Bernstein Videos: Eloquent ‘Tristan,’ Rollicking Haydn

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Wagner: Tristan und Isolde. Peter Hofmann (tenor), Hildegard Behrens (soprano) Yvonne Minton (mezzo-soprano), Bernd Weikl (baritone), Hans Sotin (bass), Heribert Steinbach (bass), Bavarian Radio Symphony and Chorus, Leonard Bernstein (conductor). C-Major 746304, Blu-ray and DVD, 291 minutes

Haydn: Symphonies 88, 92 and 94, Sinfonia Concertante. Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein (conductor). C-Major 746504, Blu-ray and DVD, 111 minutes

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW – Leonard Bernstein’s centenary date (Aug. 25) has come and gone, and since then there has barely been time to sift through the voluminous amount of audio and video that has poured out of what remains of the classical record industry. Most of the audio releases are reissues, a lot of which never went out of print in the first place. Yet the vast Bernstein video trove – no classical musician has been before the cameras as often – continues to yield material that has never seen release on home video, even 28 years after his passing. Here are a couple of examples.

The Tristan performance is an isolated one-off for Bernstein – the only time he ever recorded a complete Wagner opera after a career-long love-hate fascination with the imperious composer (“I hate Richard Wagner, but I hate him on my knees,” Bernstein once reputedly said). These were live concert performances in Munich’s Herkulessaal, taking place over a span of three widely spaced days in 1981, one act per day so that the singers could go all out without tiring. Bernstein’s performance was originally released on five LPs in 1983 on the Philips label so as not to interfere with Carlos Kleiber’s concurrent set on Deutsche Grammophon (both conductors were signed to DG), but this is the first time the video of these concerts has been seen outside Germany.

Bernstein strives mightily to prove his points; he was 63 but looks much older and worn, and reportedly was absolutely exhausted after the Act III taping. He lunges, face sometimes contorted, trying to extract meaning from every note in the long opera. He is easily the most arresting figure in the performance and gets a lot more face time onscreen than a full production would have allowed.

The singers mostly stand and sing, sometimes before music stands, with minimal action and no props. The “set” consists of an awkwardly hung background illustration of an abstract maelstrom that quite accurately conveys the unresolved turmoil surging throughout this music.

Hildegard Behrens (Isolde) at a 1981 press conference with Bernstein.
(greatsingersofthepast – wordpress.com)

Bernstein’s Tristan drew a mixed response in its time due to what seemed like controversially slow tempos and allegedly uneven singing. But this video reveals a most eloquent, often beautiful performance, gorgeously played by the Bavarian Radio Symphony. Sure, Bernstein’s pace during the Act I Prelude and in parts of the love music of Act II is slower than almost anyone else’s. The veteran Karl Böhm’s famous comment, “For the first time, someone dares to perform this music as Wagner wrote it,” could be interpreted to mean that Bernstein could make it sound like he wrote this great music himself. Yet elsewhere, Bernstein’s tempos aren’t that far out of the norm at all, and everything is held together by his usual firm grasp of rhythm and pulse.

Tenor Peter Hofmann looks rock-star glamorous as Tristan, and soprano Hildegard Behrens projects a feminine Isolde; neither singer rattles the rafters like a Vickers or a Nilsson, but they make a fine showing. It is perplexing why the video recording of this performance had to wait so long for a release, for it is a vitally important addition to the Bernstein legacy.

The second disc rounds up Bernstein’s 1984-86 video performances of symphonic Haydn with the Vienna Philharmonic. By this time, Bernstein’s high-spirited Haydn had not fundamentally changed from his recordings with the New York Philharmonic two decades before. The Vienna performances feel more elegant in delivery and heavier in texture, but that doesn’t mean slower tempos; indeed in the Symphonies Nos. 88 and 94, Bernstein’s tempos are actually faster in the first movements and in the second movement of 94 than in New York. The finales of all three symphonies in Vienna still whip along with all of the joy and zest Lenny could provide while being totally unconcerned with period-performance research. So much for the charge that Bernstein slowed down in everything during his last decade.

Though Bernstein is always fun to watch in Haydn, clearly enjoying himself at all times, the highlight of the disc by far is a reprise of the finale of the No. 88 which has been entertaining YouTube viewers for years. Here, after playing through the finale once perfectly straight, he does it again, this time with arms at his side or folded, conducting with nothing more than a raised eyebrow, a grimace, a beaming or mischievous expression. How much of this actually guided the Vienna musicians was known only to them, but having seen Bernstein live and up-close in rehearsal, I can attest that he used his entire body to communicate his intentions and got audible responses from the players. And I’ve seen another conductor recently (Jeffrey Kahane) who tried the same stunt in the same piece. I’ll bet he saw this video.

The whole disc is a testament to Bernstein’s unlikely mutual love affair with an orchestra notorious for its anti-Semitic past that fell under his irresistible spell anyway. Don’t miss it.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.

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