How much do you like Leonard Bernstein? Carnegie Hall is betting you like him a lot as it has collaborated with Sony to prepare this 10-CD set, The Original Jacket Collection: Bernstein Conducts Bernstein. It contains every album Bernstein made of his own music for CBS Records, beginning with his 1950 recording of the "Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety" -- predating his tenure with the New York Philharmonic by nearly a decade -- to the ballet "Dybbuk" in 1974, recorded with the New York City Ballet Orchestra several years after his departure. This was Bernstein's peak period in terms of his popularity, fame, credibility, and celebrity, although once he started with the New York Philharmonic his work as a composer came to a screeching halt. Despite the date range indicated above, a heavy concentration of these recordings is centered in 1960 and 1963, indicating an effort in these years to schedule his work in large blocks amid the staggering number of recordings of works by other composers Bernstein made on his CBS contract.
This set is amazingly comprehensive; both mono and stereo versions of "Serenade," "The Age of Anxiety," and "Fancy Free" are included. While standard practices usually dictate a choice between alternate mono and stereo versions that invariably goes in favor of stereo, often mono recordings contain better performances, decidedly the case in "Fancy Free"; it's certainly best to have both when possible. Moreover, it is great to have access to Zino Francescatti's rendering of "Serenade" in addition to the more famous and oft reissued version with Isaac Stern. With "The Age of Anxiety," in addition to a technological difference, there is an alternate version of the symphony itself, as it was revised by Bernstein in 1965 at pianist Philippe Entremont's request.
The discs themselves seem to correspond exactly with already issued entries in Sony's Bernstein Century series. Each individual disc is graced with miniature versions of vintage album covers that roughly correspond to the disc's content; "roughly," as each disc is maximized, save the two discs of Bernstein's "Mass," appearing as originally programmed. The quality of repro on these little album covers is excellent, though to read the liner notes you will need a magnifying glass -- the original liners are nevertheless legible except for the libretto to "Trouble in Tahiti." Within the booklet, there are purported excerpts "from the original liner notes" throughout, but these are not original notes and were culled instead from CD reissues. However, Sony did finally manage to locate the original album art to Bernstein's "Mass," for years believed lost in the CBS archives. The booklet could be organized a little better; there is no central track listing proper as notes and listings for individual discs are parsed throughout the booklet with a table of contents given, by disc and page number, at the front. Despite this feature, you can still spend quite some time thumbing back and forth through the booklet trying to figure out what is on which disc. Sound quality in Bernstein's Columbia recordings varies with the general fortunes of the CBS Masterworks division; in mono, the sound is inexplicably gritty and shrill and early stereo recordings sound terrific, though the later they are, the more this tends to decline. Some successful effort is made in terms of conveying the quadraphonic perspective of Bernstein's "Mass" in a conventional CD format.
How is the music? Well, that goes back to the question of "how much do you like Leonard Bernstein?" To some extent, Bernstein's Columbia recordings of his own work are compromised by hasty preparation and Bernstein's own inability to exploit what was best within his own work. There are two serenades and two "Anxieties," but only the overture from "Candide" and only the "Symphonic Dances" from "West Side Story." "Dybbuk" isn't viewed in any quarter as being one of Bernstein's shining achievements, and just about everyone who has recorded "Chichester Psalms" -- even Bernstein himself in 1977 for Deutsche Grammophon -- has found a way to improve on the dismal 1965 effort included here. However, "Trouble in Tahiti" is a small miracle; an excellent recording of a work he didn't undertake very often, and one would have to lobby hard for a recording of Prelude, Fugue and Riffs that's superior to Bernstein's with Benny Goodman. With The Original Jacket Collection: Bernstein Conducts Bernstein, the whole is better than the sum of its parts; for purposes of study and appreciation of his recorded work in depth, having all of these selections in one package is invaluable. Likewise, for Carnegie Hall to have supported this project is a moving gesture to a man who essentially gave up his personal artistic pursuits to put butts in their seats, night after night, for 10 years running.
This package follows the design of the 2001 collection The Original Jacket Collection: Leonard Bernstein so closely that you might have to look twice to make sure you have the right set.