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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion (1954) [31:18]
Facsimile – Choreographic Essay for Orchestra (1946) [18:38]
Divertimento for Orchestra (1980) [18:09]
Philip Quint (violin)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. The Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, 12-13 January 2005
NAXOS 8.559245 [65:04]

Having just put aside the recent Naxos issue of Kaddish [review] I was enthusiastic about discovering more of Bernstein’s music, which, short of the ‘Prelude, Fugue and Riffs’ which I’ve known since being in nappies, I was disturbed to find I knew hardly at all. As one might expect, this is somewhat lighter material than Bernstein’s religious music, but in the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Marin Alsop’s capable hands it certainly doesn’t lack in heft.

The Serenade is nothing short of being a violin concerto, and quite a substantial and demanding one at that. In some ways it occupies a similar emotional world to Lourié’s ‘Concerto da Camera’ or Stravinsky’s ‘Apollon Musagète’, being lyrical and restrained – here and there with a slightly other-worldly character which reflects its subject matter. Bernstein described it as a "series of related statements in praise of love", and each movement is derived from characters in Plato’s Symposium. Such figures provide the impetus for declamatory writing for the solo violin and extended conversations with the orchestra. There are barely any jazz allusions and while there are some typical excursions into a kind of ‘salon’ style, Bernstein allows himself to explore themes and motives at greater depth than almost anywhere else in his compositions. Possibly for this reason he called it his "most satisfying" work, and who are we to disagree.

Facsimile was written for a ballet choreographed by Jerome Robbins, and has the post-war spiritual malaise as its central theme. Two men vie for the attentions of a woman, but without sincerity or true meaning to their relationships the whole thing ends in vacuous and inconclusive frustration. The drama is essentially psychological, and much of the music in the first part has a wistfully lyrical atmosphere, with excellent, sensitive solos from the orchestra. The second section involves a concertante piano part in sparring with a more burlesque orchestral development, which builds to a suitably rhythmic climax before settling into a short coda which reprises the atmosphere of the opening.

The Divertimento for Orchestra was one of Bernstein’s last compositions, and is a celebration and tribute to the Boston Symphony Orchestra; with a two note ‘B-C’ (Boston Centenary) motif running throughout. Bernstein revels in the full spectrum of the orchestra’s potential, with sardonic dances, his own little ‘Enigma’ movement (Sphynxes), a strip show (Blues), a Memorial to deceased members of the Boston Symphony, and appropriately finishing with an absurd march: ‘The BSO Forever’, which I’m sure made the Bournemouth ‘BSO’ players smile.

The playing here is superb throughout, from Philip Quint’s marvellous solo violin to the farting contrabassoon in the Divertimento. Marin Alsop’s interpretations are straightforward and eloquent, allowing Bernstein’s voice to speak clearly and convincingly. I defy anyone to find themselves sorry they bought this CD – it’s what we former employees of Farringdon Records call ‘a winner.’

Dominy Clements

 

 



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