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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Dybbuk – Ballet (1974)* [45:15]
Fancy Free – Ballet (1944)** [28:59]
Mel Ulrich (baritone)*; Mark Risinger (bass)*; Abby Burke (vocal)**; Stephen Kummer (piano)**; Samuel D Bacco (drums)**
Nashville Symphony/Andrew Mogrelia
rec. 14-16 May 2005, Blair Hall, Nashville, USA. DDD
NAXOS 8.559280 [74.14] 


According to Leonard Bernstein’s biographer, Joan Peyser, the ballet Dybbuk was partly inspired by the success of Fiddler on the Roof.   Jerome Robbins had choreographed Fiddler in 1964 and asked Bernstein to compose ballet music with a similar background.  It took Bernstein nine years to react and he started working on the score in 1973.  The New York City Ballet opened their 1974 spring season with it. The ballet itself failed but Bernstein transformed it into a concert piece which he conducted with the New York Philharmonic the following year. This recording is derived from the original score for the ballet.

Written to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the state of Israel the plot for Dybbuk is complicated and, according to the cover notes ‘concerns a spirit that seeks to enter the body of a living person’ while Bernstein’s score - which includes solo sections for baritone and bass - was based on some form of numerical system.  ‘Every note in the ballet’, he said at the time of the premiere, ‘was arrived at by the cabalistic or analytic manipulations of numbers.’  Which makes more sense when you realise that each of letter of the 22-letter Hebraic alphabet is also a numeral. ‘The cabalistic numbers’, Bernstein continued, ‘adapt almost naturally to the basic components of the 12-tone system’.  Thus the battle between good and evil is identified as the contrast between passages of tonality and atonality respectively.

Fancy Free was composed - once again at the urging of Jerome Robbins - thirty years earlier and marks the first success of Bernstein as a composer.  It is as diametrically different to Dybbuk, both thematically and musically, as Sudoku is to quick crosswords.  Whereas the later work marked Bernstein’s continuing attempt to be recognised as a serious classical composer Fancy Free is almost Broadwayish in its concept.  Bernstein described the plot this way: ‘[It is] a brief, wonderful look at 25 minutes in the life of three sailors who had 24 hours’ shore-leave in New York and had some balletic adventures in a bar – indulging in a certain amount of competition culminating in a fight, and then [they] wound up pals again.  Beautiful ballet!’  Within a year of its first performance Fancy Free was staged 160 times and was followed by a dozen performances at the New York Metropolitan Opera House.

Inasmuch as this recording conveys the original concept of the Dybbuk ballet envisaged by Bernstein this album is priceless.  I am not quite sure that the vocals would work if and when the ballet is performed on stage but if you treat it as a piece of music and forget to visualise dancers pirouetting, pas-de-deuxing etc on a stage, then the work is quite original.  The high point comes in the Exorcism episode when atonality reaches its highest expression with brass, percussion and strings exploding into a cacophony of sound. 

Fancy Free is much less strident and more pleasing to the ear.  Of course, the basic tunes and central plot were incorporated into the film On the Town with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra.  Plus the score has been recorded on numerous occasions by other conductors and recording labels.  A juke-box playing a blues number in the distance - originally sung by Billie Holliday but sung here by Abby Burke - adds an element of originality to the opening scene.  The basic concept is pure music-theatre, hard-edged and pulsating with forward-urging rhythms and themes.  It could only have been composed by Leonard Bernstein. 

If you like your Bernstein and have never heard Dybbuk this is a good investment in your musical education.  Fancy Free has been done before but this recording is just as good as you’ll get anywhere.

Randolph Magri-Overend 

see also Review by Hubert Culot

Naxos American Classics page


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