as he got older. So we saw him struggle with it more and more as he advanced in years.

When he came off the road, he would then want to switch immediately over and become a composer because he only had two months to get any composition done before he would have to get back on the road. It was awful, because he couldn’t just turn it on like that. By the time he was really getting some steam going with the composition, guess what? It was time to go back on the road and conduct again.

He was extremely depressed at times. Some people speculated he was even bipolar because he had these extremities of high and low, although nobody diagnosed him as such. Part of it was his terrible sleep problems. He was a ghastly insomniac. He would wind up reversing the clock and sleeping until 4pm and going to bed at 5am the next morning. 

Work could also be a source of anguish, especially the Broadway shows. There was one he was writing with Betty Comden and Adolph Green in the ’60s based on Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth that did not make it to the stage. Nor did another project, also in the ’60s, with Jerome Robbins and Steve Sondheim, based on a Brecht play. That was heartbreaking for him, although a lot of that music did get repurposed into other pieces. My dad wasn’t one for just letting things lie in the trunk. He would recycle: he was a very “green” composer.

By now I know his work pretty well, although I didn’t know it so well during his lifetime, but since we’ve lost him his compositions are the next best thing to having him there, so I’ve become much better acquainted with them all. Lately there have been a lot of productions of his theatre work Mass, which was way ahead of its time and quite misunderstood when it first arrived. 

It was a piece written to open the Kennedy Centre in Washington in 1971, and the inauguration was a very splashy event: Mrs Kennedy was there, and there was a lot of political ferment around the piece. Richard Nixon was president; it was smack in the middle of the Vietnam War; and Mass was, in many ways, an anti-war cry of rage. People didn’t feel comfortable with the fact that he used the Catholic mass liturgy, and then there was mixing rock ‘n’ roll with classical music. Now even the Catholic Church has gotten over it: Pope John Paul II had Mass performed at the Vatican – can you imagine? I’m only sad my father didn’t live long enough to see that; he would have felt so vindicated.

In his last days he was not happy at all at the prospect of being impaired. He hated feeling weak and couldn’t bear the idea he wouldn’t have the stamina to conduct. He made a public announcement that he wasn’t going to be conducting anymore, but that he would go on teaching. He had some sense of how he was going to go forward. I think he was as surprised as anyone when suddenly it was over.

But there’s still so much going on with the Bernstein Foundation. The very fact we can publish a newsletter Prelude, Fugue and Riffs twice a year and fill it to the brim with news of what’s going on just demonstrates how much there is going on with Bernstein all over the world, all the time. We can hardly keep up with it. That in itself is a wonderful thing. It’s extraordinary how his presence in the world has not dimmed at all. If anything, it burns brighter, just in a different way as time goes by.

Bernstein as Composer

Craig Urquhart Composer and Personal Assistant to Bernstein
Despite his glory on the podium, Bernstein regarded composition as his true calling. 

When I was studying composition at college all they wanted to talk about was German atonalists – Schoenberg and Stockhausen – they didn’t really look at what we had in our own country. Lenny’s music just wasn’t appreciated by the academic world; it was a struggle he always had and it pained him.

He was an excellent composer, but it was hard work for him, and a lonely kind of fame. If you look at his great works, they were all collaborations: with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, or Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins (or even with God if we’re talking about the Kaddish Symphony!). He always had to have something programmatic, and he wasn’t the kind of person to sit alone – that was the hardest thing for him to do.

But I think he really considered himself a composer who happened also to be a conductor. Composing was private process for him. He had an apartment in New York City that had a studio, and a house in Connecticut with a studio, and that’s where he did most of his composing. He would work pretty much all night long and sleep during the day. After the phone stopped ringing at 11pm was the only time he could be alone.

Of all his works I think he was particularly fond of Mass. It was so far ahead of its time in its eclecticism that people just thought he was trying to be hip – it was on the pop charts – but he was a very sincere man. Recently with recordings by Kristian Järvi, Marin Alsop and Kent Nagano, we begin to see the depth of the composition and musical motifs in the work. Mass was a reaction to a time. He broke rules – the Bishop of Cincinnati didn’t want to have it performed in the state. It was a controversial work. 

If we’re talking about the pinnacles of his purely orchestral output, they would be Symphony No 1, Jeremiah, Symphony No 2, The Age of Anxiety, and Symphony No 3, Kaddish. They are major works, and they get performed an awful lot in America. 

He was very proud of all the works he composed, and would stand by every single one of them. But when he examined his life I’m sure he wanted to do more, and he just didn’t have time. For somebody with so many notes inside of him it was probably very difficult for him.

Working for Bernstein

Ilmar Leetberg Artist Liaison Manager at Sydney Symphony
While still a student in London in 1989, Ilmar Leetberg landed the dream job: assistant to Bernstein at the London Symphony.

What I really admired about Bernstein from the outset is how totally focussed he was on music. He was conscious his  time was limited, and he regarded his experience recording West Side Story as not having been a satisfactory one. He himself confided in me that he thought Candide was a better work, and that justice had not really been done. This was his last opportunity for him to record what he hoped would be the definitive recording of Candide. He also had other works – The Age of Anxiety among them – that he wanted to put down while he still could. 

Bernstein was not a man who compromised. If he wanted to do something or change something, he would set about doing it. But he would also take time out with his staff each day to talk to us about something completely unrelated to music. I always really appreciated that. He was a great one also for making up acronyms out of people’s names. It constantly amused him to come up with a different phrase out of I-L-M-A-R to greet me with.

I was amazed by the people who would constantly turn up at the dressing-room door. Everyone from Lauren Bacall to famous politicians. Immediately after performances he would engage with the public by signing records and going to sponsor dinners, but then he would go back to his space in London and work through the night. 

At that point he was having only a few hours of sleep a night. He would have a driver on call at the Savoy and often tell him just to drive round the streets of London between the hours of 2 and 5 in the morning because he couldn’t sleep.

Bernstein was never a hard person to deal with, but he could be very time-consuming. I remember one day he asked me to organise lunch for him and a group of artists at the Barbican. I had to work with chefs at the Savoy to make it happen. Bernstein was very particular: he wanted a sacher-torte, but it had to be from the Hotel Sacher in Vienna, and the strawberries had to be sourced from Israel, because that’s the time of year the flesh was red the whole way through. Finally, we had this luncheon all set up, and I remember him sheepishly opening the door and saying, “I’m running behind with the tenor rehearsal today, so we’ll just cancel lunch.” I looked at everyone and said, “Hmm, what happens now?” So we just passed around paper plates and had the lunch to ourselves – otherwise it was just going to be thrown out!

Another thing I remember is being handed a bottle of Penhaligon’s Blenheim and being told by Bernstein’s US assistant that Bernstein liked his team to have a uniform scent. That was a little quirk I thought was extraordinary at the time, but after working for many decades in classical music I realise it’s one shared by quite a few artists! 

As an assistant you deal not only with the myth, but also with the man. Backstage you are assisting someone who is in their seventies, who is frail, and preparing them for taking that first bow on stage. I often looked at the monitors and thought to myself, “The Leonard Bernstein that 2,500 people in the Barbican Centre are seeing is not the Leonard Bernstein I was just dealing with.” They weren’t seeing the frailty. He would change completely after he took that step out into the spotlight.

He would come off stage and would have a small oxygen tank in his dressing room to help him with respiratory problems he was having. He would lie down quietly, have some oxygen, but immediately after that he would smoke a cigar and have a scotch before redressing and going out. That’s the best example I can imagine of life not getting you down. 

Playing under Bernstein

Orin O’Brien Double Bass, New York Philharmonic
Orin O’Brien was hired by Bernstein in 1966 as the first female member of the New York Philharmonic. 

I first saw Leonard Bernstein conduct when I was an usher at Carnegie Hall and there was this man jumping up and down and I thought it was shocking. I liked Bruno Walter and Toscanini and those more formal conductors so I thought Bernstein’s antics were just terrible. But then when I played with him I found out Bernstein never did the same thing twice. It wasn’t choreographed. He was just a naturally expressive person. Sometimes he was utterly still: in a Mahler slow movement he didn’t dance at all. He brooded in position and very often he would conduct like he was in a trance. We were all convinced he thought he was Mahler reincarnated…

I joined the orchestra in 1966, and Bernstein basically decided to break the ban on women for me. There were a few remarks in the dressing room. People grumbled, “Well, why couldn’t they give a man a job?” In those years it was considered that a man with a family deserved a job, while a single person didn’t – which, to be honest, is an attitude I can understand. 

Bernstein made a big deal about me as the first woman in the orchestra. I did interviews for a whole year. And I publicized the Young People’s Concerts, which I really thought were so great. He featured me in a concert called What is a Mode? –  much to my dismay. He wanted me to improvise a bass part to him playing a song Along Came Mary. So I had a 30-second solo. I have no skill in improvising at all, and I begged, “Lenny can you write me something?” He said, “No, no, you’ll do it. It will be OK.” So I ran out of the rehearsal and bought a record of the song and ran home and played it about 50 times and tried to figure out what the bass part was doing. Then I came back and played it, but I was terribly embarrassed.

Then again, for my first year, whenever Bernstein said, “basses”, I would blush, because I assumed he was looking at me and I was doing something wrong. Of course, he was referring to the whole section, but I was very self-conscious and worried that maybe I was a tiny bit late with the pizzicato or something, because Bernstein could see and hear everything.

Not everyone shared my awe of him. A few of the more experienced men said, “Well, he’s not Toscanini.” But Bernstein could hold his own with those guys: he was a composer; he knew the score thoroughly; he could play it on the piano. He could do anything the old conductors could do. He had the goods.

Nonetheless, in my very first rehearsal I remember one of the older viola players marked on his music every time Lenny stopped in one hour, and counted 85 times in Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony. Everybody knew that piece very well, so the older guys were annoyed, perhaps rightfully so, at this young whippersnapper – but Bernstein did say interesting things. If he talked about a Mahler symphony, he would describe the agony the composer was going through with Alma or whatever. He would also analyse the counterpoint and harmonies, point out a quote from some Bohemian folksong. And what Bernstein possessed that was very special was a kind of excitement and exhilaration. He loved every note he conducted. He wouldn’t do something if he didn’t love it. He was alive every minute. He never walked through anything. 

Because he was so committed to the rehearsal, he would get very annoyed if people wanted leave when they went over time. There’s a union rule about warning you 24 hours in advance if there was going to be overtime and, after all, people had to pick their children up from school and so on. When Bernstein came back, after he had left the Philharmonic to guest conduct around, he would always say: “You think I’m going to conduct Tchaikovsky 6 the same way I did 20 years ago? Well I’m not. I changed my mind about it. I studied it and I think differently now. You’ll be very surprised.”

Something few people know is that in 1976, when Boulez announced he was leaving, the majority of the orchestra, young and old, voted for Bernstein to come back. I was one of the six people on the artistic committee at that time.But the management somehow decided it was not on the cards, and Zubin Mehta ended up our next music director. I told Bernstein’s secretary Helen Coates about this ten years later, and she said, “No, nobody had ever told him.” Which I think is a tragedy. The orchestra missed him. Although we respected Boulez, he didn’t have that kind of impact. And we lost half our subscribers during the six Boulez years because of his predilection for the Second Viennese School!

At least Bernstein came back to guest conduct. The final concert I can remember playing with him was a recording of Tchaikovsky 6. He took the last movement more slowly than any conductor on record; he just stretched out that last page. We were dying; we didn’t think we could be together. It’s so difficult to keep the pulse: the second line of basses has a triplet figure with syncopation, and he conducted it so slowly we were worried about staying together. But it was perfect on the recording – just wonderful. We felt he didn’t want the concert to end. He wanted to wring the last drop of emotion from every note.

Today, when anybody else conducts a Mahler symphony, I see Lenny up there. I don’t tell the conductors, of course, but those of us still left who were in the orchestra at the time still tell each other how we still think of Lenny whenever Mahler is conducted.

Bernstein in Australia

Roger Covell Classical Music Critic
Leonard Bernstein and the New York Phil were among the first visitors to the Opera House in 1974.

The 1974 tour of the New York Philharmonic was a major event in the musical life of Australia at the time. Other famous orchestras had come in the 1960s before the Sydney Opera House was built, and they played at the Town Hall, so there was nothing unusual about a visiting orchestra per se. But this was in the period of Bernstein’s greatest fame – even with people who might not even be particularly interested in music. 

There was a buzz around the performances, although I don’t think they achieved the general satisfaction of the recent tours of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, say, or by some of the earlier visits of the Cleveland Orchestra or the London Symphony Orchestra in the ’60s. The New York Philharmonic then was not the equal of these other orchestras. There were wonderful players in it, but there were sections that were not quite in the top drawer, or had a style of playing that didn’t seem to be thoroughly integrated. But I found the orchestra as a whole sounded better in Australia than when I had heard them a few years earlier in New York, perhaps because it wasn’t playing with the same amount of touring rehearsal. Touring orchestras tend to play at their very best because they’re so thoroughly rehearsed in 
a particular repertoire.

The New York Phil were, apparently, a rather unruly orchestra, and it was hard for a conductor to impose a real authority on them. They were inclined to question what conductors did and that was probably a very good New Yorkerish thing to do. The first concert opened with Tchaikovsky 6, the first movement of which had to be restarted after it was interrupted by a crying baby. The fact a baby was brought to the concert indicates an enthusiasm on the part of its parents, but perhaps not wisdom. In my review for the Sydney Morning Herald I described the opening bars of the Tchaikovsky as being almost improvisatory. The orchestra would have been able to respond to everything Bernstein did quickly, simply because they were used to him as a conductor who was very much driven by the feeling of the moment. There was something improvisatory, in a good sense, about Bernstein’s music-making: he never repeated himself. I guess on the evenings that he felt in a certain state of mind that was the way the performances went because he was able to communicate that feeling to the players. 

In the second concert Bernstein played the Mozart Concerto No 25 K503, conducting from the piano. It was a rather old-fashioned way of playing Mozart, even for that time, and let’s say Bernstein wasn’t exactly at his best in playing it. Of course, he was a very versatile musician, and had made accomplished recordings of Mozart piano concertos with himself leading the Vienna Philharmonic from a piano. There was no reason to suppose that he wasn’t up to it, in one sense, but maybe in the course of the tour he didn’t have time to make sure everything was there. Frankly, he got a bit lost here and there. But had he looked in anyway abashed or uncomfortable or apologetic that would have been very disappointing to his audience. It was as though he was someone who liked to give the impression what he did was effortless, that he didn’t have to work terribly hard to get to the level that he was at. Running himself a bit short of private practice time at that stage of his career might have been a temptation.

The most thrilling part of the second concert was Mahler 5 – a big strenuous work that allows every section of the orchestra to get a terrific workout. It’s a very extended and sustained piece with wonderful orchestral writing and I guess any competent orchestra relishes getting into it. It’s a matter of opinion, but I do believe that the notations in the score make it clear Mahler didn’t want people to take the Adagietto and pull it to pieces in order to get the maximum degree of feeling out of it. But it was well known from the recordings that was how Bernstein did it. People may have enjoyed it, but I don’t believe Mahler intended that kind of exaggeration.

One thing I was at pains to point out in my review was that Bernstein’s athletic conducting style was no affectation. His somewhat balletic gestures and movements were a part of him; he was an excitable person and he never pretended to be a calmly controlled musical director. He was notable everywhere in the world for the electrifying effect of his musical direction. Not everybody liked it, but it would be hard not to be convinced by it – this was the man himself, not someone pretending to do a lot of work without actually achieving much. He did that wherever he was and without that he wouldn’t have been Bernstein.

Bernstein’s recordings

Greg Keane Limelight Critic
His massive recorded catalogue has almost too many highlights to list.

Bernstein’s recording legacy divides neatly into two sections. The first covers his decade (1958-68) as the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, a period in which the orchestra reached its zenith, one which has consistently eluded his successors, from the cerebral Pierre Boulez to the flashy Zubin Mehta. It also coincided with what, clichés aside, really was the Golden Age of recording, on both sides of the Atlantic. Perusing his discography of these years, I’d forgotten just how prolific and eclectic he was. The repertoire extends from Handel’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day to Messiaen and Ligeti, with distinguished Sibelius, Nielsen and Hindemith in between. He always surprised: his reading of Haydn’s Paris and London Symphonies, plus No 88 and the best-known masses (Sony 88697480452) brings out the contrasting facets of the composer’s musical personality – the forcefulness and elegance, the sturdiness and the delicacy, the seriousness and the wit, the melancholy and the high-spiritedness.

Bernstein also put American music on the map and, at the risk of making an invidious choice, I’d also nominate his Gershwin/Grofé CD (Sony 88697757642) as a “must-have” along with a 6-CD DG boxed set encompassing the music of Barber, Bloch, Copland, Ives etc, partly performed also by the Los Angeles and Israel Philharmonics (DG 4749402).

The one composer whose music became a touchstone throughout his recording career was Mahler. Bernstein was not a trailblazer in his advocacy with the New York Philharmonic. The orchestra had a long Mahler tradition which began with Mengelberg and continued with Bruno Walter and Dimitri Mitropoulos, Bernstein’s immediate predecessor. However, Bernstein identified with Mahler in a way few other conductors were able to. There was none of the visceral aggression of Solti, nor the implacable stoicism of Klemperer. Bernstein didn’t so much conduct a Mahler symphony as live it, both the agony and the ecstasy. Both Bernstein’s Mahler cycles are eminently recommendable. One of their greatest features is that he makes the music seem more Jewish (and more authentic and heartfelt) than anyone else. From the Sony set with the New York Philharmonic (88697453692, with London Symphony Orchestra for the Eighth) I’d single out the Third (which, in the wrong hands can sound like a dozy anaconda trying to move after a large lunch) for its wonderfully manic treatment of the long first movement. In the Seventh of the same set, he is one of the few conductors, along with Tennstedt, Sinopoli and Maazel, to sense the humour of this generally misunderstood haunted nocturne.

The second period of Bernstein’s recorded legacy was almost exclusively on Deutsche Grammophon and mainly with the Vienna Philharmonic. Mahler again figured prominently, and a new cycle (4590802) was shared between the Vienna Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw and the New York Philharmonic. But, bizarrely, he encountered initial resistance in Vienna, Mahler’s adopted city. Bernstein reported that one orchestral musician hissed obscenities during a rehearsal.

Compared to the other musical capitals, little Mahler has been played in Vienna since the composer’s death. For me, the most outstanding item is the Fifth, which I heard at the 1987 BBC Proms and will never forget. In its glorious refulgence and humanity, it ranks with Barbirolli’s 1969 EMI masterpiece. Other highlights of his 1980s recordings include a marvelous VPO Beethoven cycle (4749242) and a random selection of Haydn symphonies (4749192) which I agonised about omitting from my list of favourite VPO recordings in a recent Limelight article, and a magnificent Brahms cycle characterised by audaciously broad tempi (4749302). Certainly, there were misses. His very last recordings, which reflected his failing health, are best avoided; a disastrous New World, an Enigma Variations where Nimrod sounds like an Upper West Side neurotic and, worst of all, a NYPO Pathétique teased out to 52 minutes. However, these are exceptions in a career and discography which are among the miracles of 20th-century music.