Cher Public

O sink hernieder, Nacht der Lenny

Well here we are, beloveds, still swathed in the warm glow of the Leonard Bernstein centennial. Box sets abound like bunnies in a hutch. 

Deutsche Grammophon takes pride of place with a 121 CD – 36 DVD / Blu-ray audio compendium of (nearly) every time the Maestro took the air in a recording studio, concert hall, or opera house. You can also choose to start small and simply invest inallthe Mahler, or allthe Haydn or Beethoven.

Things that have been hiding (or simply pushed to the back out of sight) like Massor A Quiet Placeare coming out of the woodwork with high-profile performances, reissues, and brand new recordings. The passage of time has a way of making things that were initially loathed by the critical establishment feel fresh and pretty.

Of all the exhumations the one that was buried deepest is the belated release of the video of Bernstein’s performance of Richard Wagner’s magnum-sized love opus Tristan und Isolde. At the dawn of digital recording Wagner was getting a lot of love from the record companies. From January of 1982 until October of 1983 London/Decca, DG, and Phillips all released recordings of Tristanfeaturing their best Wagnerian interpreters.

Reginald Goodall for Decca was the first out of the gate. Fresh from performances at the Welsh National Opera in German (Goodall surprisingly didn’t favor Tristan in English). He naturally brought his accustomed in-depth rehearsal process to singers who, if they weren’t renowned, were certainly distinguished.

The Isolde of Linda Esther Gray in particular gave the impression of someone who should have gone on to a bigger career. (Anyone who hasn’t heard her in the Act I Narration/Curse should stop what they’re doing this moment and seek it out. Her “Fluch dir, Verruchter!” digs into a sprechstimme/chest unlike any other. I honestly find her the equal of Mödl in the part.)

Goodall’s interpretation, true to his form, was precise, heavy, and slow. The orchestra itself not world class but certainly well trained and the whole affair had a cohesiveness rare in studio recordings because it had emerged via a thorough rehearsal period and run of performances.

Carlos Kleiber on Deutsche Grammophon came next with a cast of real stars and veterans—especially when you count the great Anton Dermota (at 72 yrs. old) as the Shepherd and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau repeating his Kurwenal from thirty years previous on the justly venerated Furtwangler EMI recording with Kirsten Flagstad.

The story goes (and I can’t recall where I heard it: perhaps on these very pages) that Hildegard Behrens had initially promised her Isolde to Kleiber until Lenny worked his Svengali ways on her. I vividly remember the hue and cry from the various opera magazines when it was announced that Margaret Price(!?!?) would sing the Irish Princess.

The dates of recording show an unusually long process with only the months and years of August and October of 1980, February and April of 1981, and then February and April of 1982 listed. A story also circulates that Dame Margaret had to sing most of the Liebesnacht in the studio to the recorded playback of her Tristan, Rene Kollo,who had already fulfilled his commitment to the project.

Kleiber’s recording was hailed as revelatory and he brought a post-Stravinsky ear to all of Wagner’s harmonies and a transparent quality to the orchestral playing that was unique. He was also fast. As fast as the famous live recording from Bayreuth under Karl Bohm. You’d probably need a stopwatch to prove conclusively who’s the victor it’s so close.

Once tasted, Dame Margaret’s vocalism was hailed, with reservations of course, and among that rare group of hot-house tomatoes “performed only for the studio” she managed the rare feat of enhancing her own legend. I remember one reviewer saying,”Well, perhaps if she tries it at La Fenice?”. Kleiber meanwhile threatened a lawsuit because the breaks on the LP’s were engineered with a slow fade out to a slow fade in on the flip side without his being consulted.

Then came the Bernstein juggernaut with the laying on of microphones and television cameras. A concert of each act relayed live (only in Europe I believe) in January, April, and October of 1981 but the finished product not appearing on record shelves until October of 1983 after patch sessions, post mastering, and the destruction of the entire first pressing.

In his new book, On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein, longtime assistant Charlie Harmon describes the Phillips executives driving out to Bernstein’s country retreat to present him with the finished product and during dinner that night they sampled Act III. At the conclusion of the “Liebestod.” after the requisite reverential silence, came wild applause from the hi-fi speakers. “I never allow applause on my recordings!” came the edict and lo, a run of 5,000 copies are promptly consigned to the dust bin.

So first available on Lord knows how many LP’s, then followed short on by a 5-CD box that had frustratingly few cue points which made locating and listening to the best bits a chore. More recently reissued down to 4 CD’s with more queues added (thank you) and now, finalmente, through the glories of modern technology video and audio squeezed onto one single Blu-ray disc (or 3 DVD’s for maximum bitrate). Hallelujah!

There’s the story of Karl Böhm coming to the rehearsals and congratulating Bernstein,”For the first time someone dares to perform this music as Wagner wrote it”. That apparently means slower than anyone has ever. I recall there may have been collegial tears between the two old men. Sadly Böhm passed on before the project was completed which in no way should be construed as a comment on Bernstein’s tempos.

Lenny’s cast is young and strong but not starry per se and they all seem to be taking their jobs far too seriously. It’s immediately apparent that there’s a lot of pressure involved and even though they’re presenting “in concert” everyone is off book which may have been a miscalculation. Everyone is trying so hard and the strain of concentration and pressure of the event shows through at times.

Hans Sotin’s König Marke is refulgent of tone but he lacks variety of expression and nuance which translates to his face on video. Vocally and textually a noble traversal none the less. He’s also quite fine in the Act II monologue, but that being said, he just doesn’t measure up to the roles greatest interpreters.

Bernd Weikl as Kurwenal is caught in his absolute prime and he sounds young and robust throughout. He especially distinguishes himself in the last act with an outpouring of heartbreak and compassion.

Brangaene finds Yvonne Minton at her very best in Act I but then straining in Act II most especially in the “Watch” where her voice lacks a congenial acoustic. Mayhap she was under the weather for the second concert because she’s certainly back on form for the last act. She fashions herself a strong confidante and happily manages to avoid sounding matronly.

Peter Hoffmann’s Tristan comes off far better than you’d imagine. He did make a name for himself almost exclusively as a Jugendlicher Heldentenor and he managed to put his stamp on Siegmund for the better part of a decade. He was 37 here and just five years after the Chéreau/Boulez Ring at Bayreuth.

The voice was not evenly produced and although it was handsome he himself was handsomer. He’s also got more hair than either of the women. No question he’s singing above his weight class and during some of the more stressful solo moments he loses pitch. Behrens proves a useful partner by helping him tune whenever they’re together otherwise there’s a lot of hand-over-ear in Act III to keep himself on track.

Behrens is the classic operatic “overnight success” story. A late starter she worked her way up the ladder for six years in Dusseldorf when she’s suddenly “discovere”’ by Herbert von Karajan and presented as Salome at the Salzburg Festival. The studio recording of that production proves her glittering and nubile with a silver radiance in her voice, seemingly limitless power, and a good way with the text. She was 40.

In 1981 she’s still relatively fresh and for a singer who tended to grind her gears a bit on the bottom she sings with an over abundance of legato. So much so that it makes me think that it was Bernstein’s influence on her performance. Hoffman’s nerves may betray his pitch but Behren’s nerves find fault with her timing.

At more than a few occasions, especially the climax of the Liebestod, she jumps an entrance reminding us that this is the “live” version. Her Act I is very strong and interpretively well thought through but she’s at her best in Act II. Incandescent at the extinguishing of the torch, she relishes the quiet moments with Tristan, with those chromatic harmonies, building almost imperceptibly towards the duet’s heroic climax.

I remember there was talk of her being physically not at her best for at least one of the concerts but I couldn’t sense any discernible change in her composure. In the first act her hair is mousy-brown with gray streaks but then for the remaining two acts (filmed months apart) she’s a honey blonde (So you know that potion’s working).

Production values are spare. Each act played in front of a moderately impressionist painted backdrop of sorts strung up like a sail at the back of the Munich concert hall. There’s a suitably medieval chair in the first act and a bench in the second. Costumes are post-disco / Salzburg Easter Festival and Isolde’s in a woolen shift with metallic accessories.

To show just how sparse the staging is I actually got excited towards the end of the act II duet when the lovers stood up. Set design and costumes are credited to Gerd Krauss with the video direction by Karlheinz Hundorf. There’s a blessed minimum of in-camera visual effects (fades, soft focus) at the big moments like the drinking of the potion. Of course the camera does find its way to our conductor quite a bit.

It’s the conductor that most everyone is interested in here and Bernstein is everywhere and everything. He not only gives a performance he gives all the performances. He bounces, dances, cajoles, commands. Yet in the end it’s all show. With his other studio opera recordings there were a series of performances that allowed everyone to settle in and put down some roots.

The reality of this “one night only” event, no matter how much coaching and rehearsal went along with it, is that it just doesn’t seem to coalesce into a whole. His interpretation definitely places Wagner firmly in the timeline of German romanticism. There are great swathes where you would be certain you were actually listening to Beethoven.

The strings play in a surprisingly leaner manner than you’d expect with very little schmaltz. The Bavarian Radio Symphony exhibits an enormous amount of control and a great deal of piano playing. They seem to be striving for the sheerest sound possible. It’s not the usual massive slop of romanticism laid over the top in spite of the eccentric and tectonic tempos.

Then, of course, the big climaxes are tsunamis of sound. But his imprint, that thing that makes you sit up and listen, the things that define a Bernstein performance seem hard to place in this context. Bernstein said after the project was finished, with all his quintessential humility, that it was the best thing he had ever done and his life was complete.

But Bernstein’s life was not complete. Nine years later he finally conducted his own Candidealso in conjunction with a studio recording and live performance. The video when revisited is a joyous occasion all the way around for the singers involved and himself. Plus it would be that same year at the Christmas day concert celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall that Bernstein would leave us his final legacy.

It’s only fitting that this great musician and humanitarian would go out in a blaze of television cameras and a tidal wave of publicity conducting the most significant performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony since its premiere.

The audio engineering here is minus the plush sound cowl that enveloped the commercial CD release which favored the orchestra far more than the singers to the point of covering them on multiple occasions. Sadly only PCM Stereo mastering so no one bothered to parse out the tracks for surround which would have been nice.

I frankly prefer this performance now in comparison because it is “live,” warts and all, and hasn’t been tampered with. The video picture has been remastered from the original tapes and, considering its age, is very sharp and clean. You may have to pump up the color a bit but, for a performance nearly 40 years old, the quality of sound and picture is pretty incredible.

For fans of the studio recording I think this is a much more visceral experience and far more authentic than the amalgam that is the CD release. It is a shame, verging on tragedy, that Bernstein never dug deeper into what he called “The central work in all music history.”