Universal extends its series of discount-priced "best of" compilations with the unwieldy name "20th Century Masters/The Millennium Collection" to the quasi-classical realm with this Leonard Bernstein entry, which treads a fine line a bit awkwardly as a crossover release. Bernstein was, indeed, a popular composer, with a brace of hit songs (and one or two perennially popular cast albums) derived from his scores for the musicals West Side Story, On the Town, and Candide, and one towering achievement as a soundtrack composer, for Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront, to his credit; and he was also a vastly successful and popular recording artist in the classical field. It's the pulling together of those two sides of his work that the makers of this CD have found a bit difficult. The popular side of Bernstein's work is well represented on this CD in his later recordings of the various orchestral adaptations of his best-known popular compositions, done for the Deutsche Grammophon label in the 1970s and 1980s, which Bernstein himself would have regarded as preferable to his older Columbia Masterworks recordings of the same pieces. He felt that he had improved vastly as a conductor in his later years, and the recording quality was certainly superior on most of the Deutsche Grammophon releases, which encompassed a vast range of music, of which his own popular works were but a small part. And that brings up where this CD misfires somewhat in its conception and marketing. In a sense, the CD bites off more than it can chew in its title, but also doesn't offer nearly what it promises. It gets ground up somewhere between Bernstein the popular composer, Bernstein the composer for the concert hall, and Bernstein the conductor. It represents what is arguably much of the best of Bernstein the popular composer: the four-and-a-half-minute overture from the 1956 Broadway musical Candide; the 23-minute "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story" Bernstein crafted from his 1957 Broadway musical score in 1961; the ten-and-a-half-minute "Three Dance Episodes from On the Town" Bernstein drew from his 1944 Broadway musical score in 1946; the eight-minute "Preludes, Fugues and Riffs" from 1955, accurately described by annotator and compilation producer Joseph S. Szurly as "essentially a small concerto for clarinet [played by Peter Schmidl] and jazz ensemble"; and the 20-and-a-half-minute "Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront" adapted by Bernstein from his 1954 film score. None of Bernstein's serious concert works, such as his three symphonies or his Mass, are represented here. The disc does include good recordings of Bernstein leading four of the orchestras with which he spent a lot of time working during his final 20 years, most notably the Vienna Philharmonic, as well as the London Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Israel Philharmonic. But with all due respect to Bernstein the composer, these can hardly be considered the "best" or most important recordings that he made with any of them -- a collection that truly represented the "best" of Bernstein the recording artist would have to be at least two CDs in length, and be made up mostly of highlights from his interpretations of works by Mahler, Beethoven, Gershwin, Sibelius, and Haydn, with maybe one or two of his own concert pieces, and one or two of the works that are here. In fairness, it must be conceded that they do sound great, and the package is more generously programmed than most of this series, but in every other way -- except as a cross-section of Bernstein's most popular and accessible compositions -- this CD falls far short of what it suggests in its title, as a real overview of the artist's best work.
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