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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Symphony No. 1 ‘Jeremiah’ (1942) [24:14]
Symphony No. 2 ‘The Age of Anxiety’ (1949, rev. 1965) [35:18]
Jennifer Johnson Cano (mezzo-soprano) (No. 1)
Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano) (No. 2)
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. live, Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, Maryland, 21 and 23 November 2014 (No. 1), 27-28 September 2013 (No. 2) DDD
Hebrew text and English translation included
NAXOS 8.559790 [59:32]

Leonard Bernstein’s reputation as a composer rests largely on his works for the musical theatre. They have overshadowed his so-called traditionally “serious” classical compositions, such as the two symphonies on this new recording. Bernstein composed three works in the genre, all of which contain theatrical elements and cannot be considered “symphonies” in the purely formal sense. Much of his serious music has a strong basis in his Jewish heritage and faith. This includes the Symphony No. 1, the Chichester Psalms, and the Symphony No. 3 ‘Kaddish’. Other works have a literary or philosophical origin, such as the Symphony No.2 and the violin concertante piece, Serenade after Plato’s Symposium.

The Symphony No. 1, subtitled ‘Jeremiah,’ was Bernstein’s first important work. The symphony is in three movements: Prophecy, Profanation, and Lamentation. Bernstein composed the last of these first, with a text from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, in 1939. He later prefaced this movement with two others and entered the composition in a competition in 1942. It did not win, but as in many such competitions, became much more famous and performed than the actual winner, Gardner Read’s Symphony No. 2, which is now altogether forgotten. The ‘Jeremiah’ Symphony is a well-constructed work of considerable power. I think many would agree that it is the best of his symphonies and the most memorable. One can hear the later Bernstein in some of the lyrical themes in this work, while Aaron Copland is also not far away—especially in the Lamentation movement. Profanation with its jazzy rhythms sounds most like the Bernstein of the theatre and contains a beautiful, contrasting theme that could have come from one of his more famous musicals.

Bernstein made at least two recordings of the Symphony No. 1. The earlier of the two with the New York Philharmonic has remained the touchstone. Naxos issued a disc in 2004 with the New Zealand Symphony under James Judd that did honour to the symphony and was very well recorded, even if it was no substitute for Bernstein himself. That CD also contained a much later and weaker work, the Concerto for Orchestra ‘Jubilee Games,’ which is a real mishmash of styles and is structurally disjointed. Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony are at least as good as Judd in the symphony and are given even better sound. She seems to find more depth in the music and the orchestra than anyone since her mentor, Bernstein. Her second movement may not be as punchy as Judd’s, which is slightly swifter, but her performance has plenty of power and her orchestra is superior both in the woodwind and string departments. In fact the orchestral playing is outstanding throughout and really gives Bernstein a run for his money. I prefer Jennifer Johnson Cano to Judd’s Helen Medlyn in the Lamentations of Jeremiah, though it is a close run thing. Jennie Tourel was the original soloist on Bernstein’s recording and her voice is not as fulsome as either Cano’s or Medlyn’s. Cano can be very dramatic, as required, but then her soft singing in the second section of this movement, Chapter 1, 8, is exquisite. With superb sound, I am confident that this new recording will become my first place to go to for this wonderfully moving symphony.

I have had a harder time getting to know and appreciate Bernstein’s Second Symphony. He based the work on W.H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety. As Frank K. DeWald notes in the CD booklet, Bernstein was “stunned by ‘one of the most shattering examples of pure virtuosity in the history of the English language’.” The composer decided to write a symphony that would parallel the structure of the 80-page poem, the theme of which is a series of conversations between three men and a woman in a New York bar. Although the symphony contains a prominent piano part, it is no way a piano concerto. The work is in two parts. Part I consists of a brief Prologue; a section of seven variations, The Seven Ages; and another such section, The Seven Stages. Each of the variations is a very short. Part II is made up of three longer movements: The Dirge, The Masque, and The Epilogue. The Prologue begins with a clarinet duet and leads by way of the flute to the solo piano and the first variation. Some of the variations recall Prokofiev (No. 4) or Shostakovich (No. 5) in their rhythmic playfulness and Britten (No. 8) in its passacaglia on a six-note theme. A passage from his Piano Concerto also comes to mind there. The Dirge in Part II is quite dissonant, with the piano given a tone row, but creates a positive impression. The Masque, which follows, is typical of Bernstein in his jazzy mode and likely the most memorable part of the work. This section is much lighter and happier than the rest of the work and owes at least a small debt to Copland’s Music for the Theatre. The beginning of the Epilogue continues where the previous movement left off, but within seconds becomes dark and pensive in the strings and woodwinds before the piano enters with a melancholy theme. At one point the orchestra reaches a climax that, according to DeWald, in its “near-cinematic fervor” anticipates Bernstein’s music for the film, On the Waterfront. Originally, the piano was absent in this section until the end, but Bernstein decided to give it a greater role in his revised version of the work.

Bernstein also recorded this symphony twice and it is his second recording, with composer Lukas Foss as pianist, which is considered definitive. I have not heard that for many years, but I doubt it is better played or recorded than this new one with Jean-Yves Thibaudet. It may take me a while to warm to this symphony, but this account has given me a greater appreciation for what the composer was attempting to accomplish. At any rate, the disc is worth its modest price for the Jeremiah Symphony alone and can be warmly recommended.

Leslie Wright

Previous review: John Quinn



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