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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1917-1990)
On the Waterfront – Symphonic Suite from the Film
Chichester Psalms

On the Town – Three Dance Episodes
Thomas Kelly, treble
Elizabeth Franklin-Kitchen, soprano
Victoria Nayler, alto
Jeremy Budd, tenor,
Paul Charrier, bass
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop
Recorded at Lighthouse, Poole Centre for the Arts, UK on April 14th-15th 2003
NAXOS 8.559177 [48:36]

The assassination of JFK in November 1963 had a profound effect on everybody who was alive and old enough to understand at the time. Nobody was more deeply shocked than the forty-five-year-old Leonard Bernstein; "the assassination threw me for a loop. In fact, I don’t think I’ve recovered from it yet" he wrote some fifteen years later. So deeply was he shaken that he called a halt to the headlong rush of his career, and took, to the amazement of all his friends and colleagues, a "sabbatical year", suspending all engagements during the 1964-5 season. However, he did break the self-imposed ‘purdah’ on one occasion, to compose one of his most delightful and abiding works, the Chichester Psalms. It was written at the behest of the Rev. Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral, though the premiere was actually given in New York in May 1965.

There have been many fine recordings of the Psalms, but this Naxos one is worthy to be placed alongside the best of them. It begins with a rhythmically tight first movement, the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus responding marvellously to the wild energy of the 7/4 music. The slow movement that follows, a setting of the 23rd Psalm, is as ravishing here as I have ever heard it, with an exceptional contribution from thirteen-year-old Thomas Kelly in the demanding solo part. Kelly is vocally superior to John Bogart on Bernstein’s own 1965 recording, and is preferable even to Aled Jones in Richard Hickox’s 1986 version, partly because Jones was very much a treble, whereas the part calls for a slightly darker sound.

The finale is superbly done, with the strings of the BSO responding richly to Alsop’s impassioned interpretation of the introduction. The recording has a splendid depth of ambience here, and when the male voices of the choir enter with that irresistible tune, their tone is firm yet gentle. The quietly ecstatic mood is sustained through to the rapt coda, ushered in by Elizabeth Franklin-Kitchen’s exquisite high G. This is a deeply satisfying performance of this unassuming work, which has quietly made itself a staple of the choral repertoire.

The disc begins with an equally fine version of the symphonic suite put together from Bernstein’s only film score, that for Sam Spiegl’s ‘On the Waterfront’. Despite its strong echoes of Stravinsky and Copland, this is vintage Bernstein, with a particularly memorable ‘love episode’ as its central section. Alsop paces the music a little more deliberately than the composer (though I have only his earlier 1960s version to hand), but the climaxes do gain from this, and, if anything, the piece grows in stature from the more spacious approach.

The final tracks contain the Three Dance Episodes from the musical ‘On the Town’. These are given stylish and appropriately rumbustious performances, the BSO relishing the sprung rhythms and raunchy melodies. Naxos have produced another winner here; wonderful playing and singing, and a recording which is crystal clear and atmospheric at the same time. I have to say that 48:36 is far from generous – but there you go, at under a fiver who’s complaining?

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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