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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion* (1954) [31:18];
Facsimile – Choreographic Essay for Orchestra (1944) [18:38];
Divertimento for Orchestra (1980) [18:09]
Philippe Quint (violin)*
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, UK, 12-13 January 2005. DDD
NAXOS 8.559245 [65:04]

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Can it really be fifteen years since Leonard Bernstein passed away? Time runs, no, flies sometimes, but what is so obvious is that Lennie’s music still lives, it is performed and it is recorded by younger generations of musicians. That is, in a way, proof that it has an independent value, like Beethoven’s and Stravinsky’s. “My time will come”, said Gustav Mahler – and it did – but Leonard Bernstein’s time came in his own lifetime and has continued.

Here, with the excellent Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under their principal conductor since 2002, Marin Alsop, we get three works from different periods of his creative life, works that he recorded several times for different labels. Bernstein being one of the greatest conductors of all times (not everyone agrees, I know) set his seal on everything he recorded. Other interpretations have to be set against his, but Marin Alsop, herself a Bernstein protégé, has nothing to fear, being well attuned to his idiom. I heard her conducting the RPO at the Barbican some five years ago. Her opening piece was the Candide overture, which was a really winning performance.

The Serenade, which is the largest work here, is in effect a violin concerto. It starts with the solo violin, very convincingly played by St Petersburg born Philippe Quint, and gradually adds the orchestra, building to a fugato. The germ in this music is the motif that later was to become Maria in West Side Story. The background and inspiration to the composition was Bernstein’s re-reading of Plato’s Symposium. The movements have titles like “Aristophanes” and “Socrates”, but it is not really programme music. I have always skipped the titles and thought that this is excellent “just-sit-back-in-your-chair-and-listen” music. Just wipe away all preconceptions of what a violin concerto should sound like and enjoy the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic inventiveness of the composer at his very best - he called this work his “most convincing”. I got to know it through Bernstein’s own DG recording (his third) with Gidon Kremer as soloist. Kremer is perhaps a bit more intense but Quint holds his own. The Bournemouth Orchestra sound more idiomatic than the Israel Philharmonic for Bernstein, but the difference is marginal. Just for the record, Bernstein recorded the serenade first in the mid-1950s with Isaac Stern as soloist - he also played it at the premiere in Venice - then a decade later with Zino Francescatti.

Facsimile takes us back to the early Bernstein of the mid-1940s and it is in a way third cousin to the roughly contemporaneous Fancy Free, although not as immediately catchy. It is more contemplative to begin with but it gathers momentum. We recognize, especially in the middle of the work the slightly jazzy, slightly ironic Bernstein that had listened to and learnt something from Shostakovich. It ends rather gloomily.

The Divertimento, written for the Boston Symphony centenary, is a light-hearted, highly entertaining piece in eight short movements, unified by a two-note motto B-C (Boston Centenary). He quotes from his own works as well as from other favourite music like Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, the waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony, the oboe cadenza from Beethoven’s fifth symphony, fragments from Fancy Free and West Side Story. In the final movement, “The BSO Forever”, it is Sousa’s Stars and Stripes that is recalled with a little seasoning from the Radetzky March. He must have had great fun when he wrote it and the Bournemouth Symphony play it tongue-in-cheek.

The whole disc is a fine tribute to “without question the greatest musician America has ever produced” as David Ciucevich writes in his liner notes. Mike Clements has ensured first class sound and like all other Naxos issues it retails at bargain price. I would willingly have paid full price for such committed music-making.

Göran Forsling

see also Review by Dominy Clements





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