Beethoven: Symphonies No 1-9, Overtures... / Bernstein, New York Philharmonic

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Leonard Bernstein was always a very impressive Beethoven conductor. When this set was first released, it was received somewhat tepidly, largely on account of Bernstein’s “espressivo” style in the Fifth, and also the occasional roughness in the playing of the New York Philharmonic. The comparison, naturally, was to the extremely smooth and polished Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan, whose 1963 cycle was viewed as the acme of great orchestral playing–which, of its kind, it was. Then Bernstein re-recorded all of these works with the Vienna Philharmonic for DG, and that was that as far as these performances were concerned. Heard from today’s perspective, after decades of “authentic” performances of a timbral crudeness that are to Bernstein what Bernstein was to Karajan, perhaps it’s time for a reappraisal.

In the first place, Bernstein isn’t all bluster and excess. The first two symphonies have plenty of stylish playing and conducting supporting their energetic cast. Those crucial bass lines in the finale of the Fifth speak more powerfully here than they do in Vienna, and the special affinity that Bernstein has always felt for the Eroica and Seventh Symphonies are very much in evidence. Granted, the Ninth has to make due with an average cast of soloists (Martina Arroyo aside), and the Juilliard Chorus is good but not great, but then this is true of so many versions of this symphony; certainly Bernstein’s interpretation has plenty of fire and a genuinely hushed intensity in the Adagio. The Pastoral too has lots of rustic character, with the last three movements particularly well paced.

The overtures are marvelous: Leonore No. 3 and The Consecration of the House are especially outstanding. As for the Violin Concerto, Isaac Stern’s recordings have much the same reputation as Bernstein’s first Beethoven cycle: good, but somehow in the second tier. Is this deserved? I’m not so sure. This is a beautiful performance, serene but not lacking energy in the first movement, expressively flowing in Larghetto, and full of physical energy in the finale. Soloist and accompanist work very well together; nothing sounds routine or taken for granted.

Sonically these recordings have held up well; they never were great, but they capture the performances with a certain unvarnished directness that seems to suit the interpretations, and they have been well remastered. At budget price, you can try this set and decide for yourself if it deserves a higher reputation than that granted by received opinion over the years.

– David Hurwitz,

Product Description:

  • Release Date: January 01, 2014

  • Catalog Number: 88697683912

  • UPC: 886976839123

  • Label: Sony

  • Number of Discs: 6

  • Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven

  • Conductor: Leonard Bernstein

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: New York Philharmonic

  • Performer: Isaac Stern