Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 36

36_Idéale Audience 3085318 /

Symphony No. 5, opus 47
Leonard Bernstein, London Symphony Orchestra
DVD (NTSC, region 0). Idéale Audience 3085318. TT: 46:23. Rehearsal footage: 5:45.
Recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall, London, December 1966.

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony was one of Bernstein’s signature works, and he left several recordings, usually of live performances, some of which are almost mandatory purchases. His October 1959 traversal with the New York Philharmonic quickly became a classic and has stayed in the catalogue, with different couplings, pretty much constantly, helped by the much-quoted approval of the composer (though it is sometimes hard to judge how deeply meant such praise was). It has just been re-released on Regis RRC 1377 and has overshadowed another, similar one from the Salzburg Festival on 16 August 1959 (Orfeo C 819 101 B). Twenty years later came a recording taken from two live performances in Tokyo – the same run produced a DVD (Kultur 032031135598). Lesser known is a broadcast from 28 January 1945 (Symposium 1295), while various bootlegs may or may not be what they claim[1].

(Mostly) new to the catalogue and undoubtedly authentic is a live performance at the Royal Festival Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra, filmed by the BBC in December 1966 and broadcast on 8 January 1967[2]. They also filmed part of the rehearsal and six minutes of that footage is presented as an extra on the DVD.

Glancing at the timings of the movements it’s clear that this performance is broadly in line with the, by then, seven year-old NYPO recording – with one interesting exception. So, if you have the one, is it worth investing in the other?

The first thing to note is in the opening, where the NYPO has greater weight, a feature of their recording in general. The LSO opens half a notch faster but the real difference comes with the descending melody at figure 1 where the violins steal in more ethereally and are warmer than the chilled and steely New Yorkers. The LSO horns’ first entry at bar 37 is a little unsteady and their few contributions until their ff breakthrough just after figure 17 have a slightly parp-y quality – in fact, it was not a great night for them in general, though they are still very good. Against that, the woodwind are uniformly excellent; the flute marvellously concentrated in its own reverie and the clarinet beautifully warm and round. Both performances have the alternating pushes forward and pulls back in the run up to the climax, after which the LSO’s flute has a strange disconnected quality that later morphs into numbness, before an oddly forceful celeste seems to drive the movement to its end.

If the woodwind tone is attractive in the first movement, encompassing both roundness and coolness, in the second movement they are not as squealy as in some performances. This downplays the violence and the fact that the coda goes through without a ritardando adds to the feeling of brusqueness.

The third movement is the heart of any Bernstein recording of the Fifth and he brings out his characteristic “drenched” string sound in an incredibly intense, almost religious performance. It has some extreme dynamic changes but avoids the 1959 recording’s occasional feeling of ‘milking it’. A couple of oddities: at figure 80 the second flute line comes through much more strongly than in any other recording that I’ve heard, and at figures 81 and 93, where the violins divide into three, the top line is almost inaudible. Whether that’s Bernstein’s intention or a failure of the miking isn’t clear but it leaves a curious sense of incompleteness, through the heart-breaking consolatory quality of the end makes us forget that.

Some conductors like to press through, almost attacca, into the finale (though the score has no such instruction). It’s not quite clear what Bernstein did here – as with the pauses between the other movements the screen goes momentarily black but the audience noise (probably regenerated from elsewhere) continues.

Bernstein was of course the great exponent of the ‘fast ending’, though even without the faulty metronome marking, the composer’s ‘non troppo‘ qualification should have been a warning. It’s no surprise to find him following it here. In fact, at 9:27 one could say that he was reining things in – in 1959 it took 8:58 and the 1945 recording comes in at a scorching 8:28! Those who argue that the fast ending is an ironic expression of “forced rejoicing” are welcome to their opinion but on this DVD Bernstein’s delirious expression implies that he wouldn’t agree – he’s clearly playing it straight. Perhaps he didn’t notice that the bass drum completely drowns the timpanist leaving an impression of a string of As and no Ds!

The DVD has six chapters – one for each movement plus brief opening and closing credits. The rehearsal footage covers sections of the first and third movements with Bernstein urging the orchestra to greater songfulness, throwing himself about, walking around the podium and stamping and singing to get the result he wants. In a brief introduction on the soundtrack Bernstein points to the Russian-ness of the work and a little later he speculates that his Russian heritage gave him a particular affinity to Russian works. It is subtitled in French and German. There are also some trailers for other Idéale DVDs including snippets of Bernstein rehearsing and conducting Shostakovich’s First Symphony with the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival Orchestra and horribly mashed selections from the First Violin Concerto performed by Hilary Hahn with the Berlin Philharmonic under Maris Jansons.

The original broadcast’s director, Humphrey Burton, was a long-time friend of the conductor and became his biographer, but the filming is no hagiography and gives appropriate time to the orchestra and the various soloists. Shot on film, the images are clear and the transfer to DVD good, with acceptable mono sound. There are a few audience coughs and some podium noises including a rather odd gulping early in the adagio but no more than you would expect in any live recording.

Some of this enormously powerful performance was also released on the DVD The Art of Conducting so to finally have the whole thing is excellent though it would be good to see more of the rehearsal footage (it fades out rather inconsequentially). Nevertheless, a release to be welcomed.

[1] Also from 1979, there are two bootlegs, purporting to be performances with the Vienna Philharmonic dating from 27 and 28 May, but the wildly divergent timings for each movement make it almost impossible to believe that both (or either?) are what they claim to be.
[2] A live performance of the adagio only, again with the LSO, recorded on 13 August 1975 appeared on the somewhat mysterious GNP label at some point. As the composer had died just a few days earlier this was a ‘memorial’ opener to a concert otherwise devoted to Bernstein, Mozart and Sibelius.

John Riley