United States Mahler, Symphony No.2 ‘Resurrection’: Sheila Armstrong (soprano), Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano), Edinburgh Festival Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra / Leonard Bernstein (conductor). Ely Cathedral, Ely, August 1973. Streamed as part of Carnegie Hall Selects, 18-25.6.2021. (RP)
It has been more than 30 years since Leonard Bernstein died. During his lifetime, much ink was spilled debating whether his genius as a composer lay with popular music or heavier fare. He was vexed by the question too, as well as by the public’s failure to embrace his more serious efforts.
Time seems to have settled the debate, at least for the moment. West Side Story, widely considered to be his masterpiece, debuted on Broadway in 1957 and continues to be staged hundreds of times a year around the world. The overture to Bernstein’s operetta, Candide, another of his lighter works, is one of the most frequently performed orchestral compositions by a twentieth-century American composer. The centenary of his birth in 2018 afforded the welcome opportunity to hear many of his more serious works afresh, but they didn’t make him famous.
There is no disputing, however, that Bernstein was one of the most important conductors in the second half of the twentieth century. The world was his stage, but he made more than 400 appearances at Carnegie Hall, beginning with his debut in 1943 leading the New York Philharmonic and concluding in 1990 with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, a concert that featured two of Mahler’s song cycles, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and the Rückert-Lieder. He is the subject of three installments in the Carnegie Hall Selects film series which afford the opportunity to watch Bernstein in action.
Bernstein is widely credited with popularizing Mahler’s music in the US, and there is no debating that he was the man for the job with his dashing good looks, charisma, total identification with the composer’s music – and an American to boot. He was neither the first nor the only conductor in the US, however, to champion Mahler’s works. Bruno Walter, who had been Mahler’s conducting assistant, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Bernstein’s predecessor at the New York Philharmonic, Eugene Ormandy in Philadelphia and others all played a part, as did the composer himself.
Mahler conducted the American premiere of the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony on 8 December 1908 at Carnegie Hall with the New York Symphony. The work pierced the national consciousness when Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic in a performance of it on 23 November 1963, the day after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The Carnegie Hall Selects 1973 film with Bernstein leading the London Symphony Orchestra in Ely Cathedral is not only famous for capturing the conductor in his prime, but also for the artistry of film director Humphrey Burton.
Burton directed the vast majority of the 300 Bernstein performances captured on film for the German company Unitel. Although the technology of the time had its limitations, Burton nonetheless managed to record a ‘Resurrection’ Symphony that is still exciting to view. His close-up filming of the instrumentalists is especially effective and does much to make the music come alive visually. This approach was novel at the time but became the universal standard in the years to follow.
It was Bernstein’s custom to record works immediately after having performed them, and that was the case here. After conducting the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony at the 1973 Edinburgh Festival, the forces immediately reconvened at Ely Cathedral. Bernstein had studied the cathedral in an aesthetics class at Harvard University and chose it as the site for the filming. Humphrey exploited the majesty of the cathedral, zeroing in on details such as the rood cross and the brilliantly colored ceiling painting of Christ in Majesty, both symbols of the resurrection in the Christian tradition.
Armstrong and Baker were two of the finest British singers of the day. Baker was treasured as an interpreter of Mahler’s songs and had been the mezzo-soprano soloist in the first performance of Mahler’s Second at the BBC Proms in 1963. Her beautiful voice, complete emotional connection to the music and exquisite phrasing are on full display in this performance. In the final movement, Armstrong is simply stunning as she floats above the chorus – a magical moment in the work – which she pulls off brilliantly.
The LSO likewise rises to the occasion, responding to every one of Bernstein’s gestures, whether a subtle lift of an eyebrow or an ebullient leap. The horns are particularly fine throughout, and it is a delight to watch the nimble finger work of the violins and harpists close-up. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus, singing from memory, provides the mystery and the majesty that Mahler demands in the transcendent final movement.
Since the onset of the pandemic, Carnegie Hall has presented a wide array of digital offerings, and Carnegie Hall Selects features free streams of concert films from legendary stages around the world. Each film is introduced by Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall’s executive and artistic director, who was a member of the LSO’s cello section for this performance of the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony. Few people can provide the direct link to the film that he does.
The ‘Resurrection’ Symphony is available until 25 June, and two additional Bernstein films will be streamed in the upcoming weeks: Bernstein’s The Gift of Music, produced to commemorate the 75th anniversary of his birth in 1993, and the great man himself leading the New York Philharmonic in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4 at Avery Fisher Hall in 1975.
For more information about Carnegie Hall Selects, click here.