Bernstein conducts Bruckner 9 (DVD)

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.9 in D minor

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein

Recorded between 26 February-2 March 1990 in the Musikverein, Vienna

Directed by Humphrey Burton

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: October 2006
CD No: EUROARTS 2072018
Duration: 74 minutes

This is both a life-enhancing and very poignant document. Given in the year of his death, Leonard Bernstein is captured on film conducting music by a composer that he wasn’t especially associated with. However, these two creative artists of outstanding individuality, are here brought together by the notion of ‘final thoughts’ – Bruckner with a symphony that was unfinished at his death (and written during steadily declining health) and Bernstein far from well at the time of these performances and, maybe, confronting his own mortality.

Not that Bruckner and Bernstein were complete strangers: Bernstein conducted Symphony No.6 in New York (a concert performance issued in a New York Philharmonic set devoted to the conductor), and he commercially recorded the Ninth, also in New York, for CBS/Sony.

The earlier account of the Ninth pre-dates this Vienna one by 20 years or so. As he got older, Bernstein delved ever deeper into the possibilities of the music he conducted, probing and distending those works that were a constant in his repertoire. Not that Bruckner 9 was, but Bernstein did return to it for this epic account with one of the most seasoned of Bruckner orchestras, the Vienna Philharmonic, with which he had a close relationship.

Actually it’s not quite as ‘epic’ as the printed timings of this DVD suggest. Several concert performances make up this DVD, just as they did Deutsche Grammophon’s CD (issued in 1992) of Bernstein conducting this work (435 350-2). One problem with DVD timings is they are usually misleading and reflect where cue-points are placed rather than the actual length of the music. So here the ‘final’ Adagio is timed at 29 minutes. It is actually 27 (the extra two minutes are for applause before the final credits, separately tracked, are run). Irrespective of whether these are identical ‘takes’ for the CD and DVD, the movement timings are more or less identical – circa 27, 12, and 27.

As to the filmed performance(s) that make up this DVD, Bernstein lives and breathes the music, and acts it too, but he also graphically conducts important cues; this is a musician finding a tangible spiritual dimension in this awesome music. It cannot be said that this powerfully emotive and sweetly reflective account grows organically, but it is held together by charisma and a vivid narrative, Bernstein alive to the music’s strangeness and ambiguity; the coda of the first movement is hugely rhetorical, granitic, yet chilling.

That Bernstein is immersed in the music is palpable, yet he also seems outside of it, certainly revealing the composer’s emotional quandary and, maybe, self-revealing his own fascination with the music and that he was also not totally convinced by it.

In many respects the first movement is the most successful; the two that remain ask questions about Bernstein’s interpretation. The scherzo is ground out, revealing its grotesque side, but it also sounds too disjointed (if interesting), with a trio that is galumphing rather than spectral. The Adagio, the unintended finale, aches with the suffering of leave-taking, the tempo(s) very broad, the music’s progress filled with trepidation and a search for serenity. Yet, some wallowing and some pulled punches do not quite add up. For all that it makes magnetic listening and watching.

Directed with musical sensibility by Humphrey Burton – no added or coloured lighting, and no rapid-cut edits – there are plenty of shots of Bernstein, reasonably enough, and the orchestra is well covered, too. Doubts, yes, but this is also a release that no admirer of this composer and conductor (Bernstein was a very fine composer, too) should be without. If not a devout Brucknerian, Bernstein certainly brings out the ‘agony and ecstasy’ of Bruckner’s symphonic swan-song.

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