October 23, 2012
I say "unexpectedly" because in general I am fan of Bernstein neither as a pianist nor as a conductor. But in certain repertoire Lenny is superb. Gershwin and his own music certainly fit well in this category.
I haven't heard Lenny's much earlier recording (1959) of "Rhapsody in Blue" with the NYP, and I daresay I would expect it to be wilder and more robust that this late (1982) live recording with the LAPO. And yet this one is magnificent. It's rather on the slow side, but it's not dragged. Lenny is in top form at the piano - indeed, a stupendous form for a man of 64 and such a life behind him - and he delivers a powerful performance. So does the orchestra. It's very easy to distort Gershwin's compelling zest for life into cheap sensationalism and self-indulgent display. This is absolutely not the case here. In his late years Lenny made some decidedly quirky recordings, but this stunning "Rhapsody" is not one of them.
Now Lenny's early recording of the symphonic dances from "West Side Story" I have heard many times. It makes an illumatinating comparison with this late rendition. Again, though more deliberate, this performance is by no means ponderous or sluggish. Far from it. Both the bacchanalian and the sensuous elements - qiute an emotional range for "mere" Broadway! - are brilliantly conveyed.
I have only two mild complaints about this CD. One is the miserable total timing: considerably less than one hour (c. 45 min actually), despite one charming, lyrical and magical prelude for solo piano by Gershwin as an encore. The other slight drawback is the somewhat dry and constrained sound. But let me not make too much of that. The dynamic range is excellent and there is an ample opportunity to appreciate the sumptuous orchestration. The piano's sonority is well captured. The balance between soloist and orchestra, except for an occasional drowning of the former, is exemplary.
Considering that this CD is offered for a pittance these days, more or less everybody not indifferent to Gershwin and/or Lenny should have it. Listen to it several times. You might just get hooked.
PS The liner notes of Jack Gottlieb are short but well-written and informative. Among other things, they contain Lenny's memorable words that it's not important what's wrong about "Rhapsody in Blue", but what is right, namely each episode taken separately. Personally, I have never understood the accusations against this work. To me it has always sounded like a superb example of joie de vivre in music, terribly exciting on the surface yet with quite a few "blue" undercurrents. Certainly, it's a music that is very easy to misrepresent and misinterpret. But this is against its performers, not against the music itself.