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I just finished watching a fantastic DVD released by Deutsche Grammophon of Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) conducting two Shostakovich symphonies. These were Vienna Philharmonic performances of the “Sixth Symphony” done in 1986 and the “Ninth Symphony” from 1985, and were filmed at the Wiener Musikvereinssaal.

Actually, I was a bit surprised by these performances. At first glance, pairing works from Dmitry Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (1906-1975) with this orchestra would seem incongruous. However, when I considered that Bernstein was a champion of this Russian composer, it is possible that his influence made the difference. The longstanding mutual “love affair” between the Vienna Philharmonic and Bernstein was no secret, and their virtuosic performances of these works were astounding, with the requisite gravitas and emotion.

In particular, the “Sixth Symphony,” composed in 1939 was a treat for me. Like many others, I was less familiar with it than with the more popular “Ninth Symphony.”

In his lecture included in the bonus features, Bernstein mentioned that many referred to the “Sixth Symphony” as a “torso with no head,” as the long and slow first movement (22 minutes in this performance) was followed by two shorter, “upbeat” ones. Bernstein said that he “…wanted to right a wrong” regarding the relative unpopularity of the piece. I’d say that he was successful, as this wonderful performance certainly sold me!

The “Ninth Symphony” of 1945 is one of Shostakovich’s shortest symphonies. It is in five movements, of which the last three are played together without pause, and it’s easy to see why it has been one of his more popular pieces. Generally, it’s upbeat, with frequent displays of sardonic wit and humor, and considered to be a delight for musicians and audiences alike.

Clearly, Bernstein was in his element in these outings; dancing, gyrating and emoting as only he could, but what great results he achieved with this ensemble! The final movement of the “Ninth Symphony” was taken at breakneck speed, and all of the players rose to the occasion in a truly “tight” performance.

The bonus features included two lectures from Bernstein regarding these pieces, and featured his ability to share material in a controlled, down-to-earth fashion that was devoid of condescension. Bernstein’s ability to talk about music was one of his true gifts.

A word about the camerawork for these performances…While they were dated and limited in comparison with today’s standards, I must say that the video director and Bernstein biographer, Humphrey Burton, certainly knew these orchestral scores. This was evident by the frequent cross cutting between the various orchestral sections, at lightning speed. It’s too bad that most of these shots were extreme close-ups, with an emphasis on the instruments and the hands of the players, versus their faces. Of course, the shots of Bernstein were fine, but that’s the 1980’s for you. The recorded sound was quite good; no complaints there. Indeed, I can heartily recommend this disc of great performances.