Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Bernstein conducts Stravinsky and Sibelius

ica classics

Excerpt from Sibelius symphony 5, from ica classics.

Though the performances on this dvd, of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Sibelius' Symphony 5, are both very good, that is not the best reason to watch it.

The best reason is the 'extra', 12 minutes of interviews with conductor Leonard Bernstein, discussing the works.

Bernstein was acclaimed for his music theatre, his orchestral works, his conducting and even for his piano playing, but it may be that his greatest achievement was as a musical educator. Perhaps that needs a caveat, as his writings are not the best place to experience this side of his achievement.

Certainly he was incredibly well-suited to television, attractive in both appearance and delivery. But the content seems to match the form. He could provide surprising insights concisely, without pretension, and in particular with such conviction that it is easy to believe, watching him, that these works must be experienced without delay.

2013 marks the centenary of the Rite of Spring. It is usually seen as the first mainstream piece of modernist music, but for these 1966 concerts Bernstein pairs it with the more conventionally romantic Sibelius under the label 'symphonic twilight'.

Challenged about this in the interview, Bernstein demonstrates that the work employs the same foundations as the music of the symphonic tradition from Haydn to Mahler, as opposed, he feels, to the new foundations proposed by Schoenberg and other atonalists.

It's a thrilling idea, and totally convincing. Bernstin then provides practical proof through his performance with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). The LSO has a great pedigree in this piece, as I recall Colin Davis conducting it at the Barbican a few years ago, and found it having a physical effect on me, as if my heart might stop.

I suspect Bernstein's performance would have been equally visceral for the live audience, but this wasn't captured by BBC television, understandably. As usually happens with recorded performances of the Rite, its excitement is muted, though this performance banishes any thoughts that this isn't great music, should that still be required.

The pairing with Sibelius' fifth symphony is inspired, and confirms the romantic nature of the Rite. The performance was excellent, but the central transition in the first movement, or between the first and second continuous movements, if you prefer, didn't seem to work. On rehearing I might change my mind. 

Bernstein is much less articulate when interviewed about Sibelius than about the Rite, but he is surely correct when describing the symphonies as being at the end of the symphonic tradition rather than inspiring a whole new tradition.

This doesn't seem to do Sibelius enough justice. When I hear his works, they are so powerful that I am convinced that they are the greatest, most searching, most profound, of orchestral works. I marvel at how the symphonic structure, explored and developed by Beethoven, seems so well designed for making these arguments in sound.

I'd have liked to hear Bernstein discuss this mystery, and how Sibelius' unshowy concision seems so much more impressive, on reflection, than Bernstein's beloved Mahler. And also why, after all, Mahler remains popular and it's more likely that we would choose to listen to his music than to Sibelius.

To complain that an interviewer didn't ask my most pressing question is churlish. This disc gave pleasure from start to finish.

In fact, this dvd is something of a tribute to Humphrey Burton, who as a young executive producer arranged these performances, and conducted the interviews. Many years later he wrote a biography of Bernstein, and he provides historically interesting liner notes to this release.

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