BOOK REVIEW / Royal progress with a dangerous tempo: Dermot Clinch on an uncontroversial biography of an amazing maestro, Leonard Bernstein - 'Leonard Bernstein' - Humphrey Burton: Faber /Sony, 25.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
This was going to be a plain book review of the new Leonard Bernstein biography. But then a glinting, shrink-wrapped package caught my eye at the check-out of a London record store: the Leonard Bernstein Biography 'Special Collector's Edition'. For just six pounds more than the book alone I could have the biography plus two CDs from Sony Classical - Leonard Bernstein Man Of Music - all done up in a box.

They found the right subject for their jazzy marketing. Bernstein had been selling himself for years, energetically creating a romantic, tyrannical, podium-stomping persona for the public to love and hate. The one conductor who did anything on a similar scale - though without the jumping - was Herbert von Karajan, and it's no coincidence that he and Bernstein enjoyed a cordial rivalry. These two were prodigies, just occasionally verging on monstrosities. When Bernstein's father was charged with obstructing his boy's early progress his reply, plausibly enough, was that he could hardly have known his son 'was going to grow up to be Leonard Bernstein'.

Lenny's Big Break, which came when he was just 25, conforms to the customary birth-of-a-legend criteria. The phone rang early in the morning. The great Bruno Walter was sick, Bernstein would have to conduct the 3pm broadcast with the New York Philharmonic. No rehearsal. When the moment of truth arrived Bernstein flung aside the pills a pharmacist had given him to calm his nerves, muttering defiantly: 'I'm going to do this on my own'. An hour or so later Carnegie Hall was waving 'like one giant animal in a zoo', as his brother recalled. Backstage, Bernstein was handed a telegram from perhaps the most influential man in American music, Serge Koussevitsky: 'Listening now; wonderful'. Lennie was launched.

It was a precocious, American, success: 'a Jewish American boy making good in one of the nation's cultural temples', as Humphrey Burton puts it. Before long Bernstein would be music director of the same orchestra, one of the most prestigious in the States. He would be the composer of Fancy Free ('just exactly ten degrees north of terrific': the New York Times) and of West Side Story, one of the most popular pieces by a 'serious' composer this century (its original title was East Side Story). For a time it seemed he was the most famous man in America after JFK. Certainly he was the cockiest. 'Sweetie,' he wrote to Aaron Copland, about the third symphony of America's most distinguished composer: 'the end is a sin . . . Stop the presses]'

It's a life that lends itself to the big sweep, documentary treatment, and Humphrey Burton has gone for just this kind of old-fashioned, rather lengthy book. Admirals and field marshals used to be written about in the same sort of way. Bernstein's 'royal progress', as one chapter heading has it, looks very like a military campaign: Carnegie Hall - 'citadel of European supremacy' - at one end, and Salzburg - 'virtually the last European cultural citadel for Bernstein to conquer' - at the other. In the narrative's resolutely public focus the subtler, private impulsions that drive men and women are easily neglected, and this is not the biography to examine for acute psychological insight. Burton deals sensitively, for example, with Bernstein's bisexuality, but he hardly digs to the root of it. 'Mothers meant a lot to him' is typical of his style.

In place of psychology there is a quantity of carefully collated material - Burton's own, with help from the 'Leonard Bernstein Archive' - and a thorough, soldierly covering of the ground: 'Back and forth across the continent the roving young conductor travelled'. There is also a reliable supply line of anecdotes: Bernstein's conducting for the Queen ('Do you do this sort of thing often, Mr Bernstein?') or Herbert von Karajan's divorced second wife leaving a red rose on the conductor's podium at the Vienna Opera every evening. 'That is a conductor,' she would whisper as Bernstein took the stage.

But anecdotage and reportage rarely reveal a person's inner core. There's a similar lack of close, personal involvement with the music. If any composer or conductor deserves a little authorial effusiveness it's Bernstein. But Humphrey Burton is a sober judge, logging the genesis and performance history of a composition rather than cooing over it, noting the opinion of contemporary critics in preference to his own. That Harold Schonberg of the New York Times was in 1966 'definitely shifting his position' on Bernstein's music is interesting. But it's a pale substitute for enthusiastic discrimination in the present day.

Which is where the CDs come in, of course. Any Bernstein ingenu or doubter who buys the Special Collector's Edition should race to their hi-fi. Get excited. Play the music loud: 'America' from West Side Story, the Overture to Candide, or Bernstein conducting Shostakovich. Actually, 'America' will be unavoidable over the coming weeks, as World Cup fever once again seeks a big theme tune. But a few moments of pure energy from Leonard Bernstein Man of Music and you'll be bang on form for the book.

(Photograph omitted)

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