Don’t expect Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3 to be as approachable as On the Town and West Side Story. Like Mass, it’s not at all an easy work to come to terms with – in a sense, we aren’t meant to do so, because it deals with Bernstein’s difficult and unresolved relationship with his Jewish scholar father and his father’s Judæo-Christian God, both of whom he simultaneously loved and hated – or, at the very least, with whom he maintained a strenuous, questioning and critical argument. The Holocaust and the death of President Kennedy also enter the equation. The first performance took place in Israel, shortly after Kennedy’s assassination and the work is dedicated to his memory.
I tried without success for many years to come to terms with Bernstein’s own CBS recording on LP (reissued on a Sony CD with the Chichester Psalms, but no longer available), so it’s a measure of the success of this twice-reissued Erato recording that I came closer to appreciating the music than ever before. Its first reissue, on the Elatus label, still appears to be on sale from some dealers, at a slightly higher price than this super-budget Apex version, so take care which version you order. Some even still offer the full-price original.
The success of Yutaka Sado’s recording is largely due to his direction – the music is never over-hyped – but that alone would not have been enough. Yehudi Menuhin’s sotto voce delivery of the spoken role – set down separately from the rest of the recording, though the joins are not apparent – is far preferable to the stridency of the Sony/CBS version. I could, however, have preferred the narration to have been mixed at a higher volume.
Karita Mattila is also a huge contributor to the success of this version: not only does she sing well, but her voice is nicely integrated with the other performers, thanks in no small measure to the recording engineers.
The Chichester Psalms, commissioned by Dean Hussey for Chichester Cathedral, are better known and much easier to come to terms with. Here we do have reminiscences of West Side Story, as requested by Hussey. They, too, receive a performance and recording which does them justice. I imagine that many will buy this CD as one of the least expensive ways to obtain them and find themselves grappling with the Kaddish Symphony – and, I hope, coming to terms with it.
The Apex reissue is not without serious rivals, some of them identically coupled, including a Naxos American Classics recording in the same lowest price bracket (Yvonne Kenny, Willard White and others with Gerard Schwarz, 8.559456: ‘a valuable addition to any library’ according to Dominy Clements – see review). The Naxos has one huge advantage in that it comes with notes, totally absent from the Apex, which makes me wonder what the novice is meant to make of the music – there’s not even a note of the fact that Kaddish is the Jewish prayer associated with remembrance of the dead. The only information given concerns which verses from which psalms are set. That’s not very helpful for those whose Hebrew or Aramaic is not up to scratch, which includes me – I’m afraid that what little success I had in learning Hebrew is well in the past.
Subscribers to the Naxos Music Library will be able to read the very detailed Naxos notes on these two works, together with their texts and translations. The notes even include a consideration of the links between the Church of England and Judaism which underlie the Chichester Psalms. Chandos also make available the booklet which accompanies their recording of these two works (CD, CHAN10172 or SACD CHSA5028): the narrator’s text on that performance differs slightly from the version employed for the Apex and Naxos recordings – a rewrite by the composer’s daughter.
That Chandos version, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, is another serious rival to the Apex reissue; though it comes at full price, it has a useful extra coupling, with the Kaddish Symphony and Chichester Psalms joined by the Missa brevis. It can be downloaded – here – for £7.99 (mp3) or £9.99 (a choice of lossless versions) if you wish to bring the cost closer to that of the Warner Apex. You won’t save much, if anything, by trying to download the Apex: HMV Digital have its earlier Elatus reissue as a download for £3.49 – here.
Though Bernstein’s own recordings of the Symphony seem no longer to be available on CD, passionato.com have his DG version, again coupled with the Chichester Psalms as an mp3 or lossless download (447 9542 – here: reduced at the time of writing to £3.99/£4.99 respectively). No texts or notes again, however.
If you want the fire and fury of the Kaddish Symphony, you need to download that DG version with Bernstein at the helm. I’m very much of the opinion, however, that Yutaka Sado and his team offer a more palatable version – a Kaddish for all seasons. With an equally fine version of the Chichester Psalms and consistently good recording at an attractive price, only the lack of texts is a drawback.