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When these majestic, elemental performances were issued on CD two decades ago by Deutsche Grammophone, the critics had a field day. "Self-indulgent" they cried. Not up to the standard set by Bernstein's earlier New York Philharmonic recordings of the Sibelius Symphonies, and clear evidence of the old man's failing powers.
Listening to them again now--while seeing the maestro in action--is an exhilarating experience. Lenny's interpretations are of course larger than life and totally subjective. Slows are exceptionally slow, but never ponderous or static. The allegros fly like the wind--so brisk that even the legendary Vienna Philharmonic has a difficult time keeping up with their leader.
Also much in evidence is Bernstein's uncanny ability to carry a musical line across vast silences, especially in Symphony 2, where Sibelius adds fermatas to the longest rests. How Bernstein manages such wizardry is still beyond me, even after watching these videos with the utmost care. But that's hardly the only magic on display here. From the hushed mystery of the opening bars of First to the searing dissonance of the winds in the middle movement of the Fifth to the ecstatic, nearly overwhelming climax at the end of the Seventh, Bernstein consistently rivets our attention.
Just as mesmerizing is the opportunity to watch Bernstein at work. He conducts with his eyes nearly as much as with his hands, and his facial expressions further help convey the meaning of the music to the players. Here he gently reminds the violins to use more bow; there he slashes the air violently with his baton--and is visibly moved by the ensemble's hair-trigger response. He cajoles, coaxes, and in the climactic moments leaps nimbly into the air. Some critics still abhor Bernstein's podium antics, but I find that they invariably enhance and intensify his interpretation of the music.
The playing of the Vienna Philharmonic under Bernstein is as close to perfection as we are ever likely to hear on this earth. The sound on these Unitel DVDs is exceptionally vivid and richly detailed. The video editing is occasionally distracting as we jump across the stage from one solo instrument to another, sometimes during a single bar of music. For the most part, however, producer Humphrey Burton draws our attention to the most interesting musical effects and allows the camera to linger lovingly on his photogenic maestro.
If you love the Sibelius symphonies, by all means seek out the more sedate and orderly complete CD sets by John Barbirolli or Colin Davis. But don't miss these highly personal, life-affirming, and life-changing DVDs. After listening to Bernstein, you'll never quite hear this music the same way again.