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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Overture to Candide (1956) [4:15]
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (1957) [22:29]
Three Dance Variations from Fancy Free (1944) [6:51]
On the Waterfront – Symphonic Suite (1954) [17:27]
Three Dance Episodes from On the Town (1946) [9:56]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Christian Lindberg
rec. 2016, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, UK
Reviewed as a stereo 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2278 SACD [62:30]

It’s good to see Bernstein the composer being celebrated in this centenary year. That said, even devoted Lenny fans would have to acknowledge his output is very uneven. For me, the stand-out works include the much-maligned Mass Kristjan Järvi makes a very good case for it – Chichester Psalms, Age of Anxiety (Symphony No. 2) and some of the theatre pieces. Then there’s the brooding score he provided for Elia Kazan’s 1954 film, On the Waterfront, which he turned into a symphonic suite. Happily, Bernstein gave us many now legendary recordings of his own compositions, among them an almost identical programme to Lindberg’s; that was recorded with the New York Philharmonic in the early 1960s. I have the extended version of Sony SMK63085, which adds the three dances from On the Town.

I was a little surprised to see Christian Lindberg leading the RLPO in this timely tribute. I tend to associate him with more ‘serious’ repertoire – his fine Pettersson cycle and Tchaikovsky Fourth spring to mind – but he’s also a terrific trombonist, as his light-hearted album, A Lindberg Extravaganza, so amply demonstrates. No, given Andrew Litton’s cracking Copland from Colorado, I’d have thought he was a more obvious choice for this music, some of which he recorded with the Bournemouth Symphony in 1990. Indeed, that BSO coupling of the Candide overture and Age of Anxiety, now part of a larger compilation from Erato, is one of my favourite Bernstein discs.

Lindberg’s Candide is a pretty good indication of what’s to come. Crisp and detailed, it couldn’t be more different from Lenny’s uninhibited, almost breathless, account of this exuberant overture. Lindberg isn’t as exciting, certainly, but he does have the advantage of a much cleaner, more natural recording; that highlights orchestral colours and, in passing, CBS’s crudely interventionist recording. The prologue to the symphonic dances from West Side Story is similarly contained. Rhythms are precise and there’s a general air of tidiness that, on first hearing, can seem a little too subdued. Still, some listeners may prefer this music played fairly ‘straight’, its shapes and edges more clearly defined.

Make no mistake, this newcomer will get your toes tapping; in fact, the more I listened, the more I warmed to the Swede’s cooler view of what is, potentially, a rather overheated score. There are startling moments as well, with the Scherzo sounding more like Copland than I’ve ever heard it. The RLPO’s spirited Mambo, complete with vocals, is nicely done, and Cool is as jazzy as one could wish. Indeed, Lindberg and his players, perhaps a tad cautious at first, finally hit their stride. As for the recording, engineered by Fabian Frank, it has both presence and power. Incidentally, I’m about to review a NativeDSD download of a new account of the piece, with Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the Houston Symphony (Pentatone).

Such are the increasing pleasures of this album that early caveats now seem churlish; in my defence, though, it’s almost impossible to hear performances of these pieces without harking back to the composer’s own. And while the RLPO aren’t as transported as their American counterparts, they’re no slouches, either; just sample their terrific rat-a-tat delivery in the Galop from Fancy Free. What’s more, they really seem to be enjoying themselves at this point. And while I’d have welcomed a more supple Danzon, that’s also a minor detail. Those interested in getting to know the entire ballet should look no further than Lenny’s splendid recording.

The real surprise in this programme is Lindberg’s genuinely symphonic treatment of On the Waterfront. Firmly focused and tightly knit, it emerges as a very powerful piece indeed. The foghorn-like opening and the solo sax aren’t as evocative, as haunting, as they are for Bernstein, but then the Andante largamente is seamless and full of feeling. As expected, Lenny lives for the moment, creating a unique intensity that few can rival, let alone match. That said, his protégé, Marin Alsop, and the Bournemouth Symphony recorded the suite in 2003. Gwyn Parry-Jones welcomed the CD, which includes the Chichester Psalms and the three dances from On the Town. It’s just been reissued as part of a birthday box (Naxos 8.508018).

Lindberg rounds off this collection with a wonderfully relaxed and utterly idiomatic rendition of those highlights from On the Town. Indeed, the dreamy Pas de deux, now hushed, now heart-swelling. is every bit as memorable as it is under the composer himself. Ditto Times Square, which hustles and bustles with the best of them. In short, it’s a terrific sign-off to a thoroughly engaging album; it’s also a fine tribute to a most interesting – and unexpected – musical partnership. The informative liner-notes are by Geoffrey Black.

So, who’s it to be – Lenny or Lindberg? Frankly, I’d want both.

Dan Morgan


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