Leonard Bernstein Conducts Beethoven Box set
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Hailed as one of the most important musicians in America in the 20th-Century, legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein conducts the momentous collection of Beethoven’s nine symphonies in this impressive 6 CD boxset for Sony Classics. Recorded whilst Bernstein was at the peak of his musical capabilities during his famous spell as director of Music at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Beethoven symphonies provide the listener with an array of emotions, from the serious nature of the Fifth Symphony to the Third ‘Eroica’ Symphony, to the Fourth Symphony ‘Pastorale’ and to the passionate ninth, the ‘Chorale’. This collection of works by the most well-known classical music composer of the most famous and important works in classical music makes this boxset a ‘must-have’ for the classical music lover.
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Bernstein was Musical Director of The New York Philharmonic from 1958-1969 and these recordings, his first complete Beethoven symphony cycle, were predominantly recorded in 1963-4. They are excellent throughout and if, for some unimaginable reason, I had to dispose of my scores of recordings of Beethoven's symphonies and could keep only one boxed set, this (albeit with a heavy heart and many regrets) is the one I would save. I couldn't be without Bernstein's readings of the Fourth, Fifth and Seventh symphonies, which I consider to be as near to "definitive" as is possible - and each of those recordings, individually, would be worth far more than the ridiculously low price being charged for the full set. (And, as if all the symphonies for £12 wasn't value enough, the box also contains the Violin Concerto with Isaac Stern (himself a great mentor and teacher, as well as a great musician) as soloist - one of the finest recordings of the work ever made.)
Are there any drawbacks? Well, I've heard better versions of the Eroica (in the Marcia Funebre, no-one can match the jaw-dropping grandeur and solemnity of Klemperer) and the Pastoral (Klemperer again), and I agree with other reviewers that the finale of the Ninth is a little disappointing. No doubt Lenny did his best with what he had, but better soloists and, in particular, a better chorus should have been found. Having said that though, the first three movements - especially the Molto Vivace, where I've yet to hear a more intensely thrilling performance - are magnificent; so, overall, it's still one of the better Ninths I've heard.
To summarise, ladies and gentlemen, what we have here is (arguably - and I'd argue with anyone who disagrees!) the greatest all-round musical genius of the last hundred years, interpreting the work of (unarguably, I'd say) the greatest musical genius of all time. A boxed set of historical importance, which will provide decades of listening pleasure - and for a price so low that it's almost embarrassing. What are you waiting for? Buy it!
I often felt that Karajan didn’t give symphonies 1 and 2 that much attention, but Bernstein drives through them with passion. I would have liked a little more passion in the presto of the 3rd but it’s a beautiful interpretation. His recording of the 5th is often cited as slow - it is, but there is a heaviness that makes it work. It imposes and I think it even better that Klieber jnr’s celebrated DG recording. The 6th is not as good as Bohm but it takes off in the storm (including ragged bowing in the double basses). The vivace of the 7th starts softly and brings great contrast to the forte. The presto is slightly slow but the piano reprise is beautifully done.
The 9th is thrilling, particularly the 2nd movement. The presto in the 4th is slow, but again it works. The double basses in the final are exceptional – imposing, majestic. On the down side the sopranos in the chorus are a little thin, particularly on that taxing high line, and Norman Scott, the bass soloist, snarls somewhat – no “joy”. The tenor and mezzo are fine, though Arroyo is wonderful.
With the added bonus of the sweet sound of Issac Stern in the Violin Concerto (not to mention five great recordings of some of Beethoven’s overtures – including the underrated Consecration of the House) this really is a bargain and a must have.
A great conductor who was composing at the same time as giving Karajan a run for his money.
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