Leonard Bernstein Plays & Conducts Mozart

by | Dec 7, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Leonard Bernstein Plays & Conducts – MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major, K. 453; Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major, K. 543 

Vienna Philharmonic, 1981

Director: Humphrey Burton
Studio: Unitel/EuroArts DVD 2072098
Video: 4:3, Color
Audio: PCM Stereo
No region coding
Length: 72 minutes
Rating ****

Recorded at the Grosser Musikvereinsaal, Vienna 3-11 October 1981, this film captures the affections that runs from players to composer to the audience. The execution by the VPO woodwinds provides exemplary moments of musical repose in a style with which they were completely familiar.

I recall a particularly grand faux pas I made in 1977 when working with Leonard Bernstein in New York: I quipped that, like his great interpretative predecessor Serge Koussevitzky, Bernstein was a better Haydn conductor than a Mozart practitioner. Bernstein’s dander raised itself, and he asked me, “Have you seen my special, “The Immortal Mozart”?  When I said I had not, he said between tight lips, “Well, try and catch it if you can; you might learn something.”

Looking at this colorful video of his work with the Vienna Philharmonic, it is easy to see two things: the total rapport Bernstein has with the orchestra, and the thoroughly Viennese style Bernstein brings to Mozart, in spite of such idiosyncrasies that might inhabit his rendition of the G Major Concerto. Bernstein favored only three of the Mozart piano concertos: this one in G; the C Major, K. 503; and occasionally the D Minor. Bernstein maintains a decided mezzo-voce in his keyboard dynamic, never forcing the piano part onto the orchestral texture. If grace and polish mark the opening Allegro, a deep, introspective serenity dominates the Andante. With the piano lid open, we have a wonderful triangle of Bernstein’s raised hands, the keyboard, and the flute and oboes.

A nod of the head to the flute, and we are ushered liquidly to the movement’s close. The radiant piece ends with a rascal of a last movement, Allegretto–Finale. Presto. A series of brilliant variations, the movement is rife with humorous metric shifts and false cadences. At one variation, the piece almost becomes a wind quintet with piano. The fortes suddenly break forth, and Bernstein’s trill asserts itself to precede a series of Mannheim rockets. The Presto takes us to a lively hunt with hints of Papagena. Rollicking wit at the end, with a big chord that embraces the entire audience.

The E-flat Symphony elicits from Bernstein his magisterial, ceremonial stance. Flute and clarinet prove prominent in the stately proceedings. Long shot of Bernstein’s first full statement of the theme from the tympani’s perspective, the basses in full throttle. The dolce theme rises up in strings and transfers to the winds, then tutti to the repeat. The scale of the piece enlarged, we realize this may be Mozart’s Eroica. Restrained but dignified throughout, the Allegro section moves with fervor and pageantry. Bernstein leads the Andante con moto as much in an intimate expression of his facial gestures as his orchestra’s response to his baton. Sometimes, he holds the melody or instrumental texture in the palm of his left hand. A robust swagger for the Menuetto, with Bernstein resting his arms and permitting the VPO to lead itself. Velvet sounds from strings, horns, clarinets, and tympani. Bernstein’s Finale communicates a buoyant love of life, a multi-layered pageant which achieves a loving apotheosis. You got me, Lenny. 

–Gary Lemco

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