Revisiting Leonard Bernstein’s last season, part three – Farewell to the New York Philharmonic II; Tchaikovsky

Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in rehearsal at the Avery Fisher Hall in October 1989. © Michael E. Kluger, courtesy of the New York Philharmonic Archives

Commemorating the 30th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s passing, Adventures in Music revisits the recorded legacy of Bernstein’s final season, 1989-1990, as preserved on audio and video recordings. 

On the last week of October 1989, following right after Bernstein’s superlative all-Copland affair with the New York Philharmonic featured in the second article of the series, the Maestro and his beloved New Yorkers plunged into the depths of a thrilling Tchaikovsky programme. 

With four concerts ahead on 26-31 October, the orchestra and Bernstein had a challenging set of scores and parts on their desks, featuring Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877-78) and the two orchestral fantasies of love and death, Romeo and Juliet (1878/1880)and Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32 (1876).

By the fall of 1989, Bernstein had conducted the New York Philharmonic on forty seasons, since his 1943 debut. He was the orchestra’s Music Director from 1958 to 1969, and thereafter Conductor Emeritus, guest conducting, recording and touring actively with the orchestra. 

While October 1989 in New York had been somewhat rainy, the dress rehearsal on Thursday the 26th was accompanied by sunny skies and the temperature climbing to 73°F (23°C) before cooling down to nocturnal 52°F (11°C) with the moolit sky devoid of clouds. 

On the front page of the New York Times that morning, President Mikhail Gorbachev was quoted disavowing the Soviet Union’s moral or political right to interfere in the affairs of its East European neighbors upon a visit to Finland. 

According to the president’s spokesman, Moscow had adopted ”the Sinatra doctrine”, named after Frank Sinatra’s I Did It My Way, and allowing the East European countries to do things their way, in contrast to the Cold War politics of the Brezhnev doctrine, upheld by Gorbachev’s predecessors.

The feeling of the end on an era was tangible, with the fall of the Berlin Wall only two weeks ahead. In December Bernstein himself would be celebrating the historic event, conducting Beethoven Ninth Symphony in the Philharmonie, West Berlin on Christmas Eve and in the Schauspielhaus, East Berlin on Christmas Day. 

Meanwhile, in the other news, while rehearsing his Tchaikovsky programme with the Philharmonic, Bernstein had a lunch meeting with Yo-Yo Ma, resulting in the Maestro accepting a commission to write a trio for Ma, Isaac Stern and Emanuel Ax

The projected piece would have been Bernstein’s second foray into the medium, following an early Trio, Op. 2 for piano, violin and cello, written fifty-two years prior to the new commission. Sadly, the project failed to materialize before Bernstein’s passing in October 1990.

Besides writing a trio, another urgent matter called Bernstein’s attention while his New York rehearsals were underway. A letter from conductor Carlos Kleiber arrived, with a CD copy of Bernstein’s DG recording of West Side Story. Kleiber’s son, Marko, had become an ardent Bernstein fan while working at Unitel, and now the Kleiber père was asking if it would be possible for Bernstein to consider signing the album with a dedication. 

In the middle of these events, big and small, rehearsals for the Tchaikovsky programme were underway at the Avery Fisher Hall (now David Geffen Hall), the New York Philharmonic Lincoln Center Home, augured twenty seven years earlier, with a gala concert conducted by Bernstein. 

Bernstein had begun re-recording the Tchaikovsky symphonies with the New York Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammophon in August 1986. The new cycle was launched with a radical rethink of the Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 (1893), recorded after an US tour. 

In addition to its extended emotional scope and dynamic scale, the single most striking aspect of Bernstein’s new Pathétique was the unprecedented choice of tempi for the closing movement. Clocking at seventeen minutes, Tchaikovsky’s finale was slowed down to the brink of stasis, in the manner of Bernstein’s final readings of the closing adagio of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1908-09). 

The Tchaikovsky project for DG resumed in November 1988, with a live recording of Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888). More spacious than Bernstein’s New York studio take for Columbia or a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert performance released on video by DG, Bernstein’s late recording of the Fifth comes off less radical than the Pathétique, perhaps to a more widely-acknowledged effect.

Proceeding in reverse order, Bernstein’s next step was performing and recording the Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36. Unlike the previous installments of the new cycle, the Fourth Symphony would appear in an all-Tchaikovsky programme, recorded in its entirety by DG. 

The original cover art for Deutsche Grammophon 429 778-2 (1991)

In the programme for Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic concerts on 26-31 October, the symphony was coupled with Tchaikovsky’s Shakespearean fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet and the Dante-inspired symphonic fantasy Francesca da Rimini. A taxing playlist for the players and the conductor, yet rewarding to the audience. 

Originally, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was to join Bernstein and the orchestra as soloist on two of the four evenings, with Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1884-85/1896) replacing Romeo and Juliet. Yet he caught the flu and was eventually forced to cancel both appearances, and thus all four evenings were turned into extended sonic panoramas of the Tchaikovsky realm. 

In addition to his Columbia studio affairs, Bernstein had already recorded both orchestral fantasies for DG too, in conjunction with concert performances with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 1978. 

Subtitled Fantasy overture after Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet  is a twenty-minute symphonic poem, based on Tchaikovsky’s personal take on the sonata form. The score exists in three guises, the original version, premiered in 1870, a subsequent revision, first performed in 1872 and the final 1880 edition, the one most often performed. 

Bernstein had first recorded Romeo and Juliet while conceiving his own take on Shakespeare’s classic, West Side Story (1957). Coupled with Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite (1910/1919) on the original Columbia LP, Bernstein’s fifties rendition of the score is somewhat different from his final thoughts. 

The most obvious differences are tempo-related, with the score gaining three extra minutes on the 1989 take. Yet, the key difference lies in texture, as the seventy-one-year-old Conductor Emeritus adopts a translucent, gracious approach. 

Both the extended opening meditation and the love music are clad in luminous sonorities. The solemn andante non tanto quasi moderato chant introduction, scored for clarinets and bassoons and answered by strings and horns, is given a fabulous, spell-like treatment. 

Leading up to the sweeping statement of the love music by oboe and flute, on bar 212, both in the flute part and in Bernstein’s conducting score, there is an added diminuendo over the four last sixteenth-notes, marked ’in honor of ”H. Gomberg”’. Paving the way for the oboes to have their moment to shine, the flute section and the Maestro were paying their homages to the orchestra’s former principal oboe, Harold Gomberg, who passed away in 1985.  

Contrasted by the sonic energy of the allegro giusto from bar 112 on, as well as the huge orchestral build-up emerging in the guise of a poco marcato at bar 315, Bernstein and the orchestra deliver Tchaikovsky’s tutti passages in technicolor raiments, ablaze with sonic heat, yet marvellously refined. 

Interestingly, Bernstein’s conducting score bears a memorandum from the October 1989 sessions to double the woodwinds next time, stating that ”LB didn’t this time and he wished he had”. 

Rehearsing Tchaikovsky – Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic at the Avery Fisher Hall. © Michael E. Kluger, courtesy of the New York Philharmonic Archives

As far as the (remastered) DG recording is concerned, no balance issues come to the fore. Yet, it should be noted that in his concert review, the New York Times music critic John Rockwell expressed concerns about the wearing effect of ”the hectoring, brass-blaring acoustics of the Fisher Hall”. 

Be that as it may, on disc, the performance comes off tremendously well, concluding with the most compelling coda, led by the hollow processional of the funeral timpani. A gripping ending, make no mistake, this is a Romeo and Juliet to remember.  

In terms of album presentation, the overture-fantasy was eventually coupled with the 1988 recording of the Fifth Symphony, whereas the main body of the original 1989 concert programme was released as a separate issue, with the Fourth Symphony as the main item. 

If Romeo and Juliet ends in death and tragedy, Francesca da Rimini plunges straight into the second circle of Hell. Based on Canto IV from Dante’s Inferno, Tchaikovsky’s terrific symphonic poem fuses together many aspects of the poem, from the overall dramaturgy of Francesca’s tragedy to the orchestral embodiment of the eternal whirlwind she and her lover are condemned. 

Written shortly after the composer’s visit to Bayreuth to attended the premiere of Der Ring des Nibelungen (1848-74), Francesca da Rimini can be seen, to some extent Tchaikovsky’s response to those inescapable aesthetic challenges evoked by Wagner’s magnum opus.

Although Tchaikovsky might not have been the most ardent Wagnerian, the score of Francesca da Rimini reverberates with the rumor of the instrumental and harmonic realm of the Ring. In terms of orchestration, Wagner’s spirit is perhaps most evident in some of the writing for clarinets, horns, and low strings.

Tracing the footsteps of Berlioz and Liszt (and leaving new ones to guide Thomas Adès) Tchaikovsky joined the musical fellowship following Dante into the abyss with his compelling fresco for orchestra. 

In terms of Bernstein’s sense for dramaturgy, Francesca da Rimini makes an excellent follow-up to Romeo and Juliet, the first half thus yielding to an extended meditation on the tragedies of our loves and passions, redeemed illicit not only in the days of Dante and Shakespeare, but still in the world of 1989 and, sadly, 2020 too. 

Of Bernstein’s three recorded accounts of Francesca da Rimini, his final take is the most astounding one. Clocking at 27:39, it is a generously measured affair, one to enthrall the listener with its compelling symphonic vistas. 

The bleak opening fanfares and summon the infernal vision, interwoven with string figures and the dead-slow tam-tam pulse. Out of the gripping introduction, an orchestral whirlwind arises, rolling incessant for one instrumental texture to another, with the hollow fanfares re-echoed over the orchestral ambience. 

As splendid story-tellers, Bernstein and New Yorkers provide a hair-raising account of the descent into the second circle. The doomed lovers’ ban is built upon bittersweet memories of love, clad in sound with aching beauty and profound longing by the orchestra and Bernstein. 

In the Maestro’s conducting score, the dynamics are fine-tuned throughout, with myriad of minutiae adjustments. In addition, there are some compelling adjustments to tempo changes, alongside a couple of newly-shaped dynamic build-ups, not forgetting the many corrections to the printed text. 

Still, the single most interesting marking is found four bars after Z, on page 108 (26:03 into the DG recording), stating ”Where LB fell in Houston 13 May 82”. On an intense American tour with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernstein slipped off the podium during a performance in Houston, landing into the orchestra. 

As recalled by the Maestro’s assistant Charlie Harmon in his 2018 book, ”…[Bernstein] continued to wave his baton while shouting in Hebrew ’Keep playing, keep playing.’” Entered in the score, the perils of conducting a journey into the underworld are thus contained in the archives for generations to come.

In October 1989, no accidents occurred during the conclusion of Francesca da Rimini on any of the four evenings. Instead, the Tchaikovsky fantasia was brought to its awe-inspiring end with vigor, as the DG recording testifies. 

Based on timings preserved in the New York Philharmonic archives, it is indeed the very final performance of Francesca da Rimini from Tuesday 31 October heard on disc. Romeo and Juliet, in its turn, is derived from Saturday 28 October. In the case of the Fourth Symphony, the movements seem to originate from different evenings. 

Alongside Mahler, Tchaikovsky was probably the composer Bernstein was mostly identified with. Coincidence or not, in 1945, Hal Wallis, the producer of Paramount Pictures, drafted a Tchaikovsky biopic, with Bernstein playing the composer and Greta Garbo as Baroness von Meck. However, the film never materialized. 

Prior to the performances with the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein conducted Tchaikovsky’s Fourth with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, or ”the Kids” as the Maestro lovingly referred. 

In her memoir, Famous Father Girl, Jamie Bernstein recalls a picturesque episode of her father preparing the performance in his bathroom equipped with a cigarette and the score. Ever the teacher, Bernstein gave a twenty-minute impromptu lecture on Tchaikovsky then and there, with Jamie and her cousin Karen as the audience.

As demonstrated by the DG recording of the Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Bernstein’s never-ending studies once again paid off, resulting in the most thoroughly compelling performance on his late Tchaikovsky cycle. 

Written in 1877-78, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth departs from the more-or-less disciplined symphonic scheme of his first three forays into the genre, in favor of a more dramatic approach. 

The symphony’s gravitational centre lies in the extended opening movement, a series of dramatic episodes bound together by a recurring, unrelenting brass fanfare, which also launches the symphony. The main theme appears in the guise of a heated 9/8 waltz, developed into full-blown orchestral canvas. 

Bernstein’s score reveals an intricate design, based on carefully measured tempo relationships. As evident on the DG recording, the rhapsodic nature of the first movement is subjected to firm architectural plan, resulting in an admirable symphonic entity, thoroughly endorsed by the New York Philharmonic musicians.    

However fine the opening movement, the performance really reaches zenith with the andantino in modo di canzona second movement. Often coming off as mere interlude, Bernstein and the orchestra set the music alight with their detailed, well-paced reading, rooted in aching melancholy, without ever succumbing into false pathos. 

The New York Philharmonic, ”a much-underrated orchestra” as Bernstein would comment to Jonathan Cott three weeks later, deliver a sequence of superlative soli, alongside a top-class ensemble performance. 

Tchaikovsky’s brilliant scherzo, written pizzicato throughout, is a showcase of rhythmic fluency, with its airy textures unraveling in the most natural manner. Rounding off with a tour-de-force take on the allegro con fuoco finale, ”roaring in real grandeur” as John Rockwell concluded in his review. 

Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in rehearsal. © Michael E. Kluger, courtesy of the New York Philharmonic Archives

After his two weeks with the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein had November off from concert life, returning to the podium at the Barbican Centre in London in December, for concert performances of his comic operetta Candide (1956/1989), followed by the Berlin Ode to Freedom concerts. 

Bernstein would return to New York in March 1990, conducting three concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Carnegie Hall, his final performances in the NYC. Had fate chosen otherwise, he would have appeared with the New York Philharmonic again in December 1990, to conduct Mendelssohn Elijah (1846). 

The all-Tchaikovsky concerts were thus an unintended, yet befitting conclusion for the unique relationship between Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Music-making at the highest level, as documented by the Deutsche Grammophon recordings. 


New York Philharmonic

Leonard Bernstein, conductor

Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet (1870/1880) – Fantasy overture after Shakespeare

Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32 (1876) – Symphonic Fantasy after Dante

Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877-78)

Recorded at the Avery Fischer Hall (now David Geffen Hall) on 26, 27, 28 & 31 October 1989

Deutsche Grammophon 429 778-2 (1991), 1 CD (Symphony No. 4 & Francesca da Rimini)

Deutsche Grammophon 429 234-2 (1990), 1 CD (Romeo and Juliet; coupled with Symphony No. 5)

© Jari Kallio 

One thought on “Revisiting Leonard Bernstein’s last season, part three – Farewell to the New York Philharmonic II; Tchaikovsky

Add yours

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: