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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bernstein's Muscular Mozart, 10 Dec 2006
J Scott Morrison (Middlebury VT, USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Leonard Bernstein - Mozart Piano Concerto No. 17, Symphony No. 39 [DVD] [2006] (DVD)
The farther we get from the Bernstein era -- he died in late 1990 -- the more I'm inclined to accord him status as one of the greatest conductors of my lifetime. This 1981 performance with the Vienna Philharmonic from Vienna's Grosser Musikvereinsaal is an example of Bernstein at his greatest, although some might disagree largely because his manner with Mozart is more romantic than they might wish. I am of mixed minds about what is acceptable in Mozart performance. I like some of the HIP tenets but I also like rather more romantic, but unbloated, approaches when they are in the hands of such giants as Bernstein. And certainly here we get him at his idiosyncratic best.

Bernstein conducts the Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K453, from the keyboard. His conception of the piece is very personal. There is hardly a phrase that doesn't have his stamp on it. This concerto is one of Mozart's sunniest, and we definitely get its joie de vivre as only Bernstein can convey it, but we also get drama aplenty. Bernstein's technical command is more than equal to the solo part, and he leads the VPO in an almost brash account of the outer movements. But in the andante middle movement there is such intimacy and tenderness as to almost bring tears to one's eyes. I literally became aware that I was holding my breath the first time I listened to it. I don't know that I've ever heard the wind solos taken more plangently. In other pianists' hands the left hand accompaniments in this concerto can be boring or mechanical; not so with Bernstein. If one listens, for instance, to the simple repeated chords accompanying that soulful long melody in II, one can hear Bernstein molding them with great precision and delicacy. The final rondo is joy incarnate. This is a great reading of one of Mozart's perhaps lesser-heard concerti. I will treasure this performance for years to come.

The Symphony No. 39 in E flat, K 543, is the first of Mozart's final three symphonies written in that golden six-week period between June 26 and August 10, 1788. Can anyone else have equaled this remarkable output in such a brief period of time? No. 39, like the Piano Concerto on this program, is the lesser-played of these symphonies; nonetheless, it is a great one, with its first movement's portentous opening chords (rare in Mozart's symphonic oeuvre) reminiscent of 'The Magic Flute' followed by a flowing allegro whose unusual five-bar phrase lengths are so suavely constructed that one is probably not aware of them unless one is following a score. This is Mozart at his most forward-looking. In the Andante con moto second movement Bernstein emphasizes the mood presaged by the strangely darkening conclusion of the long first melody that leads into a minor key episode. The VPO's strings, silky as they are, become menacing in the latter passage. The third movement minuet is welcome relief from the foregoing drama with its almost rustic mood and its Mannheim rocket of a melody; its trio features an achingly beautiful solo played and echoed by the VPOs first and second clarinetists. The glory, for me, of this symphony is its wild and wonderful finale, and Bernstein gives the VPO license to play alternately with nuanced delicacy and manic high spirits. Like that of the Concerto, this is a magnificent performance of a great symphony.

Videography tends toward very tight closeups. In the concerto we get extreme closeups of Bernstein's hands at the piano. (I wish we could have seen more of his pedaling, but that's just a pianist talking.) The same kinds of closeups are given of individual instrumentalists, particularly the fine winds. There is less focus on Bernstein than is sometimes seen in videos, and that's just fine with me. Sound is fine, of its time and not lacking for that; LPCM Stereo, DD5.1, DTS5.1. Region code 0 (worldwide). TT=72mins

Strongly recommended for those who admire Bernstein and like the rather more traditional approach to Mozart than we are likely to get these days with original-instrument orchestras.

Scott Morrison
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