Bernstein in the 1940s, Volume 2 = Works by SCHUMANN; ROZSA; R. STRAUSS – New York Philharmonic – Pristine Audio 

Pristine restores the historical moment of Bernstein’s 1943 debut at Carnegie Hall, a moment that officially launched a legendary career.

Bernstein in the 1940s, Volume 2 = SCHUMANN: Manfred Overture, Op. 115; ROZSA: Theme, Variations, & Finale, Op. 13a; R. STRAUSS: Don Quixote, Op. 35 – Joseph Schuster, cello/ William Lincer, viola/ New York Philharmonic/ Leonard Bernstein – Pristine Audio PASC 533, 74:26 [www.pristineclassical.com] *****:

Andrew Rose restores the historic concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Sunday, 14 November 1943, when a young assistant conductor from Lawrence, Massachusetts, Leonard Bernstein (b. 1918), substituted for an ailing Bruno Walter for a Philharmonic-Symphony program that included Schumann, Rozsa, and Strauss, and at which Carl van Doren and Orson Welles appeared—though not included in this recording—as part of a “Sunday Scripture” presentation. Obviously intended to celebrate the Bernstein centennial, this Pristine remastering, via the XR process, projects the singular occasion with striking clarity, opening with an aroused version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Bernstein had had no time to set up a rehearsal prior to his conducting debut, so he sojourned to the ailing Bruno Walter’s home and consulted that Maestro about his desired tempos and dynamic markings. The results quickly become apparent, as Bernstein leads the music of Schumann in a superheated performance—typical of Bernstein’s evolving approach to this composer’s idiosyncratic Romanticism—of the Manfred Overture. More colossally involved with the music’s psychological torment than in a studied gradation of gloom, Bernstein’s reading hustles through the driving melodies but does concede to despair and resignation at the music’s close.

Miklos Rosza (1907-1995), later to attain note in the medium of film music, wrote the Hungarian Theme, Variations and Finale when he was twenty-six (1933). The entire syntax—opening with a sad oboe—easily reminds us of the influence of Zoltan Kodaly, especially in its sonorous application of brass and low strings. There are eight variations, each a virtuoso etude for a section of the orchestra, including some mighty riffs for the tympani in Variation 2. Heavy string pizzicatos and brass punctuations mark Variation 3, accompanied by melodic surge the composer would further exploit in his film scores. Harp and low strings introduce Variation 4, in which the flute and strings will sing kind of hymn. A flighty scherzo then has a pastoral episode follow, this a version of the Hungarian puszta, a night-scene rife with hazy elements and the color of the celesta. Variation 7 presents a potent march that adds syncopations to the original theme. Tympani and bass drum seem to “own” Variation 8, which proceeds, among various permutations, to treat the theme fugally, scurrying passionately to the violin, which usher in the Finale. The composer indulges in some bi-tonality, crossing E-flat Major with A minor, the latter of which decides the dark coda.   Bernstein has driven this piece for its virtuoso luster, and the audience certainly reacts enthusiastically.

Bernstein opens the 1897 “Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character” in a generous, moderate tempo, allowing his winds and strings to delineate the theme, while winds and low brass introduce the mocking elements of the Cervantes anatomy of the chivalric sensibility. Cellist Joseph Schuster (1903-1969) served with the New York Philharmonic from 1936-1944, his having played for Wilhelm Furtwaengler in Berlin, 1929-1934. Schuster plays the same 1720 Goffriller instrument formerly owned by Emanuel Feuermann. William Lincer (1907-1997) played viola or the New York Philharmonic from 1943-1972. The evolving dialogues of the two solo instrumentalists proceed with sonorous elasticity and wit; then, at Variation 2, the music allows Schuster’s Quixote to sing most ardently of his Dulcinea. Variation 3 offers Bernstein his most exalted vision of the kind of world that Mahler would capture even more ecstatically than Strauss, but Bernstein builds a cosmic canvas, nonetheless. The confrontation with the Penitents has girth and menace as well comic befuddlement in the low brass of tenor tuba and bass clarinet. In several respects, the performance “belongs” as much to principals Schuster and Lincer as to Bernstein, given the lyricism and driven poignancy of their respective parts. The virtuoso orchestral effects Strauss calls for, like the wind machine and the famed bleating of sheep, all comport themselves with resounding success. The score neatly balances Quixote’s grandiose and exorbitant visions of human nature against the brute realities of life, often landing Quixote with a resounding thump on his posterior. Even so, Strauss indicates misterioso when Quixote’s optimism remains unshattered. The misadventure of a boat ride finds Quixote in conflict with two monks (two bassoons) whom Quixote perceived as magicians. The extended cods brings Quixote back to something like common sense, and his eventual death-scene enjoys yet another solo from Schuster, whose tone has been marvelously preserved by the exertions of Andre Rose.

In terms of the Bernstein centennial, this CD restoration remains as essential as any testament to Bernstein’s early demonstration of talent can be.

—Gary Lemco

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