Revisiting Leonard Bernstein’s last season, part one: Beethoven in Vienna

Leonard Bernstein and Krystian Zimerman – A detail from the back cover of the original Deutsche Grammophon 072179-1 Laserdisc release of Beethoven Piano Concertos Nos. 3 & 4 (1991). © DG / Unitel

Today marks the 30th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s passing. Commemorating the occasion, Adventures in Music embarks upon a journey into the recorded legacy of Bernstein’s late period. 

Over the course of the seven-article series, audio and video recordings from Bernstein’s final season, 1989-1990, will be revisited, with reflection and hindsight, alongside personal musings and commentary.

Let us begin from the beginning. Following the summer festivals of 1989, including rehearsals and performance of excerpts from Hector Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette (1839/1846) with the Schleshwig-Holstein Music Festival Orchestra documented on video, Bernstein’s last concert season began in Vienna, with series of concerts at the Musikverein on 9-17 September, followed by a visit to the Beethovenfest Bonn on 20-22 September.  

Ever since 1966, Bernstein had been guest-conducting the Vienna Philharmonic on a regular basis, both at their hometown and on tours and festivals. In September 1989, Bernstein and the orchestra gave eight concerts over three weeks, five of them in Vienna and three in Bonn.  

By the fall of 1989, Bernstein had performed and recorded the most of core repertoire with the VPO, including the symphony cycles of Beethoven and Mahler in the 1970s, followed by complete symphonies and concertos of Brahms and Schumann, complemented by a selection of works by Haydn and Mozart, all dating from the 1980s. 

In 1986 he began recording his second Sibelius symphony cycle in Vienna, alongside a selection of symphonies by Shostakovich and Mahler. 

In September, Bernstein, teaming up with his trusted soloist Krystian Zimerman, was again at work with Beethoven, conducting the Piano Concertos Nos. 3-5 and a string orchestra version of the last string quartet, all recorded for subsequent CD releases by Deutsche Grammophon, and filmed by Unitel. 

The concerto recordings appeared on two albums, whereas the Opus 135 quartet was released on a third disc, coupled with a re-release of the 8-10 September 1977 recording of the orchestral version of the String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op. 131(1826). The concertos were subsequently released on video too, in laserdisc format. 

In 2007, the concertos were re-released on two DVDs by DG. In 2012, the String Quartet Op. 135 appeared on video for the very first time, published on Blu-ray and DVD by C Major Entertainment, coupled with the 1984 video of Haydn Paukenmesse (1796) with Bernstein conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. 

The audio and video recordings are derived from the Musikverein performances on Saturday 9 and Sunday 10 September (Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 4) and Saturday 16 and Sunday 17 (String Quartet Op. 135 and Piano Concerto No. 5), with post-concert patching sessions. 

Having worked together closely for more than two decades and performing (mostly) standard repertoire, Bernstein and the Viennese usually needed relatively little rehearsal time in order to put things together. Bernstein and Zimerman had collaborated for many years too, performing and recording the Brahms concertos and Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety (1947-49/1965). 

Both the Deutsche Grammophon audio team and the Unitel video crew were part of the family too, longtime collaborators such as the video director Humphrey Burton and audio producer John McClure.

For those two weeks in Vienna, Bernstein stayed at the Hotel Sacher next to the Staatsoper, two blocks away from the Musikverein, lodging in his usual Suite 314 of two bedrooms and a large sitting room, equipped with a full-sized Bösendorfer concert grand, a sizable dining table, a proper desk and sofas, alongside all other usual accommodates.

The first programme, a season opener for the Vienna Philharmonic, had Piano Concerto No. 3 on the first half, followed by Piano Concerto No. 4 after the intermission.

Bernstein had recorded both concertos in studio for Columbia in New York in the 1960s, with Glenn Gould (Concerto No. 4, 1961) and Rudolf Serkin (Concerto No. 3, 1964) as soloists. In 1976, Deutsche Grammophon released an all-Beethoven concert recording, an Amnesty International benefit gala, with Bernstein conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, and Claudio Arrau as soloist, performing the Fourth Piano Concerto. 

Interestingly, as Bernstein’s final Beethoven performances appeared on disc in 1991-92, coinciding with the release of Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s milestone recording of the symphony cycle with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. With two overlapping aesthetics, the sense of beginning and end of eras was tangible. 

Of course, Bernstein was not unaware of the historically informed practice, dubbed as the authenticity movement in those days by record companies and press alike. In his last long interview with Jonathan Cott on 20 November 1989, later published in full in the book Dinner with Lenny (2013), Bernstein spoke about his enthusiasm and admiration for the period-instrument performances by Trevor Pinnock and The English Concert. 

Who knows in what ways the historically informed practice would have influenced the Bernstein performance, had he lived further into the 1990s. Be that as it may, while the image of Bernstein conducting a period-instrument ensemble seems somewhat far-fetched, his music-making was nevertheless in transition during the last year, as these final recordings demonstrate.

The original CD cover of the Deutsche Grammophon release of Piano Concertos Nos. 3 & 4 with Krystian Zimerman, the VPO and Leonard Bernstein

In retrospect, the recording of the Third and Fourth Piano Concertos, especially in its video format, continues to make the most profound effect. The music-making is at its most collective and intimate here, with huge intensity, both emotional and sonic, casting a  spell over the listener, who is simply enthralled from the beginning to the end. 

Thanks to the development of digital recording procedures, there is exquisite warmth in the overall ambience, with more natural balance and sense of space than in those first digital endeavors of the early 1980s. The orchestra and the soloist are well balanced, especially on CD, and the sound of the VPO is focused and articulate, yielding to a delightful aural experience. 

The shared vision of Beethoven by Bernstein, Zimmerman and the Viennese players comes off beautifully in both concertos, with the individual characteristics of the two works conveyed in astounding manner. 

One of the most radical works by Beethoven, the Concerto No. 4 for Piano and Orchestra in G major, Op. 58 (1805-06) reinvents the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra. To begin with, Beethoven dispenses with the orchestral introduction and lets the soloist introduce the opening movement. 

In the second movement, the soloist and the orchestra play different material, resulting in a gripping drama, with the soloist gradually soothing the stone-faced orchestra. Rounding off with a tour-de-force finale, the concerto makes a tremendous journey, as demonstrated by the dazzling performance by Zimerman, Bernstein and the VPO. 

In many ways, this is the finest of Bernstein’s late concerto recordings. The seamless interaction between the soloist, the conductor and the orchestra is manifested throughout the performance, with musical lines woven together in the most admirable and communicative way. Pacing, tempi and balance all come together within a splendid sonic architecture, equally compelling today as it was back in 1989. 

Listening to Bernstein leading the VPO through the orchestral introduction of Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra in C minor, Op. 37 (1800-01), one is struck by the sublime clarity of texture, breathing freely around a rock-steady pulse. In anything, this is music-making at its freshest, as if this was a world premiere performance. 

Joined by Zimerman, the movement is alight with kinetic energy and marvellous passages of dialogue between the keyboard and orchestral soloists. There is spirited tension running through the movement, resulting in the most life-affirming journey. 

The ensuing largo and allegro, both excellently performed, do not quite possess the same unique magic as the opening movement. However, they too have stood the test of time very well, still coming off wonderfully, yielding to a memorable whole.              

The concert opener for the second Vienna programme, the orchestral version of the String Quartet in F major, Op. 135 (1826) was a new entry in the Bernstein repertoire, both in concert and on disc. Back in the 1970s, he had envisioned performing and recording all the late Beethoven quartets in their string orchestra guises, but eventually landed upon a single work, the String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op. 131. 

Twelve years later, however, Bernstein came back to this repertoire, providing the VPO strings with a gorgeous vehicle to shine in the guise of an orchestral take on Beethoven’s very last quartet. While the Opus 135 may not quite convey an equally profound musical message than the Opus 131, it does, nevertheless, come off wonderfully in performance. 

The quartet is well served by both audio and video. However, as always with Bernstein, the visual aspect adds much to the performance, conveying the joy and commitment shared by the conductor and the musicians. The C Major Entertainment video release is remastered with care, both in terms of audio and video. 

Derived from original film masters, the visuals are sharp and clear, providing a lively account of the Musikverein performance. Bernstein and the VPO strings paint a vivid portrait of Beethoven’s last quartet, full of life and quirky humor, with darker undercurrents.

Maybe the key aspect of the performance is its persuasiveness. As the music proceeds one becomes ever more convinced about string orchestra setting, almost forgetting that this is a reworking of music conceived for four players. Even with massed strings, the chamber music aspect prevails, with added sonority, leading to an uplifting experience. 

On the second half of the second programme, Bernstein and the VPO were again joined by Zimerman, for a performance of the Concerto No. 5 for Piano and Orchestra in E flat major, Op. 73 (1809-10).

Bernstein had recorded the Fifth Concerto for Columbia in 1962, with Serkin and the New York Philharmonic. Now, seventeen years later he was to conduct his final performances in the city where the (private) premiere took place on 13 January 1811. 

From today’s perspective, the performance of the Piano Concerto No. 5 evokes somewhat mixed response. To be fair, I’ve always found Beethoven’s last concerto a bit problematic, unlike its wonderful predecessors. Still, on a good night, I do find joy in an inspired performance. 

The original CD cover of the Deutsche Grammophon release of Piano Concerto No. 5 with Krystian Zimerman, the VPO and Leonard Bernstein

The recorded take by Zimerman, VPO and Bernstein is an inspired one, there’s no question about that. But coming in the heels of the brilliant double-bill of Concertos Nos. 3 and 4, it does not stand out in the same way. Here, the audio recording serves the music perhaps better than the video, which was first released on Laserdisc in 1991, later reappearing on DVD as a part of the 2007 box set.

Following Bernstein’s retirement from performance and eventual passing, Zimerman and the VPO finished the concerto cycle, with the soloist directing the orchestral ensemble from the keyboard. As for Bernstein, he was to return to Beethoven twice more with microphones applied. 

On Christmas Day he celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall with a performance of the Ninth Symphony, with the chorus singing ’Freiheit’ instead of ’Freude’. In addition, his very last performance at Taglewood on 19 August 1990 was to conclude with the Seventh Symphony. 

After the September 1989 concerts, Bernstein would return to Vienna once more, in February 1990, followed by an US-tour in early March. But the season opening concerts, captured on audio and video, were the last Beethoven performances he would ever conduct with the VPO. 

After the concerts in Vienna and Bonn, Bernstein headed back to New York, in order to spend two weeks with the New York Philharmonic conducting the works of Copland and Tchaikovsky. These concerts, as presented on CD recordings by Deutsche Grammophon, will be revisited in the next article in this series.  

Wiener Philharmoniker,

Leonard Bernstein, conductor

Krystian Zimerman, piano 

Ludwig van Beethoven: Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra in C minor, Op. 37 (1800-01)

Ludwig van Beethoven: Concerto No. 4 for Piano and Orchestra in G major, Op. 58 (1805-06)

Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet in F major, Op. 135 (1826) – Version for string orchestra

Ludwig van Beethoven: Concerto No. 5 for Piano and Orchestra in E flat major, Op. 73 (1809-10)

Recorded at the Musikverein, Vienna on 9 & 10 September (Piano Concertos Nos. 3 & 4) and 16 & 17 September (String Quartet, Op. 135 & Piano Concerto No. 5)

Deutsche Grammophon 429749-2 (1992), 1 CD (Piano Concertos Nos. 3 & 4)

Deutsche Grammophon 072179-1 (1991), 1 Laserdisc (Piano Concertos Nos. 3 & 4)

Deutsche Grammophon 429748-2 (1992), 1 CD (Piano Concertos No. 5)

Deutsche Grammophon 072286-1 (1992), 1 Laserdisc (Piano Concerto No. 5)

Deutsche Grammophon 044007342695 (2007), 2 DVD (Piano Concertos Nos. 3-5)

Deutsche Grammophon 435779-2 (1992), 1 CD (String Quartet, Op. 135)

C Major Entertainment 711604 (2012), 1 Blu-ray (String Quartet, Op. 135)

© Jari Kallio

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: