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Stravinsky: Rite of Spring; Sibelius: Symphony No. 5 / Leonard Bernstein, London SO (live, 11/1966) Includes Bernstein Interview [DVD]

Album Summary

>Stravinsky, Igor : Le sacre du printemps
>Sibelius, Jean : Symphony no 5 in E flat major, Op. 82
Conductor Ensemble Composers

Notes & Reviews:

The ICA Classics Legacy series presents a collection of historical performances by some of the world's greatest artists. These performances are released on DVD for the first time, incorporating rare archive footage that has been expertly and lovingly restored. 'Luckily for all of us, it wasn't enough for Leonard Bernstein to compose music and conduct orchestras. He felt equally compelled to talk about music - to try and explain what made it tick, what made it good, and what made it affect us in all the ways that music does. The other piece of good luck was that Leonard Bernstein and television came along at the same time. They were born for each other.' (Jamie Bernstein), The films on this DVD are taken from the 'Symphonic Twilight' series of TV programs made in the mid-Sixties that were the brainchild of Humphrey Burton, then the newly appointed Head of Music and Arts Programs for the BBC. In his booklet notes for this DVD, Burton reveals himself to have been instrumental in bringing Bernstein the conductor to the wider British public, who knew him foremost as the composer of West Side Story. In 1965 Burton persuaded Bernstein to conduct the LSO at the Royal Albert Hall and the resulting Mahler 8 was a spectacular occasion, broadcast to the nation. The following year, they put together these programs, filmed specifically for the new television audience. The works Bernstein chose to record are twentieth-century orchestral masterpieces, for which he is known to be a champion. His recordings of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony for CBS Records and Deutsche Grammophon were acclaimed by critics worldwide, and his interpretation of The Rite of Spring in 1959 elicited an enthusiastic 'Wow!' from Stravinsky himself! They are accompanied on this DVD by an in-depth interview, given here as a bonus and subtitled in French and German.

Notes & Reviews:

Run Time: 82 min.
Region: 0
Picture Format: NTSC, 4:3, Color
Sound Format(s): Mono,
Subtitles: English, German, French
Country of Origin: Germany


Bernstein's Best
It’s astonishing how easily a grainy black and white image can transport one back in time to a youth misspent watching countless hours of television. Thankfully in my case, that time included regular doses of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. While my generation was busy learning the intricacies of scales, intervals and symphonic development from Lenny, adult viewers across the pond were treated to a short but remarkable TV series titled “Symphonic Twilight”. This disc derives from two of those 1966 BBC broadcasts.

The series was the brainchild of Humphrey Burton, then head of music and arts programming for the BBC. Burton went on to produce most (if not all) of Bernstein’s videos and write a perceptive biography of the great man. Here, though, he seems somewhat mystified by the title Bernstein chose for his series. Citing Lenny’s own three symphonies as Exhibit A, Burton muses rhetorically in his booklet essay: “Surely the symphony was not on the way out?” What Burton fails to realize is that twilight can be the most magical and magnificent part of the day. And the works Bernstein chose splendidly illustrate this point.

The conductor leads crackerjack performances of both scores. In his perceptive review of this disc (http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2012/Oct12/Stravinsky_Sibelius_ICAD5082.htm), Dan Morgan notes that the London Symphony musicians look “more like a bunch of bank managers and accountants than top-flight musicians”. Nonetheless, they play like possessed demons for their beloved maestro. While Bernstein does manage to whip them into a savage frenzy in the Rite’s many seething climaxes, it is the lyrical, trance-like episodes that are perhaps the most compelling here, such as the eerie tranquility Bernstein evokes at the beginning of part two of the ballet.

Bernstein’s jazzy, visceral 1958 audio recording with the New York Philharmonic remains one of the greatest Rites ever captured on disc, though this account is nearly as satisfying. The CD boasts far better and more richly detailed sonics, but the opportunity to see Bernstein making music is not to be missed. Fortunately the camera lovingly stays focused on Lenny for long periods of time, as if the director was as mesmerized by the maestro as we and the orchestra are. We watch in awe as Bernstein pulls and tears the music out of thin air with his baton like a master magician. Elsewhere he somehow transforms himself into the ballet’s hapless protagonist, torn to shreds by the music and ultimately dancing himself to death.

The Sibelius is no mere afterthought. Here again Bernstein made a remarkable audio recording in New York, though this London Symphony performance is finer still. Bernstein once told me that he always had the sound of Serge Koussevitzky’s 1936 RCA recording in his head when he conducted this music. Bernstein manages to outdo his mentor on this occasion. Everything is pushed to extremes: tempos, dynamics, emotions. Transitions are handled with uncommon skill, and the great accelerando at the end of the first movement transports us to unexpectedly dizzying heights. Bernstein and the orchestra dance elegantly through the andante, and for once the movement’s abrupt conclusion seems absolutely right--as do those oddly spaced chords at the end of the symphony. The glorious British horns lend exceptional nobility and warmth to the finale. As in the Rite, Bernstein is a joy to watch.

Bernstein’s conversations with Humphrey Burton, appended to the end of this DVD, are well worth seeing and help set the stage for the conductor’s breathtaking interpretations. ICA calls the sound “enhanced mono”, and it’s not bad for a 1960s vintage TV broadcast. There’s a considerable amount of hiss, but ample instrumental detail. In any event, Bernstein’s Technicolor performances quickly overcome any mere technical imperfections.

Submitted on 10/27/12 by Tom Godell 
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Works Details

>Stravinsky, Igor : Le sacre du printemps
  • Conductor: Leonard Bernstein
  • Ensemble: London Symphony Orchestra
  • Period Time: Modern
  • Form: Ballet
  • Studio/Live: Live

>Sibelius, Jean : Symphony no 5 in E flat major, Op. 82
  • Period Time: Post Romantic
  • Form: Orchestral
  • Written: 1915/1919
  • Studio/Live: Live