I would like to share with you a recording that changed my life. Literally. I see many of my current aesthetic decisions coming as a result of my exposure to this one CD. I remember how absolutely stunned I was when I first heard this recording ten years ago. After hearing it, I immediately ran to the local store where I paid full price for a brand new copy. Whenever I teach a composition class I try to incorporate this recording into the curriculum as it never fails to pique student curiosity or spark debate. The CD I’m referring to is a 1982 Deutsche Grammophon recording of Leonard Bernstein conducting Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Specifically, the movement Nimrod absolutely blew me away and forever changed my musical thinking.
For comparison, I have attached links to the beginning and ending of both Bernstein’s version as well as a recording by Georg Solti that I enjoy (but not to nearly the same degree as the Bernstein). Please take a moment to listen to these MP3 clips or else the rest of this post won’t make much sense.
Sir Georg Solti, Vienna Philharmonic, DECCA Record Company 452 853-2, recorded 1996.
Leonard Bernstein, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon Panorama 289 469 137-2, recorded 1982.
The first difference you notice between these recordings is the pacing/tempo. Solti’s tempo is a stately adagio with the entire movement lasting just over three minutes. Bernstein’s recording is double that, lasting a little over six minutes. The music crawls and the metric pulse inherent to Solti’s performance is almost entirely absent from the Bernstein.
As a result, I hear a wonderful sense of musical line in the Solti recording. The musical line and faster tempo (relative to Bernstein’s) lets me hear larger chunks of music as a cohesive whole. I hear the melody float above the orchestra and musical phrasing that delineates sections of the work. I feel like I am listening to an aria with the Solti recording and I like that. This is music that sings.
Bernstein, on the other hand, is a different story. From the hanging G in the first violins, the music seems to suspend the passage of time. In this recording, Bernstein asks us to listen to each note as if it was the most important sound in the world. Suspensions are held an agonizingly long time before they resolve. In this recording, the timbre of each instrument is much more noticeable than the Solti recording and the addition of the winds (after the end of the clips I’ve posted) is an event.
The difference in tempi between these two recordings changes how I hear the journey through the music. Allow me to use a metaphor to explain: Imagine climbing two different mountains, one short and one tall. It takes more effort to climb the taller mountain and, as a result, the the climber feels a greater sense of accomplishment than climbing the shorter mountain. Also, there is an expectation that greater effort expended climbing a taller mountain yields a “better” view (higher, more panoramic, transcendental, etc). The effort we feel during a journey directly effects how we perceive the outcome. I hear this extra effort in the Bernstein recording and I climb that taller mountain with them.
To me, I actually feel the effort the performers are exuding to create the sound and I feel them hanging on for dear life controlling their intonation and vibrato. Unlike the polished smoothness of Solti’s Vienna Philharmonic, Bernstein’s BBC Symphony is down-right dirty. Yet, I like this sound because it gives the impression that at any moment the music could break apart. I feel myself rooting for the performers to make it through this work without frakking a note. As an example, listen to the last 15 seconds of Bernstein’s Nimrod. Do you hear those bassoons fighting to keep their intonation with the strings? For me, there’s something wonderfully dramatic in that sound. Even after hearing this recording dozens of times, I listen to those bassoons and wonder if they have the endurance to sustain their last note. On the other hand, Solti’s recording sounds effortless which results in a less dramatic feel. There is no chance of failure in Solti’s recording which, for me, makes it sound a little too safe.
Another highlight of the Bernstein recording can be heard approximately 6 seconds into the clip I’ve posted of the ending. Right before the climactic fortissimo, if you listen closely, you can hear Bernstein grunt in preparation for this sound. Purists out there may find this intrusion unacceptable. However, for me the sound of Bernstein grunting gives another physical connection to the music. I feel the effort he gives. I feel the orchestra respond. I feel connected to this music.
And here is the final lesson I gain from these recordings. Both performances are from the same five pages of conductor’s score and yet these two pieces sound a world apart. As a composer, I know that no two performances of my music will ever be identical but on these two recordings we have a demonstration of how a performance artist can completely recast the conception of a work. I have never heard another performance of Nimrod like the Bernstein recording. I would never have dreamed Nimrod could sound the way Bernstein conducted it until hearing this recording. Now, I cannot imagine it any other way. More importantly for me, I now embrace a partnership with performers that allow them to reconceive the work for each performance.
All of this from one CD.
NOTE: I claim “fair use” for these segments as this article is a critical analysis of the recordings. If you like the recordings, please support the artists and purchase the CDs.