Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Review: Bernstein conducts Bernstein - SONY - 7 CDs

Overture to Candide
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Symphonic Suite from the Film On The Waterfront
Fancy Free (ballet)
Prelude, Fuge and Riffs for Solo Clarinet and Jazz Ensemble

Dybbuk (complete ballet)
Serenade after Plato's Symposium for Solo violin, strings, harp and percussion

Symphony No. 1 Jeremiah
On the Town (Three Dance Episodes)
Symphony No. 2 The Age of Anxiety for Piano and Orchestra (after W. H. Auden)

Symphony No. 3 Kaddish
Chichester Psalms for Chorus and Orchestra
I Hate Music! (A Cycle of Five Kid Songs for Soprano)
La Bonne Cuisine (Four Recipes)

Trouble in Tahiti (An Opera in Seven Scenes)
Facsimile (Choreographic Essay for Orchestra)

Mass - A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers


I have very mixed feelings about Leonard Bernstein. This is, perhaps, not something unnatural considering his multifarious talents.

Leonard Bernstein as a conductor is a perplexing phenomenon. With but very few exceptions (e.g. Shostakovich), I usually find his musical visions quite alien to my sensibility. I can always listen to his idiosyncratic interpretations with interest and I can always watch his elaborate gymnastics on the rostrum with
pleasure, but I seldom find in his conducting anything more than that. I have heard very little of him as a pianist, but there are indications that the "communication breakdown" will be repeated there. Not very promising so far, is it?

But Lenny as an educator and especially as a composer? Now, that is a very different matter.

On the screen or on the page, bringing classical music to millions of kids who had never known how much fun it is, Lenny has an incredible charm. It's just impossible to call him anything as pompous as "Leonard". Nor am I going to pretend that I don't find extremely appealing his condemnation of atonality and the so-called "avant-garde". Above all, perhaps the most inspiring example was his lifelong striving to destroy the Iron Curtain between "serious" and "popular" music. The only result such artificial divisions have ever achieved is to create a good deal of detestable intellectual snobbery. Too bad that more people didn't listen to Lenny in this respect.

Lenny as a composer I have always found utterly compelling, far more so than many far more famous names. For my part, he was one of the very few truly great twentieth-century masters, a composer of power and originality who achieved something unique: he bridged the gulf between Shostakovich and Andrew Lloyd Webber. I am dismayed that his compositions, which are far more numerous and diverse than most people suppose, are so seldom performed or recorded.

This is where we finally reach this embarrassingly cheap SONY box-set. This is just about the perfect introduction to Lenny the composer. For less than 20 bucks you get 7 CDs, most of them pretty well-filled, which contain more or less all of his music that he recorded in his prime with the New York Philharmonic during the 1960s and the early 1970s.

The diversity is staggering. The three symphonies alone form a most telling example. The First Symphony, Jeremiah, a three-movement work of almost classical austerity and quite an achievement for a lad of 26, includes a "Lamentation" for mezzo-soprano (Jennie Tourel) from the Hebrew Bible as a finale. The Second Symphony is a massive work in six movements for piano and orchestra (with the young and wild Philip Entremont melting the keyboard) inspired by W. H. Auden's long and bizarre poem The Age of Anxiety. The Third Symphony, Kaddish, includes a narrator (Lenny's wife, Felicia), a choir and a large orchestra who talk to God with an almost frightening intensity for some forty minutes, yet He never answers.

If these three symphonies could conceivably have been created by one man, it is difficult to believe that the same fellow also produced an exhilarating orchestral jazz like the Oveture to Candide, the dances from musicals like West Side Story and On the Town, the ballets Fancy Free and Dybbuk, or the one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti. And that's not all. There is one pure jazz piece (with Benny Goodman himself playing the clarinet), one stupendously virtuoso Serenade after Plato's Symposium (with glittering solo-violin work by Zino Francescatti), one very fine movie score for On the Waterfront (1954), and two short but hilarious song cycles, I Hate Music! and La Bonne Cuisine (both with Lenny at the piano and Jennie Tourel singing).

Lenny's apotheosis of merging "serious" with "popular" music is without doubt his Mass. This is a quite extraordinary work, an elaborate stage show nearly two hours long, that has to be heard to be believed. Broadway meets the Vatican with a vengeance! Half of it consists of settings of the ordinary Latin texts (Gloria, Credo, etc.) and the other half reminds one of musicals like Hair (which was not, of course, composed by Lenny but you can imagine the contrast).

You get all this – and more – for less than three bucks per CD. Absolutely all music is conducted by Lenny at the helm of the New York Philharmonic (except for Dybbuk where he conducts one NY Ballet Orchestra). I don't know about the sound on older releases, but here it is excellent. The dynamic range is huge, both separate instruments and orchestral tutti passages come through with great clarity and naturalness. And this includes the many boisterous jazz-like moments in which bacchanalian brass section and wealth of percussion often guarantees poor recording. Not here. The invigorating vitality of the music is captured to perfection. It comes through so vividly, indeed, that you might have to move back your displaced furniture after, say, the Second Symphony.

(I understand in later years Lenny re-recorded most of his compositions for DG. Of these I have heard only Chichester Psalms and the first two symphonies with the Israel Philharmonic (and Christa Ludwig in the "Lamentation"), recorded in Berlin, 1977. Fantastic performances in great sound though they are, they don't have quite the same wild intensity as the earlier recordings with the NYP.)

So, are you interested in Lenny as a composer? Yes? Then what are you waiting for?
Grab this box-set!

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