Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 26

26_Unitel 00440 073 4170GH /

Shostakovich Symphonies 6 & 9
Leonard Bernstein, Wiener Philharmoniker.
Directed by Humphrey Burton.
Deutsche Grammophon / Unitel 00440 073 4170GH. DVD-Video NTSC, Region 0, PCM Stereo / DTS 5.1, Picture format: 4:3. TT: 72 min + 31 min (Bonus material).
Recorded in the Großer Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, 23-28 October 1985 (No. 9) and 4-10 October 1986 (No. 6).

Bernstein’s live recordings of Symphonies Nos. 6 and 9 with the Vienna Philharmonic were first released in 1987 (Deutsche Grammophon 419 771-1GH [digital] and CD 419 771-2GH) and recently re-released in the second instalment of the Leonard Bernstein Collectors Edition, Leonard Bernstein: Stravinsky/Shostakovich—Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon (477 519-3GB6; 6-CD set). These performances were also filmed by Unitel, under the direction of Humphrey Burton, together with special introductions by Bernstein, recorded away from the podium in a more informal (though erudite) setting with the conductor seated at a grand piano, surrounded by paintings of master composers. Deutsche Grammophon have released these film recordings for the first time on DVD as part of their contribution to Shostakovich’s centenary year. Hence, a photograph of Shostakovich is prominently displayed on the outside of the DVD box, the front cover of the accompanying booklet and as background to the main menu on the DVD. Beyond this Shostakovich veneer, the illustrations inside the booklet and on the DVD sub-menus are all of Bernstein, suggesting that this DVD is really part of their Bernstein Collectors Edition.

Bernstein’s introductions—the main “Bonus Material”—are in English only, with an option for subtitles in German, French, Spanish or Chinese. Additional bonus material includes three Deutsche Grammophon DVD trailers (one of which is Bernstein conducting and discussing Mahler’s symphonies) and the Deutsche Grammophon DVD catalogue. The liner notes are by David Gutman, with translations in German and French.

There are various possible routes through the DVD menu to select either the complete symphonies with or without the introductions, individual movements or introductions only. Selecting to view the symphonies with introductions recreates the format of the recordings as originally edited by Unitel in the 1980s (and last broadcast on BBC2 in August 1995): a single introduction for Symphony No. 6 and three short introductions prefacing the first three movements of Symphony No. 9. Navigating the menu is not always intuitive—a problem aggravated by poor contrast between the highlighted and non-highlighted menu options—but at least there is no annoying loop music repeated endlessly whilst you find your way through.

A red sticker on the front of the DVD box and the publicity blurb on the back make creative use of positive statements from Stephen Johnson’s Gramophone review (1987, issue 11; freely available online) of the original audio release. As Louis Blois pointed out in his comprehensive survey of Symphony No. 6 recordings (see DSCH 17), Bernstein’s Largo, at over 22 minutes in length, is the slowest and “most elaborately pampered.” Johnson felt Bernstein’s account was “deeply moving, but bereft of life,” lacking the slow undercurrent present in Mravinsky’s 1965 recording (Scribendum SC031; reviewed in DSCH 21), and cited the deep bass trill that the conductor added to the lower woodwind just after figure 6 as being symptomatic of his generally ponderous approach. Gutman regards this as a positive intervention, Bernstein “second-guess[ing] the composer by writing in the missing Mahlerian trill.”

I disagree with Johnson’s comment that Bernstein’s heart wasn’t in the fast movements. The shots of Bernstein conducting show him having fun: he pouts, smiles and dances around the podium when the mood takes him (Johnson complained about audible stamping from the podium during the second movement!). Johnson’s comments might have been different had he seen the filmed performance or heard Bernstein discuss his overall conception of the symphony: the Largo a long drawn-out private confession in the manner, tempo and key (B minor) of the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony, followed by “two comedy acts”—a fandango and a circus band—signifying the hypocrisy of life in Soviet Russia during the late 1930s, where, despite the harsh realities, the message that “life is great” was proclaimed from above. This description did not come from a man whose heart was not in the music.

In his introduction Bernstein called Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony an “anti-ninth”, one that thumbed its nose at the type of grand choral work expected by the Communist Party to celebrate their victory in the Great Patriotic War and expected generally of ninth symphonies since Beethoven. Thwarting all these expectations, Shostakovich chose Haydn as his model in terms of form (the first movement is a sonata-allegro) and use of purely musical jokes. Bernstein’s favourite joke was the trombone’s six false entrances to introduce the second subject in the recapitulation of the first movement, which he compared to a running gag where an actor constantly barges into the wrong scene. He also showed, via extracts played on the piano or by the orchestra (including works other than those on the DVD), how Shostakovich, in the fourth movement, was poking fun at Beethoven’s Ninth by the incongruous juxtaposition of the pompous trombone theme—a command that the composer write in the grand style expected of a ninth symphony—with Shostakovich’s negative response in the bassoon solo, whose opening descending fourth figure is “unquestionably a reference to Beethoven’s Ninth.” Brotherly love and patriotic fervour are eschewed in favour of fun and frolics, Bernstein perfectly capturing the mood as the orchestra whirls itself into a frenzied “Offenbach cancan.”

Visually, the recordings are much less captivating than a televised broadcast of a classical concert would be today, given the advances in camera technology over the last twenty years. There are no central shots of the full orchestra: most of the shots are static close-ups of prominent instrumentalists from the (then) all-male orchestra, taken from the left side of the auditorium. Although Gutman alludes to some “daringly fast cross-cutting to illustrate the music’s antic instability,” fortunately such moments are rare, as they do not enhance the performance. The members of the Vienna Philharmonic execute the music with precision, but, unlike many orchestral players today, without obvious emotional involvement.

Nonetheless, since Bernstein was a near contemporary of Shostakovich and someone who began his conducting career in the USA during WWII when Shostakovich was such a “hot” composer internationally, his interpretations of Shostakovich’s symphonies are valuable historical documents. His introductions are an added value since few conductors have been given the opportunity to record their impressions in this manner.

Crucially, Bernstein—like Shostakovich—had firm roots in musical theatre as well as the concert hall and was therefore able to identify and enthusiastically embrace both the lowbrow influences in Shostakovich’s music (circus, operetta, Chaplinesque humour, etc.) and the highbrow (the standard symphonic repertoire of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, etc.). This shared musical and cultural background is evident in his introductions and also greatly benefits these interpretations of Symphonies Nos. 6 and 9. Whether conducting movements that are brooding and melancholic (first movement from Symphony No. 6 and second movement from No. 9) or full of fun (pretty much everything else), Bernstein is a joy to watch and so different in approach from Gergiev and other current podium stars. This DVD is a must for Bernstein fans and anyone interested in musical subtexts rather than political ones.

Fiona Ford