This is the original issue of these performances, with all nine symphonies and what amounts to a full disc of overtures. It is also the most artistically consistent way to acquire them, which is amazing considering this box dates from about 1990. Since that time, they have been seen on "The Leonard Bernstein Edition", "DG Panorama", and more. More recently, Universal packaged the symphonies in the "Leonard Bernstein Collectors' Edition" and the overtures in a startlingly uneven box on the same line. The 60-disc "Leonard Bernstein Collection: Vol. 1" released this year finally puts these performances all in the same place – for the first time in over 20 years, mind – but does nothing about the "startlingly uneven" part of the late-career Bernstein discography. It's enough to make your head spin. The bottom line is this; if you want the conductor's finest symphonic Beethoven efforts in one place, hunt this set down and love it forever, allowing mounds of reissue sets to pass you by.
The Vienna Philharmonic is the star of this show. They play beautifully. I disagree with critics and overzealous Amazon shoppers that the sound is too pretty or bland. For overall consistency, Lenny never gave us better Beethoven. For curious readers, the Seventh and Ninth here are not the famous ones at his last concert and the Berlin Wall, respectively. They are simply better. The Boston Seventh from that last concert is awful – the conductor was close to dying on the podium – and the Berlin Ninth featuring everyone in the free world is well-meant but ponderous and an unhappy affair. Conversely, the Seventh and Ninth here are exceptional performances, radically different in sound and conception from label-mates Bohm, Karajan, and Kubelik.
The First, Second, and Fourth are very fine. I maintain a slight preference for his early New York Second, but in all respects these are excellent. The Third is outstanding, perhaps more refined than his earlier New York version, but reflecting a wealth of experience and love in this music. It's still not overly refined, surpassing the too-sleek Karajan efforts and less stodgy than Bohm with the same orchestra. Listeners accustomed to leaner sounds will probably still prefer Szell or Zinman among those using modern instruments, but this is still a worthy viewpoint.
In the Fifth, Bernstein always made the first movement somewhat controversial with his milking of the main theme; this comes through more clearly in his earlier reading now on Sony Classical. The final three movements still capture the attention with superlative playing and great excitement. On the other hand, most music people agree that this Vienna Sixth is the conductor's preferred version. It has everything, glorious playing and pacing, a thrilling thunderstorm, and a radiant conclusion. Only Karl Böhm's Vienna version matches it within the Universal archives.
As mentioned, this roughly rollicking Seventh really digs in hard, while the Philharmonic still maintains its unique sound. Appreciably, Bernstein allows the individual voices in the orchestra to be heard, unlike Karajan's increasingly string-heavy takes. Despite the tonal allure on display, there is no lack of excitement, and the second movement has a welcome degree of weight and tension. As for the Eighth it's very well played, but frankly neither of the two Bernstein versions balances the work's dramatic and sunny qualities especially well. Where the New York rendition was a little too rough, this version takes itself too seriously; the heaviness and weight proves unwelcome.
The Ninth features a wonderful solo quartet and some very lusty singing by the Vienna choral forces. It's a sound that takes some getting used to, for sheer beauty I could see Karajan's 1962 classic getting the nod. Still, it's a superior effort to the Sony/Columbia one, which featured subpar vocal work all around. Bernstein also uses the Vienna Philharmonic to his advantage, with an especially luminous treatment of the winds and strings. The overtures are smattered throughout the set and share all of the positive qualities on display (as well as a touch of the heaviness). It may be difficult to find, but if you want Bernstein in Beethoven, you need this set.
Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman