Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein's NY Philharmonic Debut

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Leonard Bernstein conducting

The New York Philharmonic

CBS Radio Broadcast Nov. 14, 1943

Schumann: Manfred Overture

Rozsa: Theme, Variations & Finale

Strauss: Don Quixote

This recording is valuable on the surface as the first appearance as conductor of the New York Philharmonic by Leonard Bernstein, who later became the orchestra's music director. It has been around in unauthorized tapes for years, and was once in print on vinyl, but this marks its first appearance on compact disc; revenues from the sales benefit the New York Philharmonic Musicians Supplemental Pension Fund. The circumstances of Bernstein's debut were the stuff of musical legends -- Bruno Walter, the scheduled conductor, had taken ill, and Bernstein, the assistant conductor whose work up to that point had been confined to coaching the orchestra, was called in on only a few hours' notice.

Walter had already rehearsed the orchestra and performed the program with them, and Bernstein had no real opportunity to place any of his own interpretive insights upon the program. This was a broadcast performance, however, in an era when events at the Philharmonic were front-page news not just in New York but throughout the East Coast; Bernstein made those front pages over the broadcast, and was suddenly on the fast track to a successful career. So what we're getting here is a glimpse of Bernstein as the future charismatic conductor that he became, leading the orchestra in a flamboyant and highly successful performance, and also a recording of Walter's interpretations of the three works here, which are intrinsically fascinating.

The performances of the Manfred and the Theme, Variations, and Finale are bracing, riveting interpretations, played with verve and sparkle and, despite some noise on the disc masters (this was preserved as a radio transcription), they are well captured here. The Don Quixote works less well, its grander scale and thicker textures being a little bit more difficult to capture properly, though it is still eminently listenable. The sound is fairly close and the fidelity generally excellent. The producers have also included the original commercials and such expressions of wartime patriotic fervor as the "Star Spangled Banner" performance that opened the broadcast. The notes are deep and detailed, including interviews with surviving members of the orchestra.