Years ago, Leonard Bernstein made the startling remark that after his death he wanted to be remembered as a composer rather than as a conductor. I don't know how serious he was when he made that comment back in the 1970s, but it did raise quite a few eyebrows — mine included.

The reason I thought his comment startling was because Bernstein at that time was already universally recognized as one of the great conductors of the last half of the 20th century, first as music director of the New York Philharmonic, and later as a noted guest conductor with the world's leading orchestras and opera houses.

It's true, though, that Bernstein was a prolific composer as well, managing somehow to find the time in his demanding schedule to write numerous works for both the stage and the concert hall.

I've always compared Bernstein's creative output to a roller coaster. There are quite a few ups and downs in his music as far as quality goes. He crested with what I consider to be the greatest work written for musical theater, "West Side Story." He bottomed out with such works as "Mass" and "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," which, even though they contain memorable moments, are best left forgotten.

In between these, Bernstein wrote his "Jeremiah" and "Kaddish" symphonies, the "Serenade" for violin, the "Chichester Psalms" and many other works, all of which have assured his place as one of the significant American composers of the 20th century.

However, having said all that, I still believe that Bernstein's greatest legacy is as a conductor —perhaps the greatest conductor that America has produced, but certainly one of the most distinctive and influential conductors and colorful musical personalities.

I haven't always agreed with Bernstein's interpretations. His performances of the German romantic repertoire, for example, were problematic at best; he put too much post-Freudian angst into them and sidesteps the composers' intentions. And Gustav Mahler, a composer whose music Bernstein adored, became oversentimentalized and syrupy under his baton.

Yet one of the finest opera recordings of the past 20 years is Bernstein's 1983 Philips rendition of Richard Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" with Peter Hofmann and Hildegard Behrens in the title roles. This is a wonderfully profound and stirring performance, rivaling in its depth and perception Karl Boehm's legendary 1966 live recording from Bayreuth with Wolfgang Windgassen and Birgit Nilsson.

Interestingly, after attending a rehearsal of the prelude, Boehm himself paid Bernstein one of the highest compliments a conductor can give a colleague when he said, "For the first time, somebody dares to perform the music as Wagner wrote it. The rest of us never dared to!"

As a tribute to Bernstein, who died in 1990, the New York Philharmonic has released "Bernstein Live," a magnificent multi-disc album of previously unreleased live performances by Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Spanning the years 1951-81, and composers from J.S. Bach and Mozart to the avant-garde of the 20th century, this 13-hour, 10-CD set is an incomparable and impressive recorded document of one of the great figures in classical music.

I finally finished listening to all of "Bernstein Live," and I can say that this is definitely worth getting. At around $200, it's a significant investment, but you're not going to find any other Bernstein recordings that give you the range and diversity of this set.

Some of the highlights include Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and Beethoven's Triple Concerto, both of which Bernstein conducts from the piano. There are also notable performances of Hindemith's symphony "Mathis der Maler," Schumann's Cello Concerto (with Jacqueline du Pre), Copland's "Dance Symphony" and Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 (with Vladimir Ashkenazy). And the 1970 concert of scenes from Wagner's "Die Gotterdammerung," with Eileen Farrell and Jess Thomas, which takes up all of disc 10, is alone worth the cost.

Unlike the majority of conductors today, Bernstein never shied away from presenting some of the most progressive works by contemporary composers, and Bernstein's interpretations have always shown his deep understanding of this music. One of the discs in this set is devoted to the avant-garde, with music by Pierre Boulez ("Improvisations sur Mallarme I"), Iannis Xenakis ("Pithoprakta") and John Cage ("Atlas Eclipticalis"), all of which Bernstein discusses at some length prior to their performances.

Today, where we don't have any great conductors left — in the tradition and spirit of such luminaries as Georg Solti, Erich Leinsdorf, George Szell or Herbert von Karajan — and none appear to be looming on the horizon (although Simon Rattle's people are working overtime to convince us he's Karajan's natural successor), we feel Bernstein's absence more acutely than ever. In many ways, he was larger than life. And who knows if we'll ever see someone like him again.


E-mail: ereichel@desnews.com