Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918 - 1990)
Divertimento for Orchestra (1980) [11.12] (1)
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue - excerpts (1976) [16.03] (2)
Elegy for Mippy II (1948) [1.46] (3)
Symphony No. 3 Kaddish - Kaddish 2 (1963) [7.57] (4)
Chichester Psalms (1965) [17.49] (5)
To what you said [5.38] (6)
Barbara Hendricks (soprano) (4); Thomas Hampson (baritone) (5); Judy Kaye (vocalist) (2); Kevin Colson (vocalist) (2); Davis Gaines (vocalist) (2); Tracey Miller (vocalist) (2); Lyda Richardson(vocalist) (2); Ian Bousfield (trombone) (3); David Corkhill (percussion) (5); Peter Barley (organ) (5); Rachel Masters (harp) (5); Craig Rutenberg (piano) (5)
Ambrosian Chorus (2);
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury (5)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi (1)
London Sinfonietta/John McGlinn (2)
Swedish Symphonic Radio Orchestra/ Eric Ericson (4);
rec. (1) 8-10 June 1997, Symphony Hall, Birmingham; (2) 31 July - 3 August 1991, Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London; (3) 6-9 September 1995, St. George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol; (4) 28-20 May and 2, 3, 9 June 1990, Konserthuset, Stockholm; (5) 23-27 July 1991, Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge; (6) October 1993 and January 1994, London
EMI CLASSICS 6411212 [65.33]
Leonard Bernstein’s more serious works still have not really made it into the popular consciousness; at least not in the way that his music-theatre pieces have. In fact, I have to confess that I still find myself listening to Bernstein’s music and assigning it to the ‘interesting and well made’ category rather than putting the CD on the play-again pile. This disc from EMI is in their American Classics series and presents a selection of Bernstein’s music. As such it is laudable, but rather falls down on the slightly odd selection.
The disc opens with Divertimento for Orchestra, a piece written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s centenary in 1980. It is rather a compendium, with eight movements lasting a total of 11 minutes, which flash over a variety of Bernstein’s styles. In fact he re-uses a discarded movement from Prelude, Fugue and Riffs and the Samba movement could have been from West Side Story. This is one of those occasional pieces which, with hindsight, seem rather too self-referential. The performance from Paavo Järvi and the CBSO is entirely admirable and they manage Bernstein’s mix of styles with aplomb.
The last movement of Divertimento utilises a march which was originally written for the musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; this march in its original form, and the Duet for One are two items from the musical. The March is interesting from a compare-and-contrast point of view. The Duet is a tour de force, as the single vocalist - probably Judy Kaye, but the notes are unclear - sings both the incoming and outgoing first Ladies at a presidential inauguration. The performance is brilliant but she can’t quite disguise the fact that at ten minutes, the piece goes on too long.
This is followed by a charming trombone solo, which was written in 1948 in memory of Bernstein’s brother’s pet dog!
Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony is a stormy and difficult work, but one which deserves to be better known. Here it is represented by the lullaby from the second movement, a beautiful moment of calm which gives little idea of the character of the remaining symphony. Still, it is sung with superb poise by Barbara Hendricks and accompanied by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Eric Ericson. It makes me inclined to explore the complete recording.
Chichester Psalmsis Bernstein’s best known serious work - the one which still eclipses all others. Except that in its re-use of material from West Side Story and the abandoned musical The Skin of Our Teeth it is typical of the cross-fertilisation present in Bernstein’s work. Truth to tell, a lot of the work’s infectious energy derives from its music-theatre origins. Here it is presented in a performance by Kings College Cambridge under Stephen Cleobury in Bernstein’s version for Organ, Harp and Percussion. The all-male choir does not bring that edge and excitement which mixed choirs can bring, but the original commission was for the choir of Chichester Cathedral so this style has its own authenticity. There are moments, particularly in the first movement, when the performance from the boys is rather more smudgy and less well defined than I would like. But the men’s interjections in the second movement are suitably venomous and the boy treble solo (uncredited) is pure and ethereal.
The disc finishes with a very fine performance of To what you said; the song was originally part of Song Fest but is here given in the version for voice and piano. I found Song Fest a little too over-stuffed and over-done for my taste but this distillation down to just two performers gives the work an intimacy which the bigger one lacks. The performance from Hampson and Rutenberg cannot be faulted.
I came away from this disc wondering why EMI had put these particular works together. There were hints of an interesting, but entirely different programme exploring Bernstein’s re-use of his material; it would be fascinating to hear Chichester Psalms performed alongside the original material. Here we seemed to be constrained by what EMI had available.
There is a brief essay about the music but the booklet contains no texts which might be a problem for those unfamiliar with these vocal works.
Still, the disc is a good reminder of what an interesting and varied composer Bernstein could be. I can’t say that there is any particular reason to buy it, but if the particular combination of works appeals then the performances are excellent and you won’t be disappointed.
A good reminder of what an interesting and varied composer Bernstein could be.