Horowitz, Bernstein: Final recordings are (mostly) treasures


December 22, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

When famous musicians die, there's usually a flurry of activity as the record companies try to release their final recordings. This is the case in the continuing efforts of Deutsche Grammophon to showcase the late Leonard Bernstein and Vladimir Horowitz, arguably the most popular conductor-composer and pianist of the second half of the 20th century.

When Bernstein died, he left his second Mahler cycle -- there was an earlier one for CBS (now Sony) records -- uncompleted because he was not able to record the Symphony No. 8 (the "Symphony of a Thousand"). But Bernstein did tape a performance for television with the Vienna Philharmonic and several superb soloists in 1975 at the Salzburg Festival. It is that performance that DG has now released and we are lucky to have it.

I say lucky because in his later years, Bernstein's Mahler could be narcissistically distorted. This performance -- while full of the achingly lovesick lyricism that Bernstein inevitably found in Mahler -- unfolds without the eccentricities that sometimes HTC characterized the conductor's work in the years before he died. This is a great Mahler No. 8 and, because of the conductor's fearlessly passionate approach to this composer, perhaps the best ever.

A major project that Bernstein did live to complete was recording his own "Candide." This musical was a failure on Broadway in 1956 and its tangled history -- there have been several subsequent revivals in differing versions -- led to a number of performing texts. Although this recording represents a great composer's last thoughts on a great theater piece, I must confess that I don't care for the approach here. As he does in his own recording of "West Side Story," Bernstein treats what is essentially musical theater as opera. I much prefer his earlier recordings (with the New York and Los Angeles philharmon-ics) of the famous overture to "Candide" and I like the singers on the original cast album better than the operatic stars Bernstein has assembled here. Comparing Barbara Cook's original Cunegonde to June Anderson's new one is like comparing the living to the dead.

More successful to my ears is Bernstein's all-Copland disc with the New York Philharmonic. When it came to 20th century American music, Bernstein's conducting was never mannered: He was as idiomatic and authoritative in the works of William Schuman, Roy Harris or his old pal, Copland, as Toscanini was in Verdi or Puccini. This latest disc has vibrant performances of the exuberant "El Salon Mexico" and "Music for the Theater," the gnomic "Connotations" and the lyrical Clarinet Concerto (with soloist Stanley Drucker); it will set a standard for future interpreters.

Just when we thought we had heard the last from Vladimir Horowitz, DG brings that incorrigible showman back with "Horowitz the Poet" -- previously unreleased performances of Schubert's posthumous B-flat Sonata and Schumann's "Kinderszenen." Horowitz played both of these works throughout his entire life. He enjoyed a love-hate relationship with the Schubert, which he performed only once in public -- at the 1953 recital that was followed by his 12-year "retirement" from public performances. Yet Horowitz always studied and re-studied the piece, arguing with friends (and with himself) about whether to perform it publicly again.

Horowitz rejected this 1986 recording, but his wife, Wanda, wisely authorized its release. It's a volatile performance -- although its stormy outbursts of emotion never violate the scale of the piece as the pianist's perverse, but fascinating, "live" recording from the 1953 concert does.

Horowitz performed the "Kinderszenen" throughout his career and the "Traumerei" section was his favorite encore. In this music, which was recorded at a 1987 concert in Vienna, Horowitz is at his very best, reminding us once again that the pianist who had the greatest command of sonority in the history of music was also our greatest miniaturist.

Although pianist Glenn Gould has been dead for more than 10 years, his recordings continue to emerge with regularity. Some of the most interesting come not only from his record company (Sony Classics), but from "pirates" -- unlicensed recordings of broadcast material -- on such labels as Music and Arts.

The most recent of these Music and Arts issues includes the famous 1957 "live" performance of the Beethoven Third Concerto with Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. But this record also contains a startlingly beautiful 1967 performance of Strauss' "Burleske" with Vladimir Golschmann and the Toronto Symphony. If you're interested, get this record as soon as you can -- legal action by Sony has persuaded Music and Arts to discontinue its Gould releases.

(Now, a word to the wise: Recordmasters in the Rotunda has all of the Gould material on Music and Arts in stock, but don't expect it to last.)

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