Love him or loathe him, "Lenny" was
a real one-off. In fact, part of his uniqueness was that you could
both love him and loathe him. Iíve known people who adore
one of his works and find another squirmingly embarrassing, who
are enchanted by one of his interpretations and appalled by another,
or who are enthralled by one lecture or dissertation and dismayed
by another. Some people regarded his podium manners as expressive
of gut-level passion for the music he was conducting, whilst others
saw them as distastefully brash, cynical showmanship - and sometimes
their opinions varied from performance to performance. Yet, whichever
combination of these fits anyoneís bill at any one time, there
is rarely any middle ground: loving or loathing but never, it
seems, bland indifference. The one thing I think weíre
all agreed on - just about! - is that without him the worldís
a far poorer place.
Marin Alsop makes no bones about her position
in relation to the proverbial fence: "To have a hero is a
rare occurrence. To have a hero [who] exceeds oneís expectations
is a gift beyond measure". As a fledgling of nine years,
hearing Bernstein conduct inflamed her with the desire to herself
become a conductor. Years later, as a conducting fellow at Tanglewood,
she spent a day working on a concert with The Man Himself, apparently
a profoundly seminal encounter since it prompted that unequivocal
quote. Alsop thinks that Bernsteinís greatness lay not so much
in his obvious talents as his uncommon capability for interdisciplinary
cross-fertilisation (sorry - thatís my convoluted phrase!), not
to mention his passionate convictions and his compassionate humanitarianism.
Set alongside that little lot, I donít suppose that it matters
one jot that he could, in common with vulgar humanity, be a right
sod when he felt that way out.
It is both a nice idea and a noble gesture that
Alsop should choose her hero as the subject of this, her first
recording with the orchestra of which she has just become principal
conductor. However, it is also an exceedingly brave move, because
she must have known all along that her choice of programme would
invite direct comparison with Bernsteinís very own recordings.
If the results of her efforts are not at least commensurate with
her heroís, the move might well be considered not so much "brave"
as "foolhardy". Moreover, in view of the sparks that
invariably flew when Bernstein performed his own music, the order
starts to take on the vertical dimensions of the Empire State
Building. For that reason, Iím inclined to be a bit circumspect
when it comes to direct comparison.
Right, letís start with On the Waterfront.
This isnít, we are reminded, a suite drawn from the film score
but a symphonic suite combining music that made the final "cut"
with some music retrieved from the dubbing-room floor. Itís wryly
amusing to think that, even in his mid-thirties Bernstein could
still be naive enough to find this the least bit surprising -
didnít he notice that commensurate swadges of film ended
up in the same bin, or that this was all part of the same necessary
process of "creative distillation" from which much of
what we call "great art" has emerged, since time immemorial?
Not that it matters - at least he had the presence of mind to
sweep up some of the cuttings.
Marin Alsop approaches the music very much in
the manner of a symphonic poem, finding an elusive thread of continuity
binding the nominal six movements into a relatively seamless whole.
On each recurrence, the lonely solo horn theme becomes more recessed,
whilst the music around it moves from aggressive to expansive.
The dark and violent "city-scape" that dominates the
early stages finally frays, exposing the welling optimism of its
rural heart, a prairie landscape such as Aaron Copland conjured
in Billy the Kid. Obviously, it strikes me as something
of a "game of two [unequal!] halves". On the other hand
Sean Hickey, whose informative and discursive booklet note is
a real bonus, suggests that "Throughout, Bernstein contrasts
anxious, frenetic rhythms with music of a more lyrical, human
Whatever your view on the details of the structure,
I certainly think that Alsopís "architectural" slant,
in what otherwise always struck me as a somewhat lop-sided piece,
reveals her as a real, thinking conductor. It augurs well for
her new job that she coaxes from the Bournemouth SO some immaculate
solo and ensemble playing, and a truly lustrous tone that has
a large part to play in the overall impact. The problem is that
this lustre, whilst enhancing the lyrical passages, percolates
into the fierce, fast music, partially emasculating what surely
should be uncompromisingly brutal and rough-shod: what was needed
was the same kind of ferociously gritty attack that Berglund elicited
from this same orchestra in their recordings of Shostakovich symphonies.
Still, I donít want to make too much of it: what Alsop and the
BSO give us is a long, long way short of limp-wristed, and overall
as good a rendition as anyone could wish to live with.
At the other end of the disc we have the Three
Dance Episodes that Bernstein extracted for concert performance
from his music for On the Town. These are placed after
the main work, in their relatively straightforward demeanour standing
almost as an encore. All you need is bags of sass, jazz and pizzaz
in the outer episodes, and a big bent for blues in the middle.
As the most overtly "transatlantic" - viewed from my
side of the Pond, at least! - music on the disc, it is also the
piece most likely to trip up a stuffy old English orchestra. In
that sense, it also presents Alsop with her biggest challenge.
Guess what - they absolutely breeze though it!
The first episode may lack the bite and urgency
of Bernstein and the NYPO, but not by much. In Alsopís hands The
Great Lover desports himself in a manner possibly truer to
the tradition of "great" lovers. Thereís an element
of sarcasm in the adjective which implies eagerness offset by
shyness, and bravado tempered by creaky self-confidence, which
Alsop exposes by setting the twitching syncopations in the context
of a relatively laid-back tempo.
The central Lonely Town is sculpted beautifully.
The solo playing is maybe a bit strait-laced, but Alsopís grasp
of the arching architecture of the episode is second-to-none.
In giving due weight to Bernsteinís strategically-placed tremolando
crescendo, she homes in like a hawk on the key that really unlocks
the movementís brief but powerful climax. I found myself thinking,
"I hope they get round to doing some Bruckner!"
The final Times Square is nigh-on perfect,
again kept relatively "loose" but still brimming with
vim and vigour. Donít read anything untoward into this, but I
was particularly attracted by the passage that always puts me
in mind of "striptease" music. My initial reaction was
that it was somehow fudged. Then, "Twit!" I bethought
to myself, "You said Ďbe circumspectí, yet youíve let the
composerís more aggressively driven recording fuddle your thinking!"
A quick return to the proverbial drawing-board soon revealed what
I hope is "the truth": Alsop has sloshed half a bottle
of Jack Daniels over it! The slurring brass are deliciously drunken,
and the trumpet flutter-tonguing is held back until the fag-end
of the line, just before the superbly sleazy clarinet takes it
up. By drawing apart the constituent elements, Alsop gives the
entire sequence a progressive impact. This is a Three Dance
Episodes to treasure, and a happy complement to the composerís
own NYPO recording.
That leaves the Main Event, the sacred sandwiched
by the profane. By virtue its very title and provenance, Chichester
Psalms is popularly acknowledged as a religious work, which
of course it is, isnít it? Well, Bernstein being Bernstein, it
isnít, at least not exactly! To be absolutely true
to his commission, which came from the Dean of Chichester Cathedral,
he should have chosen English texts for his psalm settings.
He opted for the original Hebrew, not to shove his own religious
background into the face of the C of E but, by introducing the
ancient language into the Anglican context, to underline the "ecumenicality"
of his message. As so often, the message was the humanitarian
"brotherhood of Man" theme, which seemed to emerge from
a feeling that God was the obvious solution to Mankindís ills,
overlaid by consternation that the obvious solution didnít seem
to be working all that well. Of course this all came to a head,
in no uncertain terms, in the Mass, yet already we can
feel in Chichester Psalms distinct pre-echoes, both in
sentiments and styles, of that amazing extravaganza. All right,
maybe for some folk "appalling" would be the adjective
of choice, but not for me - and anyway thatís another story altogether.
So, it seems that Bernstein chose his texts to
provide a clear dramatic narrative. Following the first movementís
"joyful noise", the second presents a complementary
idyllic vision. However, in setting "The Lord is my Shepherd",
a Psalm so often used where people are at their most fragile and
vulnerable, Bernstein double-underlines the brutal belligerence
of the interrupting "Why do the Nations Rage?" which
is, to be candid, a very fair question. At the end of the movement,
this can again be heard, nagging and gnawing at the ankles of
the idyll, provoking the anguish at the start of the last movement.
Grating dissonance by degrees disperses, leaving the liquid optimism
of the setting of Psalm 131, which in turn yields to the aspiring
consolation of Psalm 133: "How good . . . it is for brethren
to dwell together in unity" - a serene allusion to the sentiments
of Schiller and Beethoven, and an answer to the middle movementís
It doesnít take a brain the size of a planet
to conclude that where Bernstein was concerned, the "theater"
was never very far away. In fact, as Sean Hickey points out, itís
even a darn sight nearer than you might think: that central eruption
reworks music originally intended for the combative prologue to
West Side Story, another Bernstein work dealing with that
same humanitarian question!
Itís in this Chichester Psalms that, as
befits its placement on the CD, we arrive at a happy medium: the
lustrous sound that softened the edges of the "rougher"
stuff of the other two works here finds its true vocation. Bernstein,
when he was feeling particularly emotive would, like Mahler, egg
his pudding right up to the line beyond which lay the desolate
realm of "bad taste". The problem is that you then need
performers who can match him, exactly, egg for egg - one
tenth of an egg either way and the pudding falls, flat as a pancake.
The wonder of Alsopís interpretation is that she has not just
the precise measure of Bernsteinís recipe, but also that she is
- to quote Hildyís phrase in On the Town - "cooking
with gas". Treading like a tightrope walker along that fine
line dividing the sweetest of sentiment from syrupy sentimentality,
Alsop achieves a very moving performance of extraordinary beauty.
Of course, it helps considerably to have the
services of the pure-toned treble of Thomas Kelly, who Iím glad
to say suffers none of the dreaded collywobbles to which boy trebles
are often prone. There are no perceptible sour notes, nor uncontrolled
surges of tone, nor breathiness - just a voice like the proverbial
angel, and the musical sense to make the best possible use of
it. Especially gratifying is the slightly veiled, almost "dark"
quality of his sound, so well suited to the sombre optimism of
It gets even better: the Bournemouth Symphony
Chorus, and the other soli, are equally beguiling, the chorus
even-toned with no "sore thumbs", a proper credit to
the guiding hand of their director, Neville Creed. The a capella
passage near the very end - one of those pre-echoes of the Mass
- had me holding my breath. They are equally at home in the boisterous
opening movement, giving every impression of revelling in the
raucous merriment - a "joyful noise" indeed!
The parts are impressive, but the sum - taking
into account the orchestra - is still more so. This is especially
true of those contemplative, lyrical passages where the amplitude
wick is turned right down and the emotional wick is, contrariwise,
burning at its brightest. Those gossamer threads of voices and
instruments are intertwined with seemingly unsurpassable grace
and clarity, spinning Bernsteinís unique enchantment into a web
of captivating sound - and thatís as flowery as Iím going to get!
Marin Alsop has, quite simply, done her hero proud.
A lot of credit must also go to the sound engineer,
the renowned and ever-dependable Mike Clements, for a truly first
class recording that splendidly supports the performers and the
performance in all areas: amplitude, clarity, balance, ambience,
purity, spread and depth (have I missed anything?). Add a nicely-designed
outer jacket for the "standard issue" jewel case, Sean
Hickeyís eminently accessible notes, a personal insight from the
conductor, briefs about the performers, and - joy of all joys!
- a full set of texts and translations, and thereís a treasure
that can be yours for what amounts to peanuts. Iím so chuffed
with it, I just canít be bothered to complain about the short
review by Gwyn Parry Jones BARGAIN
OF THE MONTH