Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, opus 14 [*]
Albert Roussel: Symphonie n° 3 in G minor, opus 42 [**]
Camille Saint-Saëns: Le Rouet d’Omphale, opus 31 [**]
Ambroise Thomas: Overture to Raymond [**]
Orchestre National de France, Leonard Bernstein (conductor), Humphrey Burton, Yves-André Hubert, Dirk Sanders (video director)
A co-production of Radio France and Unitel
Recording: Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, France (1976 [*] and November 21, 1981 [**]) – 108’
C Major Entertainment # 746808 (or Blu-ray # 746904) – New digital remastered in HD – Picture format: 4:3 – PCM Stereo – Region 0 – (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Booklet in English, German and French
With “Bernstein at 100” in full throttle, it’s best to reflect on Jamie Bernstein’s words for a moment: “...my father clung hard to the belief that by creating beauty, and by sharing it with as many people as possible, artists had the power to tip the earthly balance in favor of brotherhood and peace. After all, he reasoned, if humans could create and appreciate musical harmony, then surely they were capable of replicating that very same harmony in the world they lived in.” Leonard Bernstein, admirable humanitarian, idealist, educator and composer, could also spellbind an orchestra in a heartbeat.
Leonard Bernstein was always theatrical, and this allowed him to take possession of the orchestra with ergonomically apportioned transparency. The best example occurs in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, in part due to the composer’s hallucinogenic programme storyline. The recipe for detail allows M. Bernstein to permeate with dexterity and emotional might: the Orchestra National de France picks up on his every cue. As examples, “Un bal” has a fussy requisite diction; the strings’ battuto, from the “Songe d’une nuit du Sabbat”, are prickly creepy.
Animation is never a moot point with M. Bernstein. Albert Roussel’s post-Romantic Symphonie n° 3 is a veritable landscape of majestic monumentality and mild impressionism: it leaves one stunned. Though bluntly Wagnerian at times and pocketed with Neoclassicism, the second movement’s “Allegro vivace” hums along with astringent harmony, relating to cases of Stravinsky, Zemlinsky and Copland. As the music progresses, the listener becomes more intrigued and unknowingly addicted to the striking sounds of clarity and grandeur. Just when the dissonance appears to overwhelm, there’s a sudden respite for regrouping. Connecting Roussel with M. Bernstein is especially close since the composer commissioned Bernstein’s teacher, Serge Koussevitzky, for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 50th Anniversary. The sweat streaming down Leonard Bernstein’s face says everything about his passionate drive, fervency and dedication.
Leonard Bernstein can also be greatly credited with his chosen tempos. Fastidious with his hands waving in the air allows strings’ arpeggios to initiate and command the image of a spinning wheel in Saint-Saëns’ Le Rouet d’Omphale. Harp runs tinkle away, while oboe [and ensuing flute] cleanly usher in Omphale’s mocking melody. This symphonic poem is more broadly understood by the meticulous way the video lens is distributed.
One can’t miss the explicit directions of M. Bernstein inside Ambroise Thomas’ “Overture” to Raymond. The conductor begins with a heavily brisk tempo that appropriately gathers steam as the composition moves into the second and more Française section. While lightness turns to Rossini in élan, the mapping is decidedly Auber to the core. The best representation of Leonard Bernstein’s quixotic pacing is found within Raymond.
Best of all, video edits by Humphrey Burton, Yves-André Hubert and Dirk Sanders are thoughtfully impeccable, helping to elucidate the importance of each and every instrument. One is rewarded with close-ups, camera fades and double bleeds. These techniques maintain fluidity and control.
Sound capture is sporadically compromising, yet there’s a rich blend of sonority overall. In a historic recording of this magnitude the flaws can be easily forgiven. The two engagements (one in 1976 and the other 1981) have been digitally remastered in high definition, giving greater richness to the expertise by the Orchestre National de France.