Anyone who loves Leonard Bernstein will have to hear every performance in this six-disc, all-Beethoven program. Included herein is a blazing Missa Solemnis, a pair of searing late String Quartet arrangements, a host of bracing overtures, two famous complete live performances plus an elegiac Seventh Symphony from Bernstein's last concert. Because of the range of orchestras and recording dates, perhaps the most interesting part of these performances for devoted Bernstein fans will be the ways in which the different orchestras respond to the conductor and the ways the conductor reacts to the orchestras.
At first, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks seems uncertain how to react in the 1976 concert for Amnesty International. Its attacks are rough in the Leonore No. 3 Overture and the support is erratic in the following Piano Concerto No. 4 with Claudio Arrau. But by the finale of the concluding Fifth Symphony, Bernstein and the Bavarians are totally together, charging forward with irresistible gusto. The Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, on the other hand, acts like kids let out of school in the live 1978 recording of the Missa Solemnis. Under Bernstein's ebullient direction, the enthusiasm of its playing added to the star power of the soloists and the stamina of the Dutch chorus create a performance that fairly glows with energy.
The overtures and string quartet arrangements recorded between 1977 and 1989 outline the relationship between Bernstein and the Wiener Philharmoniker. Though tentative at the start, as the Viennese musicians learned to read Bernstein's beat and interpret his gestures, their performances grew in sympathy and strength until they reached the final artistic symbiosis in the hushed intensity of Lento assai e cantante tranquillo of the last quartet.
The Ninth included here is a special case. Recorded on Christmas Day 1989 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra & Chorus plus members of the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Orchestra of the Kirov Theatre, the London Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the Orchestre de Paris as well as members of the Rundfunkchor Berlin and the Dresden Philharmonic Children's Chorus, this Ninth was given in celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. For the occasion, Bernstein changed the Ode to Joy to an Ode to Freedom by switching the word "Freude" with "Freiheit." Although this alteration marks the recording as a one-off, the ecstatic release of the performance renders criticism silent.
The Seventh is an even more special case. Performed by the Boston Symphony at the Tangelwood Music Center less than two months before the conductor's death, the performance is understandably slow and lethargic. But the obvious warmth and affection of the Boston musicians make any complaints seem trivial. Though the quality of the recordings varies with time and location, Deutsche Grammophon's overall sound is typically clean, bright, and deep.