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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Bernstein: Music for Theater and Film

Candide (1956): Overture [4:33]; "I am Easily Assimilated" [3:51]; Suite (arr. Harmon} [16:28]
On the Town (1944): "I can Cook Too" [2:13]; Time Square from Three Dance Episodes [4:55]
On The Waterfront (1955) - Symphonic Suite [20:28]
West Side Story (1957) "Somewhere" [2:43]
Kim Criswell, mezzo
Orchestre Lamoureux/Yutaka Sado
Rec. in the Salle Wagram, Paris, May 20-21, 2001
MECENAT MUSICAL 2584 60480-2 [55:19]

I requested this disc primarily because the suite from On the Waterfront is one of my favorite Bernstein compositions (a sort of Pines of Manhattan). Iím always eager to hear a new interpretation. But I was also exceedingly curious to hear how the venerable, but notoriously uneven, Lamoureux Orchestra would tackle this quintessentially American music.

My impression, which may well be erroneous, given the scant American distribution of many European labels, is that the Lamoureux hasnít made a lot of records lately. Back when I started serious collecting (c. 1956), that orchestra was all over the place Ė chiefly as the workhorse outfit for Epic Records. If you wanted to acquire certain compositions, you either bought the Lamoureux version or you did without. Inevitably, therefore, I soon had 20-25 of their recordings and while I knew they didnít sound as good as the New York Philharmonic, I was content just to have passable versions of the repertoire.

I know there are still collectors who find Ė or profess to find Ė a certain nostalgic magic in those old grooves. They truly believe thereís a special cachet attached to French music performed during the era when French orchestras dependably sounded like French orchestras. And it is true that, under conductors such as Martinon, Munch, Fournet, Jean Morel and Paul van Kempen, the Lamoureux did make some fine recordings. But for my taste, the orchestra too often straddled the line between "idiomatic" and "slovenly".

The last straw for me, the release that caused me to stop taking that orchestra seriously, was the world premier recording of Lili Boulangerís music, issued by Everest in 1959. Talk about a Road-to-Damascus listening experience! Music of shattering power, conducted by Igor Markevitch with messianic fervor, vivid 35 mm film sonics from Everest Ö it had everything going for it. Except the orchestra. The Lamoureux boys just couldnít hack it; half the time, they sounded like a parody of the "French Orchestral Sound": pinched, nasty-sounding woodwinds, scrawny thin-bodied strings played with an inexcusable comme-ci, comme-ca lack of involvement, and worst of all, that infamous horn section, with its watery, saxophoney quaver. Here was a landmark recording, of little known but magnificent French music Ė the unveiling, as it were, of a hitherto obscure national treasure - and not even a fire-breathing maestro like Markevitch could cajole or brow-beat the ensemble into playing like half its personnel gave a damn.

Oddly enough, the man most responsible for improving the standards of French orchestral performance was Charles de Gaulle, a gentleman not usually thought of as a devotee of classical music. Evidently, de Gaulle got fed up with reading reviews that made sniffy, condescending comparisons between the orchestras of Paris and those of Berlin, Vienna and Amsterdam. Was Paris, of all cities, incapable of fielding a symphony orchestra of the first rank? Sacré bleu! It was a matter of national pride that France should develop crack ensembles worthy of comparison to those of any other city in Europe ... or, in de Gaulleís case, the entire known universe. Funding was found; bad habits expunged; tough disciplinarians bestrode the podiums; newer and better instruments purchased. The transformation didnít happen quickly, and not every subsequent government attached the same importance to the project as de Gaulle had done, but the investment eventually paid off. Contemporary French orchestras play to the highest international standards, while still retaining Ė in some areas of the repertoire Ė a special tint and piquancy.

To make the point, then: this is the first recording by the Lamoureux Orchestra Iíve heard in at least a decade, and on this sumptuously engineered disc, it produces a full, rich, well-balanced sonority; a nearly ideal blend of discipline and expressiveness. More interestingly, the orchestra seems perfectly at ease with the Bernstein style. No, they donít quite replicate the jazzy verve of the New Yorkers under Lenny, but then who could? That quality was a factor of Lennyís charisma more than anything else. Love him or loathe him, we shall not look upon his like again, and any younger maestro who tries to mimic his podium mannerisms will soon be hooted off the stage.

Bernsteinís own interpretations are, of course, sui generis, and irreplaceable; but that doesnít mean other conductors canít perform his music with equal validity on the basis of their personalities and insights. Hearty bravos, then, to Maestro Yutaka Sado, who clearly loves this music and conducts it with terrific gusto. I wish I could tell you something about him, but the program notes contain no information whatever. Itís safe to assume heís Japanese, but beyond that his career is totally conjectural. On the basis of what I hear on this CD, however, he probably wonít remain obscure for very long Ė these are gutsy, lavish, heartfelt interpretations. Shame on the producers for ignoring him in the album notes!

Be that as it may, thereís a unifying theme to the program: "Music for Theatre and Film". Some consumers will not realize that Lenny only wrote one film score.Ė that information is buried deep in the notes, and anyone who goes into a record store asking for "the other Bernstein soundtracks" will be met with a blank stare if not a condescending snigger. But, oh!, the Broadway scores! Theyíre something special, infused with an élan and a naturalness more exciting, more coherent, and much more sustained than Bernstein was able to muster in his "serious" concert works, which are wildly uneven. The "Jeremiah" Symphony is a masterpiece of American Romanticism ... the Mass is as dated and embarrassing as that pair of acid-rock bell-bottoms I keep in my bedroom closet ... God knows Iíll never be able to button those around my middle again, but I canít bear to throw them out. So in a very real sense, this album gives us the best of the best of Lenny: brash, flamboyant, heart-on-sleeve, showmanship raised to the level of Art.

Quite logically, the program opens with the irresistible Overture to Candide, probably the snappiest curtain-raiser since Rossini. Maestro Sado conducts as energetic a reading as any Iíve heard, although truth to tell, itís almost a conductor-proof piece, given an orchestra that has the chops to play it. Vocal soloist Kim Criswell, who is also slighted in the program notes, delivers a sassy, high-spirited rendition of my favorite Candide show-stopper, "I am Easily Assimilated". The Candide portion of the album concludes with a 16:28 suite, arranged in 1998 by Bernsteinís long-time associate Charlie Harmon. Harmonís choice of material differs significantly from the composerís own 1977 suite, but itís equally engaging and it receives a red-hot performance from Sado and the Lamoureux band.

Bernstein went to Hollywood in 1953, starry-eyed and full of great ambitions, but he found the constraints of the studio system onerous and maintained to his dying day that his best music for Elia Kazanís masterful On The Waterfront (1954) never made it past the cutting room floor. Lenny recycled what he regarded as the choicest bits into a symphonic poem, and conducted the premiere at Tanglewood, with the Boston Symphony, one year after the movie opened.

Iíve always thought this was one of Lennyís strongest pieces. The tough-guys-rumble music, clearly inspired by Tchaikovskyís sword-fight episodes in Romeo and Juliet, packs an enormous wallop, and the love music still rips through me like a can-opener. If youíll indulge me, please, Iíd like to recount a real-life personal epiphany associated with this music. During my hippy days, I was rather closely associated with the "underground cinema" movement, and I attended several monumentally debauched parties at one or another of Andy Warholís studios - personally, I couldnít stand the little creep, but a good party is a good party, and one met some very interesting people at those affairs. I staggered out of the place just before dawn, shagged-out as a pariah dog but still buzzing insanely from an assortment of illegal substances, and wended my way toward the nearest subway entrance by leaping over a series of tenement roofs. At one point, I paused to savor a rare, unobstructed view all the way from East 28th Street down to the Battery, the Statue of Liberty, and the early-morning shuffle of the Staten Island Ferry Ė in other words, the whole titanic sweep of mid-to-lower Manhattan and even out to the misty horizon beyond. The city was wreathed in steam and fog, great freighters sailed with the tide for exotic destinations, the traffic noises were starting to pick up for the morning rush, and the serried ranks of sky-scrapers were still shrouded in darkness, looming like a vast array of megalithic totems Ö and suddenly, the sun exploded over the waters, swollen and grainy, its color a barbaric smoky orange, its first slanting rays just brushing the concrete towers with the color of old, dried blood. It was a stupendous sight, by far the most dynamite sunrise I ever saw in New York. Well, actually, I didnít see all that many, given my lifestyle at the time, but you get the idea ....

And so help me God, from the moment I paused to look south to the moment the sun finally rose above the horizon Ė unbidden and unexpected Ė the music from On the Waterfront resounded in my head, as loud and clear as if a micro-sized version of the Philharmonic had crawled in through my ears. Ever since that morning, Bernsteinís suite has been, for me, THE sound of New York City, in all its grime and glory.

Sadoís performance may not be quite as pointed and revelatory-of-detail as Marin Alsopís recent Naxos recording (but then, she learned the score literally at the composerís elbow), but it has tremendous epic sweep and builds to a majestic climax punctuated by truly elemental tam-tam strokes. As an interpretation it ranks right up there with Alsopís and the composerís own, and is better-recorded than either.

The two selections from On The Town comprise the Time Square section of the Three Dance Episodes plus Condon & Greenís rollicking "I Can Cook, Too!", given a suitably rowdy performance by Ms Criswell.

She also polishes off the CD with a fine, sensitive rendition of "Somewhere", the West Side Story number that is surely one of the most beautiful love songs ever to grace a Broadway musical. But the competition here is so formidable as to be intimidating. This version is as good as any and more gripping than most, but it seems tacked-on, almost as an afterthought, and as a result itís rather anticlimactic.

All in all, though, this CD is a fine sampler of Bernsteinís theater music. The recorded sound is resplendent, the performances intensely committed, and the selections, except for the positioning of "Somewhere", have been chosen with good judgment. Still, given the level of passion and panache shown by the musicians, itís downright disgraceful that the producers chose to omit even a brief paragraph about Maestro Sado and Ms Criswell. Itís not as though the notes are all that voluminous ( 2.5 pages in three languages), with room to spare for all the song lyrics, and with at least 1.5 pagesí worth of blank space. Someone in the corporate food-chain simply made an egregious decision to slight the performers, and for the life of me, I cannot figure out why. They certainly earned some ink.

And to the members of the Lamoureux Orchestra, let me say: ladies and gentlemen, all is forgiven. On this recording, you play like angels, and I shall never again disparage your professionalism.

William R. Trotter

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