Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Serenade for solo violin, strings, harp and percussion after Plato's Symposium (1954) [30:51]
The Age of Anxiety - Symphony No.2 for Piano & Orchestra after W H Auden (1949) [32:03]
Fancy Free ballet - selections (1944) [14:23]
Leonard Bernstein (conductor), Isaac Stern (violin - Serenade), Lukas Foss (piano - Symphony), Symphony of the Air (Serenade), New York Philharmonic (Symphony & Fancy Free)
rec. New York City 27 February 1950 (Symphony), 19 April 1956 (Serenade), Columbia 30th Street Studio 13 July 1956 (Fancy Free)
MINUET RECORDS 428417 [77:25]

Leonard Bernstein the composer was fortunate to have Leonard Bernstein the conductor as such an enthusiastic advocate. Given the relatively small body of 'serious' work Bernstein produced it is fascinating to see how his view of his own music evolved. In essence there are three sets of recordings. The final group for DG featuring revised versions and using in the main either the Israel Philharmonic or Los Angeles Philharmonic. The middle group date from the mid-sixties and enshrine classic collaborations with the New York Philharmonic for Sony/CBS. These performances often date from pre-revised versions of such works as the 2nd & 3rd Symphonies. Then there are the more piece-meal recordings from the late 1950's - of which two are featured here - so very much first thoughts on relatively 'new' works.

I have known the middle and late recordings of Bernstein conducting Bernstein for many years but had not heard either of his first takes re-released here. The two main works feature soloists and the disc opens with the great Isaac Stern playing the ‘Serenade after Plato's Symposium’. Together with the Age of Anxiety this underlines Bernstein's predilection for having external non-musical sources of inspiration. On occasion Bernstein would claim that knowledge of this external material was either vital or irrelevant. My feeling is that it can certainly enhance one's appreciation of a work but should not be central to its success as a piece of music. Minuet have done a handsome job with this re-release (remastered in 24 bit for what its worth) in part by reprinting the original LP cover notes as well as adding archive photographs, original release covers and an extended biographical essay. For that original release Bernstein wrote; "There is no literal programme for this Serenade.... the music... is a series of related statements in praise of love, and generally follows the Platonic form through the succession of speakers at a banquet. The relatedness of the movements does not depend on common thematic material, but rather on a system whereby each movement evolves out of elements in the preceding one." This variation on a variation form is something that Bernstein was to return to often. I believe this Serenade is one of Bernstein's finest non-theatrical works and one that deserves to be more widely known and appreciated.

This recording dates from roughly 18 months after its premiere and reunites conductor Bernstein with original soloist Stern and as such is an important historical document. Naturally some allowances do need to be made for a sixty year old mono recording - there is a constricted dynamic range and the fuller climaxes are subject to some congestion and tonal fierceness. But the power and poise of Stern's performance and the energy of the orchestral accompaniment is well projected. It is worth noting that the accompanists here are the Symphony of the Air. This of course was Toscanini's disbanded NBC Symphony Orchestra which had been disbanded on his retirement but reformed in 1954 as a conductorless orchestra. Bernstein in effect led the orchestra in their first season and by the time of this recording they were still very much the group forged by Toscanini.

Zino Francescatti was the soloist for the 1965 remake and Gidon Kremer for the 1990 final thoughts. Interestingly Bernstein's first and final thoughts are very close timings-wise except for an extra minute taken in 1956 in the penultimate movement ‘Agathon’. All three Bernstein soloists are very fine although Francescatti opts for a generally less intense style. The work has received several recordings in recent times - one version I have enjoyed a lot is by Rachel Kolly D'Alba who emphasises the lyrical and often sensuous nature of the music. Stern with Bernstein revels in the spiky modernistic elements. I find it fascinating how Bernstein returns to little melodic/intervalic cells and rhythmic riffs through many of his scores regardless of date or inspiration. So this work opens with the same interval as the song "Maria" from West Side Story and later there are pre-echoes of other works yet to come. It is clearly not that Bernstein is in any quoting himself, simply that he finds these intervals and rhythms fertile ground.

Bernstein rarely adopted traditional forms in his works and this nominal concerto is no different; five movements named after seven characters from Plato's Symposium. In practice this mean alternating slow and fast sections with the previously mentioned ‘Agathon’ (Adagio) the longest single movement and the one Bernstein in the liner describes as "perhaps the most moving speech of the dialogue..." This is the movement where Francescatti's tender fragility is most affecting but even he is out-performed by Kremer's remarkably hushed and poignant playing. Next to them Stern is good but a fraction matter of fact. The final movement is the one where Bernstein most nearly embraces elements of jazz and bebop that colour much of his music. Stern struts through this passage with great swagger and for Francescatti Bernstein the conductor stirs up a considerable orchestral storm with all concerned clearly relishing the music. By 1990 Bernstein seems a little less willing to revel in the populist element in the music – it’s a little less sassy and a bit more syncopated than swinging. Kolly D'Alba smooches in a very effective way but without sacrificing the energy of the closing allegro molto vivace. So overall, this early Stern/Bernstein recording offers very valuable first thoughts and as such will be enjoyed and appreciated by collectors of Bernstein's music - by no means the last word but a confident and impressive first traversal.

Much the same can be said of the 1950 first recording of the Symphony No.2 Age of Anxiety. This time the literary inspiration is W H Auden's poem of the same name and for all Bernstein's protestations to the contrary some sense of the poem's narrative does help the listener. Bernstein adds to the comprehensional complexities by adding a substantial concertante piano part. Again the original liner note helps; "... the pianist provides an almost autobiographical protagonist set against an orchestral mirror in which he sees himself, analytically, in the modern ambience ... the essential line of the poem is the record of our difficult and problematical search for faith." In another example of Bernstein revisiting motifs and ideas throughout his life that last line could be a description of the late and often derided Mass as well. For his recordings Bernstein turned to fellow composer Lukas Foss for both this premiere and his DG final thoughts - between the two the work was substantially revised. Bernstein used the revision for his middle recording with Phillip Entremont so this archive/historic version has value by being the only recording of the original version. The main changes are in the closing movement. Even much later in his life Bernstein was not sure that the revision was the final definitive answer; "I am not sure [that what I tried to do at the end of the Age of Anxiety] is successful...because the protagonist (the pianist), he goes through one ‘Alptraum’ after another and then he doesn’t play for a long time and the orchestra builds this grand ending, the Mahlerish ending – half Mahlerish, half Hollywood (by Hollywood I don’t mean the type of music, but I mean that the protagonist I placed in position of someone watching this big climax take place on a screen, a cinema screen). But he is detached, he is not taking part in it... he’s not in it, he’s a bit distanced from the big ending, which is what Auden meant, and I tried to translate that Auden idea into musical symphonic terms. I don’t know if it succeeds. I am sort of undecided myself about the ending because I love it. It is beautiful and it does move me and I hope it moves other people. But I still like the dramatic idea of the pianist being distanced from this [because] the pianist is me, I suppose." [Berlin Press Conference, September 12, 1977].
I quote that at length because it shows the struggle Bernstein had trying reconcile a literary conception with his own reaction to that concept articulated in a musical form. Personally, this is the large-scale Bernstein work with which I have struggled most too over the years. For my taste it does rely too heavily on the poem/instruction book that goes with it. In isolation there are fascinating and attractive passages which for all their intellectual qualities fail to cohere as a purely musical experience. That being said, this version has all the values of the Stern Serenade - wholly committed, energised and bristling with life. I rather like the original concept too without the pianist/protagonist at the end. The addition of cadenzas and an extended solo part seems more of a sop to making the work a concerto in all but name. If the idea is to make is a representation of a poetical work then more important to stay true to that than dilute that goal by 'concertoising' it. Lukas Foss is an impressive soloist across the four decades - again this version was made just months after the work's premiere. The New York Philharmonic for both of the earlier recordings have the jittery angular style and rhythms in their bones and even the slightly harsh and bright Sony/CBS recordings add a rather appropriate city-glare to proceedings. Curiously the recording for the Symphony is substantially better than that afforded the Serenade even though it predates it by six years. The percussion which could scupper many an older recording is caught with real presence - remarkably so. In ‘The Masque’ Foss is a suitably nervy, rather jagged, soloist. Entremont who is easily on top of the notes is just a fraction more laid back which is impressive but not quite as characterful. The later Foss performances is very similar - a fraction steadier but impressively controlled, the accompaniment from the Israel Philharmonic good but lacking the edge and bite which makes the earlier versions more compelling. The Israeli players are a tad literal.

Again this 1950 performance would not be a recording to recommend as the only version in a library because of its relative sonic limitations and the fact that the edition used does not represent the composer's final - theoretically preferred - thoughts on the work. Again the catalogue now contains several other newish recordings. My knowledge of these is far from complete but I do like the Naxos version with Jean Louis Steuermann accompanied by James Judd and the Florida PO on Naxos. As an aside, Naxos have served Bernstein the composer very well and all of their discs can be confidently recommended alongside other versions.

The disc is generously completed by excerpts from the ballet Fancy Free. This is delightful music in Bernstein's most light-hearted and exuberant style. This is another 1956 recording which again is rather boxy and congested compared to the symphony's recording. But this is wonderfully peppy playing from the Columbia Symphony Orchestra which usually means the New York Philharmonic freelancing. The sound of the strutting brass and shimmying strings and wind oozes period and character - oddly the otherwise very fine liner mentions this not all. From what information I can find on the internet it seems that this performance was one side of an LP and that this is a composer authorised 'suite' of excerpts - the only shame is that it appears to be missing the Finale that was included on the LP. What is certain is that this is as colourfully characterised a version as I have heard, with some of the passages played with greater gaudy freedom than more recent - dare one say more refined - interpretations.

All of these recordings have been available in various other incarnations on CD. Having not heard those I cannot comment on any benefit the current 24 bit remastering may have brought about. Sufficient to say that for historically important, musically valuable performances the sound is good for the period at least and in the symphony substantially better than that. While it important that Bernstein the composer's music can live on without the life-support of Bernstein the conductor, it cannot be denied that these are uniquely persuasive and impressive performances of key Bernstein works.

Nick Barnard

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