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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Piano Music
Piano Sonata (1938) [17:13]
Seven Anniversaries (1943) [11:59]
Thirteen Anniversaries (1988) [25:11]
Music for the Dance No. II (1938) [4:19]
Non Troppo Presto (1937) [2:21]
Alexandre Dossin (piano)
rec. 2014, Beall Concert Hall, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon, USA
NAXOS 8.559756 [61:03]

Apart from the very early piano sonata, this collection features Leonard Bernstein’s miniatures for piano. Just two of them are longer than three minutes. Almost all — the two sets of Anniversaries — were written for, or dedicated to, close friends and colleagues. Many of these Anniversaries have a quasi-improvisatory quality, as if Bernstein is inventing something for his friends on the spot. If you’re looking for the composer’s unique “voice,” this album only has it in subtle ways.

That’s because his Anniversaries often pay homage to others. One dedicated to Aaron Copland, for example, uses Copland’s knack for simple melodies and plain harmonies. William Schuman’s is one of the most “modern” in the set. William Kapell, the great young American pianist who died in a plane crash at age 31, receives one of the most technically challenging pieces on the disc, while Stephen Sondheim gets a veritable ‘song without words’. The real Bernstein still comes out, however, including a memorable memorial to his college roommate, Alfred Eisner. The piece — written after Eisner died of cancer — builds from a sorrowful melody to a hammering climax. Some of the tunes in these pieces have appeared elsewhere, like the angelic melody dedicated to Helen Coates, which is also a “Meditation” in the Mass. A final lilting elegy-waltz for Ellen Goetz makes a perfect encore.

The piano sonata is a work from Bernstein’s student years, and it only shows flashes of the mature composer. The first movement is in a very generic “American modern” style, with one of those main tunes that screams of academic writing. At 3:10 there’s a sudden passage that sounds like adult Bernstein, or maybe like the stormy neo-classical orchestral music by Martinů. The second movement, much slower, exposes the lyricism and direct emotional appeal that Bernstein would make his trademark.

Two pieces from the composer’s teenage years round out the album, and neither has ever been recorded before. Music for the Dance No. II is a suite of three tiny rhythmically-charged pieces, and Non Troppo Presto isn’t too different. Teenage Lenny listened to a lot of Prokofiev, maybe. Non Troppo Presto is, the booklet writer thinks, the unknown piece to which “Dance No. II” is a sequel.

Alexandre Dossin delivers very good performances of all this music. He’s especially noteworthy in miniatures like the one for Ellen Goetz, which calls for soft, lullaby-like playing all throughout and is noteworthy for the player’s poetry. Dossin is also able clearly to articulate the knottier music on the disc, which you’d expect, since his previous recordings are of Kabalevsky and Liszt. The sound quality and very good booklet essay only add to this album’s strengths.

This may not be the most essential Leonard Bernstein disc but if you are a fan of the composer, or if you like miniatures that span a variety of musical languages, give this a try. As a compendium of Bernstein’s piano music it's highly attractive. A companion volume featuring his other works for the instrument will, I hope, be on the way soon.

Brian Reinhart

Bernstein in the Naxos American Classics series



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