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Bernstein: In the concert hall and on Broadway, soloists, London Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, Barbican, 11th July 2004 (MB)

 

Leonard Bernstein had an enduring relationship with the LSO so it seemed appropriate that they should offer up this concert of Bernstein as composer. Not everything was quite as it should have been, however: one missed, for example, that ‘roughness’ of phrasing that Bernstein brought to his own work in the concert hall (indeed, I wonder what he would have made of such opulently played performances of his Broadway hits).

 

And to Broadway first, even though this part of the concert appeared after the interval. The ‘Prologue’ to the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story showed the LSO to be on tentative form with rhythms not quite buoyant enough (how differently the Philharmonia had grasped the instinctive violence of this music in a concert in April this year). Things did not improve with ‘I feel pretty’ and ‘Somewhere’, sung by the soprano Kim Criswell. In both songs, there was a certain nervousness to her singing which prevented the voice from blooming (indeed, at times, she was just plain flat). The Overture to Candide, however, was sublime: virtuosic playing tinged with dare-devil phrasing made it sound exhilarating. The ‘Lament’ from the opera – normally given over to a tenor – was here much less moving than it should be and again issues of tone colour were a problem. Some of the best playing of the evening was showcased in ‘Three Dances’ from On the Town, with the third being an especially thrilling ride.

 

Ms Criswell hit form in the last third of the concert with a seductive and wickedly comic performance of ‘One hundred easy ways’ (even if one was slightly reminded of Bette Midler in her prime). ‘Island Magic’ from Trouble in Tahiti was a tour de force. Only occasionally did Kim Criswell show the form she is capable of in these songs – although one would probably have appreciated it more without the very close and clinical miking of the voices. In an acoustic as intimate as the Barbican – and it can be that – it is unnecessary.

 

The first half of the concert was devoted to just two works – Prelude, Fugue and Riffs and The Age of Anxiety. Having one of the world’s great brass sections playing Bernstein’s jazz-infused work brought considerable dividends. The playing was superb – tonally and rhythmically – and Andrew Marriner’s clarinet solo had all the warmth and ebullience needed. Marin Alsop drove tempi somewhat but with the trumpets and trombones of the Prelude so secure of intonation and the saxophones of the Fugue so sure-footed it worked – just.

 

The highlight of this concert, however, was a wonderfully spacious and opulent performance of Bernstein’s The Age of Anxiety. Just as Auden’s poem – from which the work takes its inspiration – juxtaposes the idioms of conventional verse as well as the theatrical so too does Bernstein’s symphonic score parallel the musical worlds of the conventional symphony and the concerto. In all but name this is Bernstein’s only piano concerto – and what a work it is.

 

Bernstein’s symphonic concerto mirrors exactly Auden’s poem – the six sections of each clearly separated as the works develop. Bernstein uses the piano to considerable narrative effect and in a great performance the pianist should be the central voice of the work. That was only partly true of Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s solo. Either because of a certain unfamiliarity with the work (he played from a score) or because of the deliberate tempi (especially during the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ section) his playing seemed less sure-footed than it should have been. Bernstein’s capricious writing – evocative of Stravinsky and Prokofiev, and at times redolent of an innately spontaneous jazziness – only partly emerged unscathed with both trills and octaves nervously projected. It was often left for the orchestra to sum of the poetic-ness of the piece with those beautifully Brahmsian string passages being given all the warmth and sonority the LSO could muster. In this sense the performance was an overwhelming one and made a long evening a worthwhile one.

 

Marc Bridle

 

Further listening:

 

Bernstein, Symphony No.2 (‘The Age of Anxiety’), Israel Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein (complete with Symphonies No.1 (‘Jeremiah’ and No.3 ‘Kaddish’) DG 445 245-2.



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