Bernstein is as popular in death as he was alive

April 05, 1992|By James R. Oestreich | James R. Oestreich,New York Times News Service

It might seem only natural that the death of a prominent musician should spur fresh curiosity about his life's work. And to some extent it may, though usually not for long. The musical public's prevailing reaction to death is forgetfulness.

Typically, when classical performers die, sales of their recordings drop sharply. It happened to Vladimir Horowitz. It happened to Herbert von Karajan, with a twist: The decline set in even before his death, when ill health forced him to curtail his personal appearances.

Then there is Leonard Bernstein. By now, 18 months after his death, some plunge was to be expected in sales of his recordings as well, but none has occurred. In fact, interest in almost every area of Bernstein's work and character has held up remarkably well.

Now that the distractions of his big, boisterous personality are gone and the preliminary winnowing of history has begun, Bernstein seems to stand no less tall as a musician and a man; in some senses he stands taller.

But few areas are as susceptible to dollars-and-cents measurement as recordings. In a recent conversation, Harry Kraut, Bernstein's manager for the last two decades of his life and now an executor of his estate, said; "Shortly after Lenny's death, to give me a better comprehension of what kind of business climate and income lay ahead for us in various areas, I had discussions with record companies. And they described a picture which they said was absolutely consistent with everyone: that the high-priced sales started declining drastically within a year of a conductor's death and fell away to almost nothing within two years after the death."

Instead, said Karen Moody, who manages the Deutsche Grammophon label in the United States, "Sales are almost as good as if he were alive." They are good enough that Sony Classical recently took a dispute over Deutsche Grammophon's right to release old radio tapes to court.

Even in death, it appears, Bernstein may remain ahead of his time, benefiting from a blossoming 21st century sort of electronic afterlife that allows his image and activities to be kept before the public through televised lectures and documentaries (currently shown more in Europe than in the United States) and other media.

In conversation, a surprising number of people have to be reminded that Bernstein is dead, and some well-placed citizens have evidently not absorbed the bitter truth: Bernstein, notorious for his radical liberalism, was recently sent invitations to join the Republican Senatorial Inner Circle fund-raising group over the signatures of, successively, Vice President Quayle, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and President Bush.

Almost all Bernstein's recordings -- some 500 LPs worth, in Mr. Kraut's estimate -- are currently in print, some in a variety of packagings. Sony Classical is banking heavily on a continued boom in record sales with the release of a 119-CD Royal Edition of Bernstein's CBS recordings, to begin next month and be completed next year. These digitally remastered recordings will come packaged with an odd fillip, which partly accounts for the series' grandiose title: watercolors by Prince Charles as high-toned cover art.

Deutsche Grammophon, meanwhile, still has enough unissued Bernstein performances to allow for monthly releases through December. These include a 1979 Mahler Ninth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic, a 1990 Bruckner Ninth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, three Beethoven piano concertos with Krystian Zimerman as soloist and -- from Bernstein's last concert, with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood -- Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 and the Sea Interludes from Britten's "Peter Grimes."

Bernstein was much more than a performer, of course, and his peculiar staying power extends far beyond his recordings. Indeed, this multifaceted musical genius poses a particularly fascinating case for posterity because of the sheer multiplicity of his gifts, as composer, conductor, pianist, writer, lecturer and teacher.

Composition has always been a surer way to posterity's heart than performance. But Bernstein, while almost universally acknowledged in his maturity to be a conductor of historic dimension, gained wide recognition as a composer of stature only late in life, partly on the strength of his recordings of his own works for Deutsche Grammophon.

Bernstein lived so much of his life in the public eye that it was hard to imagine how he ever found the time or peace of mind to compose. Yet compose he did, over a remarkable range of styles, and by the end of his life he had accumulated a substantial body of work, comparable in size to that of his revered ancestor as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Gustav Mahler.

Still, though no one could deny the success of his stage or film scores, like "West Side Story" or "On the Waterfront," few cared to venture beyond them to his "serious" compositions, like the "Jeremiah" and "Kaddish" symphonies, let alone the hybrids, like "Mass."

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