Conductor, Pianist, Composer
Leonard Bernstein’s recording career is usually regarded as falling into three broad phases. The first precedes his appointment as sole music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958, a period during which Bernstein the “Wunderkind” recorded for a variety of labels as both pianist and conductor.
Leonard Bernstein (1988) by © Susesch BayatDeutsche Grammophon
The maestro Bernstein of phase two made over 200 records, galvanising his forces to produce enthusiastic accounts of unusual repertoire and invigorating renditions of standard works. The third, European, phase was dominated at first by mainstream repertoire, capitalising on his long-standing relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic (197 concerts in 24 years).
The DG Recordings
Most of Bernstein’s later recordings were made for Deutsche Grammophon (beginning with “Carmen”). They include complete cycles of the Mahler, Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann symphonies.
In 1972 Bernstein recorded Bizet’s “Carmen”, in what was one of the first stereo versions to use the original spoken dialogue between the sung portions of the opera. This is his debut recording with DG.
Leonard Bernstein (1987) by © Arthur UmbohDeutsche Grammophon
In 1979, Bernstein conducted the Berlin Philharmonic for the first time, in two concerts featuring Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. One of these performances, originally broadcast on radio, was released on CD by Deutsche Grammophon after the conductor’s death.
Leonard Bernstein conducting "Westside Story" (1988) by © Susesch BayatDeutsche Grammophon
In 1984, having never conducted the entire work before, Bernstein recorded “West Side Story” with Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras. The recording became an international bestseller.
An Apostle of Beethoven
Beethoven was always central to Bernstein’s conducting repertoire. The Ninth Symphony was a work he chose to perform on some extraordinary occasions – most famously of all in concerts given in both West and East Berlin in December 1989 to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Leonard Bernstein by © Siegfried LauterwasserDeutsche Grammophon
Bernstein first conducted the Ninth in 1950, and wrote to his parents about this momentous occasion: My first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth was a triumph! I have been very worried about this event – the big test in every conductor’s life. But it was so exciting – the solo quartet was the best I’ve ever heard – the chorus was marvelous – the orchestra never played better. What a tremendous experience it is to do this work! Like tearing your guts out.
The Final Concert
Bernstein made his final performance as a conductor at Tanglewood on 19 August 1990, at the helm of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Despite suffering a coughing fit during the third movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No.7, he completed the performance, but was evidently exhausted and in pain as he left the stage amid the final ovations. Deutsche Grammophon later issued its live recordings from Tanglewood on CD as “Bernstein – The Final Concert”.
Leonard Bernstein (1981) by © Susesch BayatDeutsche Grammophon
Bernstein won a total of 16 Grammys in various categories, including several for posthumously released recordings and, in 1985, the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Text: Nigel Simeone