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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Symphony No. 1 Jeremiah (1942) [25.06]: Prophecy [7.43]; Profanation [6.29]; Lamentation [10.54]

Concerto for Orchestra Jubilee Games (1986) [29.58]: I Free-Style Events: Allegro con brio, giocoso [7.27]; II Mixed Doubles: Theme [1.26]; Variation 1 [1.01]; Variation 2 [0.26]; Variation 3 [0.39]; Variation 4 [1.17]; Variation 5 [0.33]; Variation 6 [2.18]; Variation 7 [1.15]; Coda [1.45]; III Diaspora Dances: Vivace [5.37]; IV Benediction: Moderato, invocando [6.13]
Helen Medlyn, (mezzo-soprano); Nathan Gunn, (baritone)
The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/James Judd
Rec. 13-15 Aug 2002, The Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand. DDD
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559100 [55.04]

Bernstein is well-known for a small handful of compositions. It is surprising that more of his serious symphonic repertoire is not heard more frequently, for here is one of the most truly original of American composers, confident in his descent from the European classical traditions, but in no way cowed by that tradition. The first Symphony, Jeremiah was completed while the composer was still in his mid-twenties and is thus, not surprisingly, young man’s music. There is a desire to show off his command of orchestral forces and symphonic structure. He completed the work in 1942, spurred on by a competition sponsored by the New England Conservatory of Music. It did not win, but the reception of the work was almost certainly assured by Bernstein’s famous conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic on 14 November 1943, stepping in at short notice for an ailing Bruno Walter. Overnight Bernstein was the talk of the musical world and performances of his symphony followed soon after with many of the major American orchestras. In 1944 the work won the New York Music Critics Circle Award. The opening two movements are strongly characterised and fairly traditional in form. The background figure of Samuel Barber is frequently apparent, although the passages of driving rhythm are an early example of what was to become one of Bernstein’s most characteristic accents. The long finale is really the centrepiece of the symphony, setting words from the Ashkenazic Hebrew version of the Book of Lamentations (of Jeremiah the Prophet) in which the prophet laments the fallen and abandoned Jerusalem. This movement was composed several years earlier, before the Second World War, but its apocalyptic aura gave strong resonance to audiences recently made aware of the horrors of the Holocaust.

At the other end of a long career, Jubilee Games dates from 1986 and was composed for the 50th anniversary of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. This comprises the first two movements of what was to become the Concerto for Orchestra. Opening Prayer, which finally appeared at the end of the Concerto as Benediction, was written for the gala re-opening of Carnegie Hall in the same year, and Bernstein added the Seven Variations on an Octatonic Theme in 1989. The completed Concerto for Orchestra was premiered the following year. Throughout the work, which involves a greater degree of orchestral improvisation than any other Bernstein score, players underscore the significance of the number seven by whispering or shouting the number (shiva in Hebrew) seven times. There are similar numeric references throughout the work. It closes with the famous blessing (Jewish in origin, but not exclusively in use) May the Lord bless you and keep you, May the Lord make his face to shine upon you… sung by the baritone.

Both of these works involve a high degree of orchestral virtuosity, the opening movement of the Concerto for Orchestra in particular being a vigorous showpiece of technical panache, especially for the large percussion section, in typically ebullient Bernstein style. In this recording the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra comes across as an ensemble well versed in this colourful approach and with the conviction to perform some of the more over-the-top passages (the shouted Hebrew numbers included) with suitable élan that they become convincing on every level. Both scores are complicated and the forces considerable. James Judd marshals these with absolute clarity; even in the brashest sections of the Concerto and in the tremendous opening of the Symphony there is a tautness in the phrasing and a clarity of balance that makes absolute sense of the density of activity. The vocal soloists have only minor roles in terms of length, but both have a perorative aspect that underlines the central meaning of each work. Helen Medlyn, in particular, finely judges the balance between despair and exaltation and blends excellently with the shimmering orchestra. Amongst the players there are similarly many excellent soloists, the viola/violin pairing in the coda of the 2nd movement of the concerto and the bass clarinet and alto flute in the 6th variation. Throughout the percussion section is magnificent.

Naxos once again show themselves to be on the ball in their programming. There have been several fine discs in the American Classics series and this release brings a welcome new look at Bernstein as a serious symphonic composer. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra are undoubtedly a group to watch out for if this performance is anything to go by. Apparently further releases under James Judd, on Naxos, are planned. This is a pairing that is seriously worth looking out for.

Peter Wells

 



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