Sunday 12 October 2008

Bernstein conducts (and even plays a little) Mozart

Bernstein's disc of Mozart's last two symphonies was one of my first classical purchases, so this box was an exciting prospect. The first disc contains symphonies 25, 29 and 38. The first two are nothing to write home about, and though the VPO does play very well, Bernstein doesn't seem to make as much of what might be termed the lesser symphonies as someone like Mackerras does. Things catch fire with 38th Prague though, which has some of the drama that makes his 40th and 41st so special. Disc two, containing among other things the Haffner no.35, which has a real bounce to it, the 36th and 40th. The 40th, which, along with the 39th and 41st that fill disc three, is superb. Bernstein is thrilling and the orchestra is surprisingly light compared to some recordings. The finale of the Jupiter in particular is edge of the seat stuff and one of my absolute favourite recordings.

Disc four contains some concertos. First up is the 15th piano concerto with Bernstein the soloist. Certainly this is much better recorded that his earlier effort with Columbia but he is also nowhere near greatness. This is followed by the clarinet concerto K622 with Peter Schmidl as the soloist, this is better, but again not one of the reasons to buy the set.

The final two discs are occupied by choral works. On the fifth we get the Ave verum corpus K618, the Exsultate, jubilate K165 and the Mass in C minor K427. There is also a change in forces from Vienna to the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The first two works are lovely, there is fine singing and Bernstein provides sensitive accompaniment. This is less the case in the mass where I'm not wild about soprano soloist Arleen Auger who seems to have a slightly off tone and an odd slur when moving between notes, also the part doesn't always feel quite within her range. But there are compensations: a wonderful richness to the playing, and what drama.

The last disc contains the Requiem, always a slightly unsatisfactory work, given much of it is not Mozart's work. This is a very different approach than I'm used to. My benchmark recording is not only a different version of the score (Levin), but also under Mackerras has a more HIP approach and the smaller forces of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Bernstein has an unapologetically romantic approach and this makes for quite a heavy reading. And while at times it is fleet of foot, it still feels a little weighed down. It is well played and sung (again with Bavarian forces) and the recording is excellent with the organ especially well caught.

All in all then, as with most of the recent releases from this series (especially the box of Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn), it is hard to go too far wrong. Next up is a box of more Beethoven, the symphonies having long been available, including the long out of the catalogue Amnesty International concert.

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