I have never been among those who fawn over everything Leonard Bernstein ever did. And I had some concerns, given the dates of recording (1987 for the Schubert, 1985 for the Schumann) that these performances might turn out to be among those mannered, sooo slow performances that Bernstein often led toward the end of his life. But I needn't have worried. Both performances are mainstream in general but with numerous evidences of Bernstein's own unique stamp (as, for instance, in the return of the oboe tune in the Andante second movement where he emphasizes the distant accompanimental proto-Mahleresque trumpet-and-drum fanfares). I have reviewed two other DVD performances of the Great C Major symphony -- those led by Günter Wand and by Karl Böhm, the latter with the Vienna Philharmonic -- and this performance is at least the equal of those, and actually better than Wand's. The huge first movement is filled with drama and humor. The second movement is presented not with a 'wintry' introduction, as Tovey called it, but with an air of mystery that gives way to geniality. The oboe tune mentioned above is played not as 'heart-breaking' (Tovey again) but as a gentle quasi-oriental dance. (Kudos to the principal oboist of the Bavarian orchestra here.) The Scherzo is one of Schubert's best -- and, unusually, it is in the form of a fully worked-out sonata-allegro movement. Its boisterous good spirits counterbalance the drama of the huge first movement; its use of A-flat major echoes that movement, but its side-slip into A major takes us back to the Andante movement. Clever fellow, Schubert! The finale Allegro vivace is, of course, one of the glories of Schubert's entire oeuvre (although the frantically fiddling violins and violas -- they play the same triplet figure seemingly for hundreds of measures -- might disagree). This performance shows off the superior qualities of the BRSO's winds and brass to great effect. Bernstein's childlike joy in this music is apparent throughout, particularly so in this dancing finale. This is a wonderful performance, beautifully filmed and recorded in Munich's Musikvereinsaal.
I have never been terribly fond of Schumann's Overture to 'Manfred', feeling it rather too melodramatic. But, of course, Byron's poetic drama 'Manfred' is precisely that, so the music, written at the height of German romanticism, is, I suppose, appropriate to its purpose, in spite of any responses by modern sensibilities. If one recalls that Byron's protagonist is wracked with guilt over his incestuous longings for his own sister, the overture certainly mirrors his angst. This sort of emotionality is right down Bernstein's street and he leads a performance by the Vienna Philharmonic that is magnificent.
Picture format: NTSC 4:3; Sound: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1; Region code: 0 (worldwide); Disc format: DVD 9; Running time: 77 mins.