Can Leonard Bernstein be redeemed from himself?

Can Leonard Bernstein be redeemed from himself?


norman lebrecht

July 20, 2018

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week:

Numerous bids are being made in this centennial year to redeem Leonard Bernstein’s three symphonies from their fatal flaws. None that I have heard makes a better fist of it than Antonio Pappano’s new set with the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome.

Pappano, who met Bernstein as his would-be repetiteur on an opera production, has a keen empathy for the composer’s melting-pot background. From first note to last, he tones down gestural excesses and desperate self-borrowings. The Rome orchestra plays like a Broadway pick-up band – Broadway usually recruited the best players in New York – and the soloists are exquisitely well-chosen.

Does that redeem the symphonies? That would be an impossible dream…..

Read on here.


  • Philippa Ballard says:

    Strange that it’s Album of the Week when you have so many misgivings about the quality of the works.

    • RW2013 says:

      Indeed. What precisely are the fatal flaws?

    • msc says:

      I have always taken that to mean the album review of the week, not as ‘the best album of the week.’
      In the last year or so I have heard three good performances of no. 2 from concert broadcasts. They will do me twenty or so years. When Bernstein got too serious I think he embarrassed himself. I don’t need to hear him tell off God in the _Kaddish_ sgain. Give me _On the town_, _West side story_ (serious in some ways, of course, but not earnest), _Fancy free_ instead.

  • william osborne says:

    Santa Cecilia is a much over-looked orchestra. It deserves more recognition.

  • Rob says:

    Hated their Tchaikovsky symphony recordings. Yuk!

  • Philippa Ballard says:

    To me, a lot of Jeremiah just sounds like 40s film music for Biblical epics. I’m sure many US composers like Walter Piston, William Schuman, Sessions must have felt a little peeved how much more attention Lenny’s symphonic works got.

  • Caravaggio says:

    I think one of Bernstein’s finest compositions is his Serenade for violin, strings & percussion. Should revisit it sometime soon.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Bernstein was himself a great conductor, arguably more way so than a great composer. And he recorded his works with first-class orchestras, in good stereo. How much more insight can modern recordings provide? This is an honest question, as I am not that familiar with Bernstein’s compositions.

    • Jon H says:

      Heard the Jeremiah symphony in a more spacious acoustic – and I don’t think that hurt things. It’s great that he wrote the symphonies, and great there’s some good interpreters of his music out there (it’s not everyone) – and if people love these symphonies I wouldn’t discourage them. If people want to point to issues in the score – we can do that for most composers, including ones still living.

  • anon says:

    I think after this centennial frenzy, much of Bernstein’s works will just slowly be relegated to the curiosity bin of classical music history. (This year’s frenzy just demonstrates the impoverished, cattle-like imagination of programmers across the classical world.)

    • The View from America says:


    • Jon H says:

      The number of performances doesn’t necessarily increase the percentage of good ones… And so during an anniversary year, there’s always less than ideal ones. And it can get to the point where a certain kind of classical listener wants nothing to do with that composer, at least for a period of time. And if the majority of people know you for one or two of your works, they could be good pieces in fact – but I think the main problem is the players are trying hard to make it new and fresh every time… and a few players are true artists, but the performance inevitably suffers.

  • Karen Fodor says:

    I’m still shocked how nasty the recent memoir ‘Famous Father Girl’ by Jamie Bernstein is. Several things which an editor should NEVER have allowed. I won’t spoil your lunch by listing them.

    I went to all Lenny’s London concerts between 1979 and 1989 and I still really, really miss him. The deaths of Karajan, Menuhin, Solti, Fisher-Dieskau and other front page luminaries were bad enough, but Lenny’s was something very painful.

  • william osborne says:

    Flaws in art require a great deal of perfection, like a slightly chipped corner on the facet of a beautiful diamond. A gray pebble can’t have flaws. We listen to those like Rubenstein and know that flaws ennoble the humanity of great art.

    So many great works are made more interesting by their flaws, like the struggles Schumann had trying to compress his narrative and literary sensibility into the formalized structures of sonata allegro form. Or the overstated pathos of Mahler and Puccini which flaws their work with emotional inauthenticity but which gives their expression a special kind of appeal – we lose ourselves in an amusement park of emotions, but that can still be soul shaking. Or the “amateur” I-don’t-give-a-damn quality in the sometimes rawness of Ives. Or the monomaniacal over-indulgences of Wagner which hold a whiff of a kind of moral turpitude. Or the contrived Romantic terrors of Liszt which were so phony but so much fun. Late in life his terrors became real and those barely know small works are marvels of prescience. Without flaws, art would not be half of what it is.

    Sometimes even perfection itself is a kind of flaw, because it reveals a lack or risk-taking. Mendelsohn is flawed by his perfection. He avoided the irrepressible recklessness that made Schuman more interesting. In his younger years, even Mozart might have suffered the flaw of too much perfection at the expense of challenge. It is his later works, where his self-doubts and self-awareness grew, he left his celestial perfections and revealed his deepest humanity. What worlds would have been revealed if he had lived longer?

    • william osborne says:

      And so some of Bernstein’s flaws stemmed from his milieu, New York’s suffocating sense of celebrity and marketing which subverted his focus and induced a loss of protective self-restraint. His sense of taking subsumed the spirit of giving that revealed the most beautiful part of his being. But here too, his flaws, all that grasping, add to the interest of his music. If only New York could live up to the purest part of his spirit, that sense of celebration and giving that he learned from Copland.

      • John Borstlap says:

        All very worthwhile considerations and observations.

        Perfection comes at a cost. And it depends whether that cost is worthwhile or not, and whether the perfection is effective.

        It is another matter if artists or composers cultivate flaws as their main subject:

      • John Borstlap says:

        What if we put such ideas to the test?

        Debussy’s Faun Prelude is, by all means, perfect. It is impossible to find any flaws in it. Is its perfection then its flaw? The same goes for La Mer, both very colourful and profound (in its own way).

        The same with Mozart symph nr 41: perfect on all sides, and yet full of life and expression. Is it therefore flawed?

        Beethoven’s string quartet opus 95 (‘Serioso’) is an outburst of intense expression, bursting the former ‘rules’ of classical writing, and in the same time, a perfect specimen of quartet writing and utterly balanced: a form of classicism on another level than Haydn but as well-balanced as the older man.

        Ravel’s quartet is another entirely perfect item. He found it himself a work with flaws, and never specified wich they were, but nobody has ever been able to point at flaws in this work without being ridiculed as an ignorant and insensitive nitwit. His Sonatina for piano is another example – a perfect jewel, and expressive at that.

        And so on and so forth. There are many works in the repertoire which are truly perfect and have nothing of the sometimes bland classicist perfection of Mendelssohn. (His violin concerto is, in spite of its popularity, both perfect and very expressive, with an undercurrent of profound melancholy; it seems absurd to complain about its perfection.)

        There is an immense challenge in trying to create a ‘perfect’ work, which is not always the intention of even the best composers – Wagner and Mahler did not strive after perfection, they had other challenges and who is to say that THEIR type of challenge is of a ‘higher order’? It is the modern bias of ‘breaking rules’ and ‘taking-on challenges’ which for some people seems to be more attractive, a romantic notion and a bit juveline, and meanwhile is forgotten that in a period when the world turns ugly, it is a transgressive deed to create a thing of beauty.

        • william osborne says:

          The difference is perfection created by an excess of caution or conformity. Most of Ravel and late Beethoven were anything but cautious or conformist. And Faun is all but radical. I’m not sure perfection was an ideal for Debussy. He might even have been one of classical music’s first anti-perfectionists. The clean-cut edges of classical order were transformed to vague absinthian impressions – and strongly influenced by Wagner’s indulgences.

          (And of course, innovation as an end can be an ironic form of conformity, but that’s another story.)

          • John Borstlap says:

            “The difference is perfection created by an excess of caution or conformity.” Agreed on that….!

            It is known of Debussy that he often struggled on the most minute details of his music. Indeed he was a radical, rejecting all routine and convention, but the price was that he had to invent every bit of his personal language and test every detail carefully in its own merits and its relation to the whole, sometimes rewriting only a couple of bars numerous times. Nocturnes took many years of gestation and during his whole life he continued to make small revisions until he got desperate about it. The Faun prelude was rehearsed many times at the premiere so that he could polish its instrumentation. The opera Pelléas et Mélisande likewise underwent many corrections and revisions…. Iberia was a long struggle to find the ‘right’ form… etc. etc. – so, I think he certainly was a perfectionist, and the brilliance and beauty of his works testify of that – never a routine and everything freshly invented and realized in a perfect way. And he started many works but gave them up, being unsatisfied with the results.

    • Sue says:

      This is perfection to me and absolutely wonderful!!

      • william osborne says:

        You might be right. If the Romantic’s had held to Mendehsohn’s sense of objective clarity the history of 20th century Europe might have been far less catastrophic.

        • John Borstlap says:

          What does that mean? These Mendelssohn preludes and fugues are brilliant and beautiful indeed, but did ‘the romantics’ destroy the musical tradition of clarity? Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, Mahler, Strauss were responsible for Xenakis, Boulez, Stockhausen and the stuff produced in their wake? The 19C notion of ‘transgression’ (inspired by the greatest classicist: Beethoven) has produced infinitely wonderful music which still forms the bulk of the canonic repertoire.

          Mendelssohn’s interest in ‘early music’ was just another form of ‘transgression’ and ‘romantic vision’, as the interest in baroque music was for Beethoven later in his life.

  • Robert Roy says:

    This album also features the wonderful Beatrice Rana. Imho, worth buying for her alone.

  • David A. Boxwell says:

    Marin Alsop and Claire Bloom have already redeemed the 3rd, IMHO (for Nazos).

  • Hilary says:

    Symphony no.2 momentarily comes alive with the rather skittish jazz section called ‘Masque’. It can elude the more polished concert pianists. Lukas Foss-better known as a composer- delivers it with aplomb.

  • Deborah Mawer says:

    ==Symphony no.2 momentarily comes alive with the rather skittish jazz section called ‘Masque’.

    Yes, when I listen to Age of Anxiety, I always wait impatiently for this movement, and then get a bit restless again afterwards.

  • Mark Mortimer says:

    Norman- I tend to agree with your assessment. The symphonies are not amongst Bernstein’s best works- if he was trying to emulate his idol Mahler in this regard- he fell desperately short. The ‘Kaddish’ no .3 strikes me as desperately pretentious & not that interesting musically. ‘Jeremiah’ & ‘Age of Anxiety’ slightly better but both period pieces probably worth an occasional airing out of curiosity value. When I was a conducting major at Indiana University in 1998 the music faculty launched an extensive Bernstein retrospective (I think with performances of his complete opus) which would have been his 80th Birthday. The various concerts/talks revealed the multi faceted gifts of this incredible man- his phenomenal energy/charisma & evangelising for classical music- a figure the like of which will probably never be seen again.

    For me his best works are West Side Story (however much he probably didn’t want to be remembered for), the exquisite Serenade for Violin/orchestra & Trouble in Tahiti- a real little masterpiece- perhaps the finest chamber opera of the mid 20th Century.

  • JoBe says:

    Bernstein’s best symphonic work (and probably one of his best compositions in any genre) is his “Symphonic Suite from the Film “On the Waterfront””: