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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918–1990)
Dybbuk (1974)a [45:16]
Fancy Free (1944)b [28:59]
Mel Ulrich (baritone), Mark Risinger (bass)a; Abby Burke (vocal), Stephen Kummer (piano), Roger Spencer (double bass), Samuel D. Bacco (drums)b
Nashville Symphony/Andrew Mogrelia
rec. Blair Hall, Nashville, May 2005 and MTSU Dept. of Recording Industry, July 2006 (Big Stuff)
NAXOS 8.559280 [74:14]

Bernstein collaborated with Jerome Robbins on four occasions. It all started with Fancy Free (1944), went on with Facsimile (1945) and West Side Story (1957) and ended with Dybbuk (1974). These collaborations were differently received by critics and audiences. Fancy Free and West Side Story were immediate, resounding successes; Facsimile and Dybbuk got somewhat lukewarm receptions. The paradox is that in strictly musical terms both the choreographic essay Facsimile and Dybbuk are by far the finest; but the music for – or because of – all its seriousness obviously lacks the popular appeal that makes Fancy Free and West Side Story so successful. These scores belong to the Bernstein works that clearly demonstrate what Bernstein could achieve when he kept his invention and musicality under strict control. Other similar works are the gripping First Symphony Jeremiah and the beautiful Serenade for violin and orchestra.
Having Fancy Free and Dybbuk side by side makes it all perfectly clear. The music of Fancy Free is a fine example of Bernstein at his most extrovert, uninhibited; and displays the typical Bernstein mix of jazz, blues, Neo-classical Stravinsky and echoes of Copland - the latter is clearly to be heard in the penultimate section Danzón. The music is straightforward, colourful, lively, full of contrast, joyfully eclectic and superbly crafted. I have known this work for many years, and listening to it again sets me thinking that the whole score might well be a theme and variations on the opening number Big Stuff (“in juke-box style”). However, do not take my word for it; I may be wrong after all. There is not much to choose between this performance and that of Leonard Slatkin (EMI CDD 7 63905 2), in which Big Stuff really sounds as being played by an old worn-out juke-box, and the last recording made by the composer many years ago (DG), in which Bernstein sings and plays Big Stuff with his inimitable chain-smoker voice. The Nashville orchestra play with energy and obvious enjoyment, relishing the score’s many happy touches.
As already mentioned earlier in this review, Dybbuk, written to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the state of Israel, is a rather more serious affair drawing on Shlomo Ansky’s eponymous drama. The insert notes go into some detail about the action, and I will not repeat them here. Suffice to say that the subject of Dybbuk is about the universal and eternal struggle between good and evil, brightness and darkness, symbolised by the clash between diatonic and twelve-tone music. This is not particularly new in Bernstein’s output, since the diatonic-chromatic dichotomy is also present in much of the music of his Third Symphony Kaddish; but there is nothing here that may compare with the overtly ‘Coplandesque’ big tune heard in the Third Symphony. The most remarkable thing in Dybbuk is the extraordinary stylistic coherence displayed throughout. This is a substantial score and has been hailed by some as Bernstein’s finest achievement. The utter seriousness and austerity of much of the music are perfectly attuned to the no-nonsense subject of the ballet. There are many moments of real and great inspiration, and none of the ramshackle eclecticism that sometimes mars some of Bernstein’s serious, deeply-felt works. Dybbuk is undoubtedly an imposing achievement, but one that will never become popular, which makes as fine a performance as the one under review the more welcome. I do not doubt that the real Bernstein is here, in this serious, austere and complex work.
These performances are very fine indeed, beautifully played and obviously committed as well as nicely recorded. One slight grumble, however, concerning the all-too-clean rendering of Big Stuff at the beginning of Fancy Free. Well, yes, I know, juke-boxes are no longer what they used to be in 1944, but this had been successfully realised in Slatkin’s EMI recording. Nevertheless, this is a welcome release putting both sides of “Janus Bernstein” into sharp contrast. Another attractive instalment in this Bernstein series from Naxos.
Hubert Culot


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