Browsing through the Web, I found this interesting recording — interesting not just for the remarkably slow tempo of the performance, but also for the startling and amusing disclaimer Bernstein presents at the beginning of the recording. Essentially, he gives a speech saying: “this wasn’t my idea.”
My view is that music should generally be played at the tempo that the composer indicated (not, as here, at half that tempo). Conductors are notorious for ignoring such directions, though. Almost nobody plays the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony at the relatively breakneck pace indicated, Bernstein included. (They also throw in the occasional unindicated rallentando, start a crescendo in the wrong place, and so forth.) I once almost wrote Leonard Bernstein, in fact, over the absurd way that he raced into the next movement of a symphony (I can’t remember which one off the top of my head) ignoring a rest with a fermata (meaning the rest should be extra long). Instead of an extra long rest, he had no rest at all. I wanted to ask him if he understood what a fermata is intended to indicate.
So it’s not like Bernstein wasn’t given to his own, er interpretations. Still, this speech is remarkable — as is the performance . . . at least, what you can hear of it over the incessant coughing.