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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918 – 1990)
Symphony No.1 Jeremiah (1942)a
Concerto for Orchestra Jubilee Games (1986/9)b
Helen Medlyn (mezzo-soprano)a; Nathan Gunn (baritone)b
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/James Judd
Recorded: Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand, August 2002
NAXOS 8.559100 [55:04]

I have long been a staunch admirer of Bernstein the conductor, although some of his readings may have been open to controversy. His commitment and dedication, however, are never in doubt. I am less sure about his achievement as a composer, although – again – his sincerity and honesty are never in doubt either. He was generally rather uncritical about his works and they often suffer from a regrettable eclecticism. But, and this is a big BUT, his music could be as fine as anything else composed during the 20th century, provided he was ready to exert some self-criticism. So, various of his concert works, such as the Jeremiah Symphony and the Serenade for Violin, Strings and Percussion, are unquestionable masterpieces of real substance. In these works he succeeded in getting rid of his tendency to indulge in whatever was at hand. Although in a different league, West Side Story is another such successful, stylistically coherent piece of music. His Symphony No.1 "Jeremiah" is, without doubt, the finest of his three symphonies; and the most powerfully moving. It is an utterly serious, deeply-felt work that compares favourably with some other noteworthy America symphonies such as Harris’s and Schuman’s Third Symphonies. It is – I firmly believe – vastly superior to Copland’s popular Third Symphony and gives a good idea of what Bernstein’s compositional achievement might have been.

The Concerto for orchestra "Jubilee Games" had a rather chequered genesis. The final version was assembled from several works written between 1986 and 1989. Jubilee Games, a two-movement piece, was composed to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Israel Philharmonic. Opening Prayer was written for the gala reopening of Carnegie Hall (it was later renamed Benediction and became the last movement of the Concerto for Orchestra), whereas the second movement Mixed Doubles started its life as Variations on an Octatonic Scale for recorder and cello written as a Christmas present for a friend and later re-worked and expanded. With this background it is hardly surprising that the Concerto for Orchestra should ultimately be a rather mixed affair, though with many fine things. The resulting whole is however no more than the sum of its parts. The first movement Free-Style Events may be the only Bernstein piece of music using aleatoric techniques. It must be fun to play, but does not entirely convince. Mixed Doubles (theme, seven variations and coda) is a cleverly and expertly wrought set of variations (often for two different instruments with accompaniment), and – on the whole – the most satisfying part of the whole work. Diaspora Dances is a brilliant Scherzo in Bernstein’s extrovert and jazzy vein. The final movement ends with a brief blessing from the baritone. Though moving and effective it does not make for an entirely convincing conclusion.

I found Judd’s readings excellent, although he has to face the composer’s competition. Bernstein made three recordings of Jeremiah of which that with the New York Philharmonic and Jennie Tourel is – I believe – his strongest. Judd conducts a very fine reading of Jeremiah, and an equally fine one of the Concerto for Orchestra. These have me eagerly waiting what I hope will be a forthcoming recording of Symphony No.3 "Kaddish".

Hubert Culot

see also review by Peter Wells

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