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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Kaddish, Symphony no. 3 (1963, rev. 1977) ¹
Chichester Psalms (1965) ²
Willard White (speaker) ¹
Yvonne Kenny (soprano) ¹
Michael Small (treble) ²
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir, Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir, Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral Choir
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
Rec. Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, May 2004 (Kaddish) and May 2002 (Psalms)
NAXOS 8.559456 [55:47]

This CD is a co-production between Naxos and the Milken Archive of American Jewish music. It is accompanied with excellent and extensive notes by Neil W. Levin, and a nicely written tribute to Leonard Bernstein by Jack Gottlieb.

Bernstein’s Kaddish is a very personal work. The booklet notes investigate a number of interpretations of the word, but the opening invocation, in Bernstein’s own text, has the moving ‘Oh my Father ... I want to say Kaddish ... there may be no-one to say it after me.’ This the middle-aged Bernstein’s artistic and emotional statement, in which he sums up his relationship with two great points of orientation to which we can all relate in one way or another – his own father, who died but a few years after the first version of the symphony was completed, and faith, represented by God the Father.

I am generally wary of symphonic works with declamatory speakers – an American tradition which includes Copland’s ‘Lincoln Portrait’ (gloriously lambasted by P.D.Q. Bach) and with examples like Schwantner’s dodgy ‘New Meaning for the World, "Daybreak of Freedom"’ to make us grateful for good old-fashioned recitative. Kaddish is in a class of its own however, and this performance does it justice. To start with, the spoken part is in the safe, if slightly other-worldly hands of Willard White. His is inevitably more of an ‘Uncle Tom’ reading than a ‘Moses und Aron’ one (in fact the original performances and Bernstein’s own recordings were done with female voices), but neither this nor Yvonne Kenny’s vibrato prove problematic. The Liverpool orchestra’s powerful playing is well recorded, and only one or two examples of choral indiscipline (both here and in the Psalms) provide fleeting aural offence.

Much of Bernstein’s music is craggy and unsentimental, reflecting its serial origins in searing counterpoint, tough chords and solidly conventional orchestration. Calum Macdonald’s LPO concert programme notes, quoted in the CD booklet, rightly point out this works relationship - however uneasy - to other vocal-orchestral symphonic pieces (Beethoven’s ninth and Mahler’s eighth) whose basis in faith ultimately speak to us with a humanistic voice. Potential listeners should not miss out on this by fearing some kind of Jewish alienation or religious hectoring from either the vocal text or the musical score. It by no means ‘light’ music, despite one or two moments of jazz inflection, but with an impassioned performance by all concerned it is guaranteed to leave a deep and lasting impression.

Chichester Psalms, a choral mainstay when referring to Judaically related programming, kicks off with gusto, in even more than the ‘slightly popular’ style that those who commissioned the work (the artistically enlightened Dean of Chichester Cathedral, the Very Reverend Dr. Walter Hussey) might have had in mind. Dr. Hussey ensured that Bernstein was allowed complete artistic freedom in his composition, and was rewarded with joy, serenity and eloquence in a work which has already proved its worth with a permanent place in the concert repertoire. Bernstein himself said that ‘the Psalms are like an infantile version of Kaddish’, thereby blessing the coupling on this CD, which is of course identical to those of his own NY Philharmonic recording. It has been too long since hearing the NY Phil/Bernstein record for me to make any really useful comparison. Those who know and love those elderly recordings will probably find the current CD does not replace it for musical intensity or dramatic fervour, but with the advantage of modern digital technology this low-price issue has much to recommend it, and would be a valuable addition to any collection.

Dominy Clements



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