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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Missa Brevis (1988) [10:31]
Symphony No.3 Kaddish - original version (1963) [42:32]
The Lark - Concert version of incidental music (1955) [16:34]
Claire Bloom (narrator), Kelley Nassief (soprano), Paulo Mestre (counter-tenor),
Maryland State Boychoir, Washington Chorus, São Paulo Symphony Choir
Members of São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. Joseph Mayerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, USA, 28 and 30 September 2012 (Symphony), Sala São Paulo, Brazil, 29-30 November 2012 (Missa Brevis and The Lark)
NAXOS 8.559742 [69:40]

Given that the Naxos catalogue already boasts one perfectly serviceable performance - albeit in the revised version - of Bernstein's Symphony No.3 (review) one can only suppose that the motivation for this new performance/recording came directly from conductor Marin Alsop. As a composer of 'serious' music Bernstein has always divided opinion - some finding his style simply too eclectic and prone to perceived lapses of 'taste'. For myself, I have always enjoyed all of his music a great deal and I remember all but wearing out the grooves on a much-loved CBS LP of the original recording of this particular work.

That being said, it is not a piece to which I have often or indeed recently returned. The last time I did was to listen to the previously-mentioned other Naxos disc from Gerard Schwarz and the RLPO and Choir during his relatively brief tenure as principal conductor. My recollection prior to receiving this new disc and making more specific comparisons was of being rather underwhelmed - something the recent re-listen confirmed. Symphony No.3 Kaddish is a work to provoke widely varying responses. Liner-note writer Frank K. DeWald makes a strong case for its sophistication as a composition. For sure, conductor Marin Alsop is a passionate and convincing advocate and she is supported by the virtuosic Baltimore Symphony Orchestra recorded with great detail, atmosphere and impact by veteran Naxos producer/engineer Tim Handley. However, it's that text that is the proverbial elephant in the corner. Bernstein initially tried to collaborate with two poets before deciding to write the text himself. Alsop grasps the potential nettle of Bernstein's rather purple prose by recording the original version rather than the 1977 revision. From memory this is the first time since the original recording - this is the seventh I think - that the original has been used. The revision cut substantial portions of the spoken narration and used the orchestra actively to accompany more of that which remained. Hard not to see those revisions as anything but a tacit acknowledgement that the original text was "problematic". The problem is the rather unselfconsciously gushing and confessional nature of the text. Rather like being in a psychiatrist's consulting room witnessing a client over-emote - look away now to avoid embarrassment. The 2004 Chandos recording - which I have not heard - went even further and used a completely new text written by the composer's son Jamie. Another version on Nimbus features another completely new text - this time written and performed by Holocaust survivor Samuel Pisar. No matter how powerful that might be - and another version I have not heard - these are unauthorised revisions too far.

Before it sounds as if I am dismissing the work out of hand, I have to say that once you accept that this is Bernstein's style and way with words then it becomes rather a powerful experience. The original narrator was Bernstein's then-wife and actress Felicia Montealegre. Bernstein was inspired to write a piece for narrator and orchestral having heard her perform Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher. Certainly as far as her husband's music is performed Montealegre had a very personal style verging on the melodramatic. In many ways the performances since then have had to chose a style 'after-Montealegre' - to emote or not to emote. Another of the weaknesses of the Schwarz disc was Willard White's rather careful and placed performance - a singer acting. A major bonus of this new performance is the presence of actress Claire Bloom. Bloom is now in her eighties and brings a wonderfully poised, natural and considered warmth to her performance. There is none of the excess of Montealegre's approach; instead Bloom speaks with great simplicity and clarity of both thought and enunciation. By some distance this is the most effective re-imagining of the text that I have heard 'after-Montealegre'. Hard not to think that the text fitted the original performer like well-tailored clothes; in the second section Kaddish 1 the choir sing the words of the Kaddish ending with ecstatic repeated 'Amens' which the narrator takes up. Montealegre echoes the joy and energy of this paean of praise; Bloom does not. There are similar examples elsewhere in the piece where Bloom chooses a more intimate reflective interpretation as against Montealegre's externalised outbursts.

I have dwelt on the spoken aspect of the work because it will define it for many. Moving on; interpretatively Alsop sits very close to the original Bernstein recording. The liner tells us as well as using the original version of the text: "Marin Alsop has also returned - in the main - to Bernstein's original score." Why "in the main" and not completely and if not specifically what changes have been adopted. My instinct is that we risk ending up with an in-between edition that was never fully sanctioned. That being said, it would take someone with greater knowledge of the score than I to hear the differences.

As previously mentioned two other assets of this disc are the playing of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Tim Handley's production. A third is the relatively brief contribution by solo soprano Kelley Nassief. She faces stiff competition on disc from other more famous singers - most notably Montserrat Caballé on Bernstein's re-recording - of the revised version - with the Israel PO for DG. Ms Nassief acquits herself very well indeed singing the awkwardly lying part with exactly the kind of rapture that eludes the choir.

Returning to the original CBS disc I was pleasantly surprised how well it still comes across half a century after the event even if elements of the instrumental placement and stereo spread of the antiphonal choirs sound rather synthetic. Even so it's no surprise that in the final reckoning as a technical achievement the new disc is a significant advance. The closeness of the New York Philharmonic recording does give the bite and virtuosity of their playing extra impact which pays dividends in the work's third section - Scherzo/Kaddish 3/Finale/Fugue. This is the section of the work that distils Bernstein's genius as a composer; brilliantly orchestrated, jagged cross-rhythms and jerky energy all dissolving into a 'big-tune' of the kind that Bernstein seemed able to conjure at will. In a moment of pure theatre at the climax of the passage Bernstein brings in an angelic host of the boys choir. 'Pure theatre' often describes Bernstein's music at its best and here Alsop cannot match the sense of release the earlier disc manages. In no small part this is because Alsop's choirs lack the presence and attack of the earlier group who although they sound smaller - and more closely miked - have an energy and confidence the current choir do not. Worth noting that the symphony was recorded live and although there is not the slightest hint of audience noise perhaps there is an element of caution in the choral contribution dictated by the context of it being 'in concert'. Indeed it is this lack of choral impact that would ultimately mean that for all my pleasure in the orchestral and technical brilliance of this disc as well as Ms Bloom's many insights I would not prefer this performance to the original.

Then again, there are two considerable fillers to consider. The symphony is book-ended by two rare Bernstein works. Indeed whatever admirers of his work think of the main piece and its performance they are likely to want this disc for the fillers. The programme opens with the Missa Brevis that Bernstein forged from the disc's other work - the incidental music from the 1955 play The Lark - Lillian Hellman's adaptation of Anouilh's play about Joan of Arc: L'Alouette. This music used pre-recorded choral settings of folksongs and parts of the Mass. Bernstein took the liturgical elements and expanded them to be a full setting of the mass which could be used in church. This is still a relatively rare work on disc - it is one of the couplings on the previously mentioned Chandos/Slatkin disc as well as a recording with Robert Shaw in Atlanta for Telarc alongside Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and Walton's Belshazzar's Feast. The legacy of its origin as incidental music is reflected in its sparing use of percussion and a modern/archaic feel to the harmony and vocal writing. This is further reinforced by the presence of a solo counter-tenor underlining a sense of faux-medievalism. The singers here are The São Paulo Symphony Choir and they sing with far greater fire and attack than their Washington counterparts. At only just over ten minutes for the entire Mass this is skilfully concentrated and impressive writing. It shows that Bernstein the composer could write tightly organised and effective music. Paulo Mestre is the impressive counter-tenor with a very pure and unaffected singing style that suits the music well.

I am guessing that the incidental music to The Lark was placed last since it also features a narration by Ms Bloom and the disc programmers wanted her contribution to the major work to take sequential priority. Her narration was recorded separately in Baltimore on the day between the Symphony's performances but has been well-integrated into the musical performance technically and artistically. It is unclear whether the text Ms Bloom speaks is directly lifted from the play or is a précis of the action where music is used as an underscore. The juxtaposition of the folk-like songs and the more austere liturgical settings makes for an interesting and effective juxtaposition reflecting Joan of Arc herself; the country girl commanded by God to save France from the English. Again the singing of the Brazilian choir is quite excellent - idiomatic and dramatic - all recorded in excellent vibrant sound - I do wish they had been part of the symphony's performance. This concert edition re-orders the published songs back into their theatrical order with the narration linking the sections. Ms Bloom's narration is again a model of insight and restraint - beautifully judged and in no sense is there any anachronism in an actress of more than eighty speaking the words of a young French maid. Possibly I would have been happy to hear the music in isolation without spoken text particularly for repeated listening.

Overall this is a very well produced disc. Full English texts with translations are supplied with the exception of St. Joan's words from the incidental music. The liner apologises for the fact that Naxos were unable to secure the print rights. I remain an unrepentant admirer of Bernstein's Symphony No. 3 although I completely understand why some might be infuriated by it. With the passing years it does feel that it is a work of its time. Probably to Bernstein's enduring annoyance I tend to feel that his abiding legacy as a composer will rest more upon his works for the Musical Theatre stage than any of the 'serious' music by which he put most store. That being said all the time he has as skilled and devoted disciples as Marin Alsop supporting his cause it remains a legacy that demands serious attention.

Nick Barnard






 




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