Remembering JFK - 50th Anniversary Concert
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990) Fanfare for the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy (1961) [0:40]
Peter LIEBERSON (1946-2011) Remembering JFK (An American Elegy)* (2009-2010) [15:30]
Leonard BERNSTEIN Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (1957/1960) [23:08]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937) Concerto in F (1925)** [38:06]
* Richard Dreyfuss (narrator)
** Tzimon Barto (piano)
National Symphony Orchestra/Christoph Eschenbach
rec. 22-24 January 2011, Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C. DDD
Inaugural Concert – Excerpts from Mutual Broadcasting radio broadcast
Radio commentary [9:39]
John STAFFORD SMITH (1750-1836) The Star-Spangled Banner [1:19]
Radio commentary [2:08]
John LA MONTAINE (b. 1920) From Sea to Shining Sea (Overture) [7:38]
Radio commentary [2:51]
Randall THOMPSON (1899-1984) ‘The God who gave us life gave us liberty…’ (from The Testament of Freedom (1943)** [3:19]
Radio commentary [3:15]
George GERSHWIN Rhapsody in Blue (1924)* [15:38]
Radio commentary [2:51]
*Earl Wild (piano)
**Georgetown University Glee Club
National Symphony Orchestra/Howard Mitchell
rec. 19 January 1961, Constitution Hall, Washington, D.C. ADD
English Texts (Lieberson) included
ONDINE ODE 1190-2D [77:40 + 48:34]
Understandably, the aura of President J. F. Kennedy persists in the USA – and elsewhere. The fiftieth anniversary of his inauguration was marked by the National Symphony Orchestra and their current Music Director, Christoph Eschenbach, in the concerts that are preserved on the first of these two CDs.
The orchestra commissioned a commemorative piece from the late Peter Lieberson for the occasion. Lieberson, a composer whose music that I’ve heard I much admire, chose to set selected extracts from three of Kennedy’s speeches, including the famous Inaugural address, for narrator and orchestra. Inevitably, one makes comparisons with Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. It can be a problem to take the rhetoric of politicians away from the original context and put those words into the mouths of others. Perhaps Copland’s task was a little easier than Lieberson’s in two respects: Abraham Lincoln had been dead for a lot longer than Kennedy and, furthermore, no recording exists of Lincoln actually speaking his words. I think Lieberson did quite a good job in the circumstances and it helps that Richard Dreyfuss avoids rhetorical excess in declaiming the words of the late president – and of his principal speechwriter, Ted Sorensen (1928-2010). I like the way towards the end Lieberson introduces into the accompaniment the theme of the fourth of Brahms’s 11 Chorale Preludes, Op 122 – ‘Herzlich tut mich erfreuen’ (‘My heart rejoices’). In fact the melody has subtly underpinned Lieberson’s music from the start. Whether Remembering JFK will find a place in the repertoire, however, I am less than sure.
Christoph Eschenbach leads an efficient performance of Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story without ever quite convincing us that he’s completely comfortable with the idiom. The orchestra is punchy and suitably sassy in the Jets and Sharks music and in ‘Mambo’ but the performance doesn’t banish memories of the fizz and swagger that the composer himself brought to the music in his incomparable New York Philharmonic recording.
I enjoyed the Bernstein but I was far less taken with the performance of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto. The trouble here, I think, is the apparent desire of the soloist – and, presumably, the conductor – to give a Significant Performance for the occasion. The way they seek to accomplish this, it seems, is by milking the music through often sluggish tempi. Most performances of this concerto that I know of take around five or six minutes less than this one: a total performance time of 38:06 tells its own story, I fear. This isn’t a performance to which I expect to return.
Turn to the ‘bonus disc’ - or to track 8, to be precise – and you’ll find everything lacking in the concerto performance – and considerably more. Here, indeed, is a Significant Performance as Earl Wild gives a simply fabulous performance of Rhapsody in Blue. The National Symphony Orchestra of 1961 may have been less accomplished than their successors fifty years on but, perhaps inspired by Wild’s burning virtuosity, they step up to the plate - big time. On occasions the tempi set by Howard Mitchell (1910-1988), the orchestra’s conductor between 1950 and 1969, are a bit pedestrian but every time Wild plays the energy levels rise significantly. His playing is simply electrifying and you should try to hear this set if only to experience him taking Rhapsody in Blue by storm – and let me hasten to add that he’s fully sensitive to the work’s more lyrical passages. I don’t think it’s too fanciful to speculate that in his playing Wild was reflecting the spirit of excitement and promise that, for so many Americans, accompanied the election of John Kennedy as the thirty-fifth President of the United States.
The rest of the bonus disc is more of a period piece. There’s a lot of waffle by the radio announcers, though one can forgive them since heavy snowfalls badly disrupted transportation in Washington D.C. that night, causing delays to the concert and inevitable ‘filling-in’ by the radio hosts. The remaining bits of music that we hear are not on the same level as the Gershwin – the La Montaine Overture, commissioned for the occasion, is pleasant but unmemorable – and the performances aren’t on the same exciting level either.
The set includes a good booklet with some evocative photo from fifty years ago – the cover photo shows Howard Mitchell with Mr and Mrs Kennedy. Ondine offer an interesting musical commemoration of President Kennedy but on this occasion the ‘bonus disc’ – or one part of it – offers the most compelling listening experience.
Earl Wild’s fabulous performance offers the most compelling listening experience.