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La Mer Ticciati









Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Candide – Overture (1956)* [4:19]
Facsimile – Choreographic Essay for Orchestra (1946)*/** [18:14]
On the Town (Three Dance Episodes) (1944)* [10:52]
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (1957, 1961)+ [24:06]
Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (1955)^ [7:45]
Scena from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue^^ [3:29]
A Simple Song from Mass (1971)^^ [4:44]
**Barbara Lieberman (piano); *Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin; +City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi; ^London Sinfonietta/Sir Simon Rattle; ^^Bruce Hubbard (baritone); Orchestra of St Luke’s/Dennis Russell Davies.
rec. *Powell Hall, St Louis, Missouri, June, 1985 and April, 1986; +Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England, 8-10 June 1997; ^CTS Studios, Wembley, London, December 1986 and January 1987; ^^Manhattan Centre, New York City, 27, 31 October 1989. All DDD.


Experience Classicsonline

This is one of a new EMI series of reissues, entitled American Classics. The artistic line-ups for all these recordings are virtually self-recommending, if not always quite in the very top flight. From the first batch, alongside this Bernstein CD, I received a generally recommendable Gershwin compilation (Slatkin, Rattle and Previn, 2066282). The other composers in the series are Adams (2066272), Barber (2066252), Carter (2066292), Copland (2066342), Ives (2066312), Reich and Glass (2066242), Schuman and Bernstein (2066112) and Virgil Thomson (2066122). Four of these are advertised on the inside back cover of the booklet, with a reminder that they are available as downloads. My experience with EMI downloads, however, is that they are rarely cheaper than buying the equivalent mid-price CD – like Universal’s classicsandjazz website, they seem to have a one-price-fits-all policy – and their download technology appears to have a considerable number of pitfalls for Windows Vista users.

In fact, this recording didn’t yet seem to have found its way onto the EMI downloads site when I tried it, though the West Side Story Dances were available at what seems to be the standard EMI price of £7.99 in their earlier Virgin Classics incarnation. 

Slightly perversely, for this reissue EMI have ignored Järvi’s versions of Facsimile and Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, generally thought to be the highlights of that Virgin Classics recording, in favour of the West Side Story Dances which were not quite so favourably received by at least one reviewer. Since the Virgin version remains available at around the same price as this new American Classics CD or slightly less (3633012) that will remain the version of choice for many, especially for those who would prefer the Divertimento to the Candide Overture and the two short vocal pieces which end the new CD. - I’m not really sure what the point of those short pieces is. 

That performance of the Candide Overture – don’t you just love spell-checkers which keep changing Candide to candied? – makes a rousing, idiomatic and enjoyable opening to the new CD. The opera itself may have been a failure, but the overture has always been a concert favourite and Slatkin’s performance shows why. 

I can’t say that Facsimile is one of my favourite Bernstein works and Slatkin’s performance didn’t do much to win me over; I’m prepared to accept that the fault is probably mine, though I suspect that the Järvi version on Virgin would have done more to persuade me. The academic-sounding subtitle gives away its problematic nature – not really a fully-fledged ballet – and reminds us that Bernstein was a linguistic philosopher of some repute, as well as a distinguished musicologist. 

At times there are in Facsimile echoes of Stravinsky’s Agon and Apollon Musagète, ‘intellectual’ works which I like very much, but just when I thought I had connected with the idiom, the terms of reference seemed to change in a more popular direction. Perhaps Bernstein thought his stated theme, the post-war lack of direction, was too depressing and needed to be spiced up, but for me the two different idioms don’t add up to a whole. The title of Bernstein’s book The Unanswered Question (Cambridge, MA, 1981) just about sums up my attitude to Facsimile – both the work and, therefore, the performance must remain non-proven but you may react more positively to both. I’m afraid that I have also yet to come to terms with Bernstein’s symphonies. 

The Dances from On the Town are a very different matter – these are clearly the work of the composer who later wrote The Joy of Music (New York, 1959), though track 4 (‘Lonely Town’) provides, as it were, a slow movement for reflection between the two livelier sections. Slatkin’s performance is thoroughly idiomatic. The liveliness in ‘Times Square’ (tr.5) is fully brought out – the famous ‘New York, New York’ theme presented in a variety of guises. This is unashamedly popular music at its very best and there is none of the marginal holding back which I found in Slatkin’s account of An American in Paris on the companion Gershwin CD. 

For most prospective purchasers, it is the West Side Story Dances which will be the deciding factor. The performance of these started well with an account of the Prologue which contained just the right element of menace, followed by a version of Somewhere which laid the emotion on just a little too thickly. Perhaps it’s just that I always feel slightly embarrassed at liking the song on which the movement is based – and it does make an excellent contrast with the jolly menace of the Prologue (track 7) and the Scherzo which follows. One reviewer of the original issue thought exactly the opposite, that Järvi held the emotion back too much, so I may be in a minority on this one. 

If Järvi is a shade too willing to lay on the emotion in Somewhere, the Scherzo (tr.8) is a little slow to catch fire, but burns brightly enough when it leads into the exuberant account of Mambo – no complaints about this movement (tr.9) or the Rumble (tr.12). The intricacies of Stay cool, boy, are well negotiated in Chavha (tr.10) which segues into an excellent version of The Meeting Scene (tr.11) and the ensuing Rumble. The Finale opens with just the right amount of wistfulness and closes in peace. All in all, therefore, it wasn’t such a bad idea to use the Järvi version of these Dances. 

If you want more of West Side Story, highlights of the original cast recording remain available on mid-price Sony/Columbia SK60724. Whether you like Bernstein’s own DG recording (see review) or not will depend on how you react to the operatic voices of its principals – sample before buying, if you can. 

Prelude, Fugue and Riffs was commissioned by Woody Herman in the 1940s but didn’t receive its first public outing until 1955, under Benny Goodman. Like the two clarinettists with whom the work is associated – and like Bernstein himself – the music treads a fine line between the classical and jazz idioms which will not be to all tastes. As a lover of both genres, the music has always had a ready appeal for me and this jazzy performance does it justice. The un-named soloist may not be quite in the league of Sabine Meyer on EMI’s own rival Virgin Classics version, but Simon Rattle has a good sense of the idiom and the London Sinfonietta are an ideal ensemble for this kind of superior cross-over music. 

Bruce Hubbard is an excellent interpreter of the Scena but, as I have already indicated, the final two vocal pieces seem rather pointless interpolations. The note-writer, Martin Cotton, seems not to have seen the point of them, either: he merely describes them as reminders of Bernstein’s skill as a songwriter. Mass is such a complex and dramatic work that a five-minute excerpt cannot begin to give any idea of its nature. 

The recordings are good or very good throughout – all digital in provenance. With brief but apposite notes and attractive presentation, this CD, like the companion Gershwin recording, will doubtless sell well and deserves to do so. As with the Gershwin, you probably won’t find all the Bernstein music that you want here – and you’ll have to accept some duplication to do so – but I don’t think many purchasers would regret buying this CD. 

I note that there is a similar programme on EMI’s budget-price Gold label (CDCFP6062), substituting the Chichester Psalms for Facsimile on the American Classics CD. I suspect that it may involve the same performers, but EMI seem to be coy about revealing who the CFP performers are.

Brian Wilson


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