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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Candide – Overture (1956) [4:15]
West Side Story: Symphonic Dances (1957) [22:29]
Fancy Free: Three Dances (1944) [17:27]
On the Waterfront Suite (1954) [17:41]
Three Dance Episodes from On the Town (1946) [10:24]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Christian Lindberg
rec. 2016, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. DSD.
BIS BIS-2278 SACD [62:30]

Somewhat to my surprise, so far in the Bernstein centenary year the record companies seem to have been a bit slow off the mark with new recordings of Lennie’s music. True, Naxos have issued a big box of recordings of his music by Marin Alsop (review) but many of the items included come from previous issues. So, hats off to BIS for issuing this disc of some of Bernstein’s most celebrated music for stage and screen. I must admit I was mildly surprised to find Christian Lindberg in charge of the RLPO. This isn’t repertoire with which I would have immediately associated him; what would the results sound like?

I’d previously encountered this disc in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio when we auditioned the Candide Overture. Listening to the performance in isolation, we judged it to be full of vitality but possibly just a little too swift. Since then I’ve had the chance to listen further and also to compare Lindberg’s performance with the one which the composer himself set down with the New York Philharmonic in September 1960 (Sony Classical SMK 63085). Bernstein’s own performance fairly leaps out of the loudspeakers. Lindberg doesn’t quite match the fizz of Bernstein but his brisk, buoyant performance is highly enjoyable. I don’t now believe that the performance is too swift: it’s well judged.

Lindberg is also pitted against Bernstein himself when it comes to the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Bernstein’s own recording is on the same CD that I mentioned a moment ago but in this instance the sessions took place in March 1961. Lindberg’s way with the Prologue really got my attention: his performance is exciting and full of tension. Bernstein’s own account is razor-sharp, especially when the music moves up-tempo, yet I think the newcomer can stand up to the competition. Lindberg’s unfolding of ‘Somewhere’ is touching, not least because the RLPO plays it so beautifully. ‘Mambo’ always sorts the men out from the boys. This Liverpool performance is driven and exciting; near the end the trumpets bray marvellously. However, Lennie’s scalding performance is off the Richter scale. The NYPO percussionists impel the music forward thrillingly and as for the brass section….. In the closing moments the first trumpet could peel paint off the walls. Wow! In passing, the early 1960s CBS sound is nowhere near as sophisticated as today’s BIS sonics. Indeed, the Bernstein recording has a touch of rawness to it but, for me, that just adds to the experience. It’s also worth noting that Bernstein set down his recording less than a month after he and the NYPO had given the first performance of the Symphonic Dances and West Side Story itself had only premiered in September 1957. So, Lennie’s recording of the Symphonic Dances was truly hot off the press.

Even though pitted against such fearsome competition, though, Lindberg’s account of the Symphonic Dances isn’t put in the shade. He makes the Meeting Scene as tender as you could wish, for instance. The RLPO performance of ‘Cool’ can fairly be described as hot. This is such sophisticated music technically but Bernstein’s achievement is to make the listener almost unaware of technical accomplishment and conscious only of the crackling tension that the music induces. I most certainly wasn’t disappointed by Lindberg’s performance of this number, though it has to be admitted that the NYPO’s way with this piece isn’t so much hot as sizzling. After all, this is music of their town and their sharp-edged delivery imbues the music with macho menace. Lindberg impresses in ‘Rumble’ which is suitably tense and hard-edged. Then he conveys the pathos of ‘Finale’ very well indeed.

In summary, Bernstein’s recording is hors concours and an indispensable part of any collection of American music but Lindberg’s is a fine achievement.

On his CD Bernstein offers a recording of the complete score of Fancy Free, his 1944 collaboration with Jerome Robbins. Lindberg contents himself with the three Dance Variations (Number VI in the complete score). That’s a perfectly legitimate choice since the composer himself conducted the Dance Variations as a standalone concert item. Each of the three variations is the music for a separate dance by one of three sailors, all of whom are trying to impress girls: Robbins danced the third variation himself. The music is clever and appealing and I enjoyed Lindberg’s performance very much.

I’m not sure I should say that I “enjoyed” Lindberg’s account of the music from the score that Bernstein wrote for the 1954 film On the Waterfront because the music is so dark and dramatic that enjoyment seems an almost superficial term. Let’s say instead that I greatly admired this performance, finding that once again it stood up well to the competition of the composer’s own 1960 NYPO recording (also on SMK 63085). From the off, Lindberg conveys suppressed tension in the Andante opening but when we the reach the Presto barbaro – at which point Lennie takes no prisoners, whether as composer or conductor – I really like the raw sound of the Liverpool saxophonist. Lindberg makes this section properly harsh and dramatic. A little later, in the sections marked Andante largamente and then Moving forward, with warmth Lindberg really follows the composer’s directions for the music to be moved forward – there are no less than three such markings. His performance is very persuasively played by the RLPO, amongst whom the player of the crucial horn solos deserves special praise. Bernstein’s powerful score for Elia Kazan’s movie was a singular achievement. It was nominated for an Oscar but didn’t win, possibly because the music was too challenging for the Hollywood establishment. Christian Lindberg makes a very fine job of it.

He closes with Three Dance Episodes from On the Town. This is another terrific performance. The ‘Lonely Town: Pas de Deux’ sounds really authentic here, the blues-inflected melodies expertly voiced by the RLPO. A perky clarinet sets us off on our whirlwind tour of ‘Times Square: 1944’. This is cracking stuff – just listen out for the sleazy saxophone variant on ‘New York! New York!’ This is a vibrant performance, full of verve and colour and I love the big-band feel that the RLPO brings to several passages.

I really enjoyed this disc. Lindberg may have been a surprise choice as conductor but he delivers the goods. In fact, I should go further: he displays a genuine affinity for the music and he encourages the RLPO to give really snappy performances. As I’ve indicated, Bernstein’s own recordings are in a special category but, in all honesty, I think Lindberg and the RLPO have set the bar pretty high for any other recordings of Bernstein’s music that may come out in 2018.

So, too, have BIS set the bar high when it comes to presentation. The sound is first class. I listened to this SACD in stereo as I’m not equipped for surround sound. The recording has clarity and impact, which is just what you want in this sort of music. The quality of the documentation is equally high; the essay by Geoffrey Block is excellent and highly readable.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~ Brian Wilson

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