Leonard Bernstein Centenary

Deutsche Grammophon is marking the Leonard Bernstein centenary (25 August 2018) in suitably monumental style. For the first time, Bernstein’s complete works will be available on CD in a single boxed set, as will his legacy as a conductor.

In addition there will be a series of spectacular new releases and reissues reflecting some of the many high points of this multifaceted musician’s rich and varied career – the legendary Beethoven recordings of the 1970s, for example, as well as previously unreleased live recordings from Tanglewood, Mass with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and, of course, examples of Bernstein’s celebrated work in musical theatre.



Discover the composer Leonard Bernstein: 

Click here to listen to this Playlist on Spotify.

More about Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was a man of many roles – composer, conductor, pianist, musical educator – a man hailed by pianist Arthur Rubinstein as a “universal genius”. A charismatic communicator, he had few equals when it came to enthusing others about music. Whether at festivals such as Tanglewood in the US or Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany, in a TV studio or in a university lecture hall, Bernstein’s presence, passion and unquestioned commitment to his art were palpable.

That same intensity also characterised his work as a performer. A number of his recordings still have reference status – his Mahler cycle, for instance, or Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with Bernstein himself at the piano. The son of a Ukrainian immigrant, he knew no musical boundaries: he played jazz, engaged with Jewish folk traditions, and was as at home on Broadway as he was in Europe’s venerable opera houses. In his own music seriousness stands cheek by jowl with satire, musical with Mass, the modern with the traditional. His reinterpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth as an “Ode to Freedom” in Berlin, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was simply unforgettable. Less than a year later, he died of cancer.

His work remains, however, and an incredible range of recordings will now be issued by Deutsche Grammophon at regular intervals throughout the anniversary year. Both familiar material and rarities are on the menu, as is a set of world-premiere recordings, with DG releases planned for virtually every month, the label’s schedule running in parallel with the Leonard Bernstein Office’s “Leonard Bernstein at 100” centennial celebration programme.

There are many ways in which to discover the musical phenomenon that was Leonard Bernstein. In his anniversary year, let Deutsche Grammophon be your guide.

Remastering a legendary Recording

Bernstein's Beethoven Symphony Cycle is considered by many to be one of the best ever recorded. A legendary conductor at the peak of his career, with the magnificent Vienna Philharmonic playing at their very best, and amazing chemistry between them.

For this remastering, we've gone back to the original multitrack tapes, as they were recorded on location in 1978 and 1979. These are 'first generation' tapes, the actual tapes used at the recording sessions. Luckily these tapes are in fantastic shape, without any 'sticky tape' issues, common for tapes of the ages, and even the 40 year old splicing tape hasn't lost it's grip!

On the technical side, Polyhymnia is well equipped for this project. For the first 8 symphonies, recorded on 1" 8 track tape, using Dolby A noise reduction, we used our carefully maintained Studer A80 machine – but not all of it! We've replaced the playback electronics with our own custom electronics (the same we use as microphone amplifiers for our new recordings). The signal was then routed through our Dolby A units (models made specially for Philips and DG), and then directly to our Merging Horus AD converters, running at their highest resolution of 352 kHz (DXD) – 8x the CD sample rate.

You might think that 40 year old analog tape wouldn't benefit from this ultra high resolution remastering, but you may be surprised. Here's a spectrogram of the percussion track from the 9th Symphony, when the triangle is being played. The left-right axis represents time, the vertical axis frequency, and the colour intensity volume. You can clearly see that this 40 year old analog tape has stored and reproduced significant frequencies far above 20 kHz, which CD quality digital cannot reproduce.

Each reel consists of many short pieces of  the original session tapes 'spliced' together to form a complete recording out of the best pieces of many performances. As you transfer the tapes, you can see the splices go by. Nowadays we edit digitally, but in 1979 it was very much a manual process, requiring great skill, especially when dealing with 1" and 2" multitrack tape. And since you were dealing with the original tapes, a mistake could literally destroy an original recording!

Unlike modern digital equipment, analog tape machines have to be calibrated carefully regularly, using calibrated test tapes and meters, checking the playback equalization at each frequency, and adjusting the 'azimuth' so that the tape head is perfectly aligned with the tape. These adjustments are particularly critical when using noise reduction, since any errors are multiplied in the decoding process. The Dolby level (recorded at the original recording sessions) is carefully adjusted on each channel for proper decoding.

Video: Transferring the Tapes

The 9th Symphony presented an extra  challenge: it was recorded on 16 track 2" tape. Polyhymnia doesn't own a 2" machine, and the standard 2" format is 24 track, which won't playback a 16 track tape properly. Luckily, a local rental company has two sets of heads for their 2" multitrack, and we were able to go there with our equipment to make the transfers on a beautifully maintained Otari MTR-90II.

Going back to the original tapes gives us the best possible quality; the analog processes from 40 years ago weren't 'lossless', and each generation added noise and distortion. An original LP was likely made from a copy of the edited master tape, which itself was a generation removed from the multitrack session tapes, and had also passed through an extra analogue mixer and mastering stage, not to mention the process of cutting and pressing LP's.

Once the transfers were made, we started on the mixing and mastering. Luckily, the tapes were well documented (not always the case!), so that we knew exactly which instruments were on each track, and even the original mixer settings, such as fader level, left-right panning, equalization, and the reverberation used. The original multitracks were recorded quite close and dry, meaning that added reverberation formed  an important part of the final mix. This posed a challenge: the two reverberators used  (a very early EMT digital reverb and a reverberation chamber) weren't available to us. Luckily modern software gave us a  'digital model' of the EMT, as well as a selection of other wonderful acoustics, allowing us to emulate the reverberation used by DG's mixing engineers, and in some cases  (at least in our opinion!s) to improve on the original.

Video: Remastering the Tapes

Remixing involved  lining up the original CD version of the recordings with our new multitrack transfer, matching levels, and switching back and forth to compare and refine – a time consuming process, since not all of the mixes were static. Our goal wasn't to make an exact match, but we wanted to stay faithful to the artistic intentions of the musicians, producers, and engineers, especially in regard to the musical balances. In the process, we also cleaned up some distracting glitches and noises using advanced software that didn't exist when these recordings were originally made or remastered.

The stereo mix was the starting point for the surround. These recordings weren't made with the idea of  quadraphonic or surround release, and didn't include any separate ambience tracks or distant microphones. Our goal with the surround mix was to give the listener the feel of being in the hall with the musicians, with the direct sound coming primarily from the front, and the reflections and reverberation from all around. Spreading the sound out over five speakers envelops the listener in the sound, bringing the listener into the hall together with the musicians, as opposed to the 'window into the hall' of stereo listening, where both the direct sound and reflections are coming from the same direction. We ac

Our surround mix is a 5.0 mix, omitting the .1 / LFE channel. LFE stands for Low Frequecy Effects, and was designed for sound effects (earthquakes, explosions...), not music. A properly setup system doesn't require an LFE channel to use its subwoofer, but will utilize bass management to route low frequencies to the subwoofer(s) based on the characteristics of the connected loudspeakers.

It was a huge pleasure and honour to work on this project. We hope you enjoy it!

Polyhymnia International

(Everett Porter / Jean-Marie Geijsen / Erdo Groot / Karel Bruggemann / Lauran Jurrius)

Video: Remastering Beethoven’s 9th Symphony