Leonard Bernstein

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 7

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This release combines a pair of Beethoven performances by conductor Leonard Bernstein, in his prime, with the New York Philharmonic; the Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, was recorded in 1961, and the Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, in 1958. Both have been digitally remastered, and the earlier recording actually comes out a bit better; by 1961 Columbia's engineers had figured out how to use the backdrop of LP sound to accent orchestral strings, an effect difficult to reproduce on CD. Charismatic, gifted, and genre-crossing, Bernstein was on top of the American musical world during this period, and these recordings remained strong sellers for some years. Hearing them half a century on reminds listeners (or apprises them anew) of several things. The first is that the New York Philharmonic, though certainly more than competent, did not have a trademark strength like its chief competitors in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, and Boston. You hope for brilliance that is not there. But you're also reminded that Bernstein was a subtler conductor than he is sometimes given credit for being. His histrionic style on the podium belied a well-considered, detailed approach to these works, for which he was confronted by decades (or more) of established tradition. The Symphony No. 5 is broad rather than exceptionally violent, with a lovely free space for the oboe cadenza in the first movement; Bernstein has it expand beyond its structural significance into a moment of sudden and profound personal reflection in the midst of societal tumult. In the Symphony No. 7 Bernstein is deliberate and persistent in the first movement's slow introduction and never really turns up the voltage until the finale, which thus acquires its proper bacchanalian mood. As with other albums in this Sony reissue series, the CD version includes both photographic reproductions of the original artwork and booklet reprints of the jacket text, with added French and German translations.

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