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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918 - 1990)
On the Waterfront - Symphonic Suite (1954)
Chichester Psalms (1965)
On the Town - Three Dance Episodes (1944)
Thomas Kelly, Treble
Elizabeth Franklin-Kitchen, Soprano
Victoria Nayler, Alto
Jeremy Budd, Tenor
Paul Charrier, Bass
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Recorded at Lighthouse, Poole Centre for the Arts, U.K., 14-15 April 2003

NAXOS 8.559177 [48'36]


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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 nature".

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 fair question!

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 Psalm 23.

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 running time.

Paul Serotsky

see also review by Gwyn Parry Jones BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

 



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