Clearly different conductors made these two discs. Bernstein #1 serves up heavy-handed, perfunctory, and uninvolved performances of the familiar Carmen and L'Arlesienne suites. In contrast, Bernstein #2 leads sparkling renditions of Bizet's Symphony and Offenbach's beloved ballet which overflow with youthful enthusiasm and joyous abandon.
Despite some truly magnificent playing from the New York Philharmonic (especially flutist Julius Baker and oboist Harold Gomberg, whose magical playing very nearly saves the day), Sir Thomas Beecham is to be preferred by far in both Bizet suites. The sheer beauty and emotional wallop of the Beecham L'Arlesienne has never been approached, and his 1949 Carmen Suite, with the Columbia Symphony, is so incredibly sexy that it ought to be sold in a plain brown wrapper.
On the other hand, Bernstein's Bizet Symphony is both better played and more exuberant by far than the much-vaunted Beecham, and his Gaite Parisienne is by turns lively and witty, touching, and sweet. Especially amazing is the conductor's uncanny ability to maintain an intense level of energy from start to finish. If you must have every note of this ballet, then don't hesitate to purchase Erich Kunzel's lively Telarc recording. However, in the most familiar excerpts, Bernstein definitely has the edge over the competition. My only reservations about this disc are the similarity of mood and texture of the four works and the fact that the booklet contains the three most miserable photos of Bernstein that I have yet seen.
Sound is exceptionally good, though rather close-up, for both discs, and I couldn't detect the slightest bit of hiss. One minor mistake is made on the jewel case and repeated in the booklet – Offenbach's Orpheus Overture is listed as track #14 only. It has, instead, been spread over four separate tracks.
Copyright © 1995, Tom Godell.
This review originally appeared in the American Record Guide