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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990) The Complete Marin Alsop Naxos Recordings
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Full texts and translations included NAXOS 8.508108 [8 CDs + 1 DVD: 453:22 +76:00]
To mark the centenary of America’s greatest home-trained musician of any genre, Naxos have thoughtfully collated Marin Alsop’s five previous Bernstein releases (on six discs) for the label, added two more recently recorded in São Paulo and a DVD of Georg Wübbolt’s recent biographical documentary Leonard Bernstein – Larger than Life and crammed it all into a lavishly produced box set. As can be expected, given that Alsop was one of his most important protégées her recordings of his work have been greatly praised over the last decade both for her scrupulous preparation and insightful interpretation. While this box in itself, however, is a winning conspectus it is by no means without similarly priced competition.
The composer recorded his three symphonies twice, with the New York Philharmonic for CBS in the 1960s and with the Israel Philharmonic for DG in the 1970s. These cycles form the centrepieces of boxes that can still be acquired; the 7CD Sony Classical Masters box (88697880862) also includes Zino Francescatti’s legendary original recording of the Serenade and the 1971 account of the ‘problematic’ Mass but is the only set to include Trouble in Tahiti; the DG box (4698292) features Gidon Kremer’s version of the Serenade as well as well as two large scale later works, Jubilee Games (later re-named Concerto for Orchestra) and Songfest. These two sets both include accounts of the music for Bernstein’s final Jerome Robbins collaboration Dybbuk (1974) and the early, jazzy Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, both absent from the Alsop box (but available elsewhere on Naxos). All three sets include the Chichester Psalms and Facsimile as well as suites or various excerpts from West Side Story, On The Waterfront and Fancy Free. I must also advise that for those readers who are completists by nature early May 2018 sees the release (again on DG) of a 29 disc set of the ‘Complete Works’ which includes DVDs and appears to include content licensed by many other labels.
Notwithstanding all of that, if readers are seeking one ‘starter pack’ I have to suggest that in terms of both recorded sound and quality of performance this Naxos set is the one to have. In regard of the three symphonies the recordings of the first two in this set project greater detail and boast a warmer sound than the older sets. As it is I never really enjoyed the DG Israel performances in comparison to the originals, but in any case the contributions of both of Alsop’s soloists, Jennifer Johnson Cano in the finale of No. 1 and especially the dashing Jean-Yves Thibaudet in No 2 trump their Sony predecessors (Jennie Tourel and Philippe Entremont) with their contributions. I regularly play the central Profanation of No 1 in Bernstein’s original account however – the brass bristle and swing quite unforgettably in a way that Alsop can’t quite match.
I love the music of the Kaddish (Symphony No 3) more than any other work by this composer. What a shame about the rambling, histrionic text! Bernstein was nothing if not upfront in expressing his crisis of faith; the text verges on the embarrassingly personal but for me at least it never quite undermines the power, beauty and originality of the extraordinary music. Admittedly Claire Bloom gives the most dignified reading of the original, complete text it has yet received on disc, though it’s not enough to save the poem. Yet Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony convey the wonderful music thrillingly. I have to say, though, that my favourite account of the Kaddish is Leonard Slatkin’s on Chandos (CHAN 10172) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and crucially the composer’s daughter Jamie reciting (quite beautifully, in a restrained, humane and deeply affecting manner) a text provided by her, ABOUT her father and his faith. Despite the fact that some of the music has been cut (which I really don’t approve of) I feel this recording presents the most convincing solution to the problem of the text. The performance and recording are magnificent and make it possible (for this listener at any rate) to love the work without embarrassment. The Alsop disc here also features an unfamiliar slice of Bernstein (which also features Claire Bloom): The Lark. These eight brief choruses were written as incidental music for Lillian Hellman’s adaptation of L’Alouette, Jean Anouilh’s play about the life of Joan of Arc. Accompanied simply by bells and drum, and linked here by narrated text drawn from the play, The Lark is a real find.
The Serenade is unquestionably one of Bernstein’s most elegant, serious works, and it features on one of two discs in this set which were laid down during Alsop’s tenure at the helm of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, in this case in 2005. In terms of their efforts in the Serenade (and indeed in the pairings which are two of this composer’s most under-rated works, Facsimile and the late, Boston-inspired Divertimento with its Coplandesque Turkey Trot) they have absolutely nothing to fear in comparison with their bigger-city competitors. Philippe Quint is technically flawless as the soloist and this is certainly the best engineered account I’ve heard on disc. For me though, Zino Francescatti’s blazing 1965 performance eclipses all-comers – he has complete empathy with the stylistic contradictions inherent in this piece.
This recording of the Mass is absolutely the one to have (at the time of writing a new recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin is due for release on DG – indeed this will feature in the Complete Works mentioned earlier). Chandos released a fine (and spectacularly recorded) account with Austrian forces under Kristjan Jarvi at around the same time as Alsop’s version but this Baltimore version really does the seemingly impossible. Yes, the Mass is a period piece. Yes, structurally speaking the ‘a’ in Mass is perhaps the wrong vowel. Yes, the text could be seen as another embarrassing heart-on-sleeve confrontation with personal faith. But I really get the feeling that of ALL the works in this Naxos set, it’s the skin of this Mass that Marin Alsop has lavished the most time trying to get under (on the DVD included in this set she defends it passionately) and this is the first time I’ve been enthused sufficiently to listen to the whole work straight through. Alsop’s performance demonstrates that the Mass CAN cohere. The preparation of the hugely diffuse performing forces must have presented a challenge or three but everybody involved gives their all. The celebrant, Jubilant Sykes is magnificent. I’ve read one or two reviews where he is compared unfavourably to Alan Titus on the original 1971 discs but I really cannot concur. Moreover that old CBS performance even now sounds more to me like some pseudo-concept-album, a series of pretty and not-so-pretty set pieces. This Naxos performance is absolutely captivating. For me it is the highlight of this set.
Running it close second though, is the Bournemouth performance of the Chichester Psalms which was on the first disc in this set to be recorded and issued 15 years ago.(Can it really be that long?) I can remember my amazement at the time regarding the sound Naxos achieved on this disc; it seemed stunning even via the ancient sound system I owned at the time; on my more conventional modern set up it sounds quite sensational; a demonstration-quality disc for sure. There’s lots of brash, loud, brassy music in the On the Waterfront and On the Town Suites, thrilling but never overwhelming climaxes, superb detail, a seemingly ideal acoustic and real charm and style in the performances. Good as all that is this disc also boasts the reference recording of the Chichester Psalms. The transparency of this piece is such that it doesn’t take much to undermine a performance even though it’s impossible not to be seduced by the hit tune in the final panel. Alsop (and unnamed choir director) clearly prepared her forces thoroughly as the whole edifice hangs together magnificently; the excellence of all the soloists is obvious but it is the extraordinarily mature contribution of the boy soprano Thomas Kelly (13 then, presumably 28 now!!) that most first-time listeners will most readily notice and appreciate. I still find it amazing that Bernstein wrote a work for Walter Hussey –and named it after a cathedral in deepest Sussex. Its generosity of spirit must surely have been a reaction to his dismay at the Kennedy assassination. It is a sublime work and it gets its best ever recording here.
The two discs of music that remain are of more recent provenance and were recorded with one of Alsop’s current bands, the magnificent São Paulo Symphony Orchestra. The Mambo from West Side Story which opens disc 7 inevitably sounds as Latin as it ever has done on disc but it functions here as an overture to a selection of less familiar works. Slava! – A Political Overture featured in Rostropovich’s inaugural concert as music director of the Washington National Symphony Orchestra in October 1977. It’s a strange (and brief) confection, recycled from two episodes drawn from the critically mauled Alan Jay Lerner collaboration 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and includes a part for electric guitar and a brief recording of election candidates bawling slogans on the hustings. It’s not first-rate Bernstein by any means, a weird Shostakovich / West Side Story hybrid in fact, but it is an intriguing curiosity. A decade after Bernstein’s death his former personal assistant Charlie Harmon fashioned a symphonic suite from the same show which is also included – it’s pleasant Americana, but to my ears it plumbs no great depths. The CBS Music of 1978 was originally conceived to accompany a poem read over a film montage celebrating the 50th anniversary of that broadcasting network but not all of its five movements were needed. Here it has been re-cast and three movements orchestrated by Garth Sunderland. Again it’s an undemanding listen and abstracted from its original context seemingly adds up to little. We then hear a brief reprise of the ‘New York, New York’ episode from On the Town prior to a fascinating set of variations on that tune composed as a tribute to the composer by a ‘committee’ of mostly younger peers, all of whom had links to Bernstein in one way or another. It is a peculiar work which here receives its World Premiere recording. It is hard to imagine the likes of Berio, John Williams, Takemitsu and William Schuman appearing on the same programme, let alone in the same piece so I was pleasantly surprised that these variations, diffuse as they are, hang together as convincingly as they do. There are plenty of quotations of and allusions to other famous works in this entertaining collage, while The São Paulo Symphony Orchestra play with total commitment and are spectacularly recorded.
The final disc includes vivacious accounts of the Candide overture and the superb music to the ballet Fancy Free but also introduces some further orchestrations by other hands. Anniversaries were originally a set of 29 short piano pieces written over four decades to commemorate colleagues, family members, teachers and other loved ones. Garth Sunderland has orchestrated eleven of them here – in themselves they are perhaps too brief to create any deep impression but almost all of them are touching to hear and certainly beautifully laid out for the orchestra. The final work is a beefed up orchestration (again by Charlie Harmon) of the overture to Wonderful Town.
I’m usually a bit suspicious of ‘Bonus DVDs’ but Georg Wübbolt’s Leonard Bernstein –Larger than Life bucks the trend completely. Far from being some over-eulogistic hagiography, it is a condensed biography of the highest order. It’s beautifully structured with judiciously chosen interviewees, all of whom offer interesting anecdotes or fresh perspectives on the great man. All three of his children make telling, touching contributions. There are several riveting clips of Bernstein conducting and especially teaching. I have seen videos of many of the old children’s concerts he did in New York and wonderful they are too – there are brief excerpts here. A clip of the concert in which a giant score of Beethoven’s Fifth is projected onto the floor with the relevant players standing on each stave is included and is unforgettable. On the other hand some of the clips from his last couple of years are a difficult watch but almost unbearably moving. I absorbed this superb documentary during a break between teaching two lessons and having cried like a baby during the last five minutes of this film, I found myself quite incapable of composing myself in time for the second one which was supposed to be about the merits of anger management as a therapy for prison inmates but ended up being about Leonard Bernstein and his genius as an inspirational teacher.
The DVD is the cherry atop a splendid centenary collection which I have enjoyed enormously – a set that stands proudly on its own terms - especially as it includes a number of unfamliar examples of Bernstein’s compositional craft. Marin Alsop is an insightful and compelling guide throughout this outstanding tribute to her beloved mentor. I suspect he would be extremely proud of her.
Contents Disc 1 [59:32]
Symphony No. 1 Jeremiah (1942) [24:14]
Symphony No. 2 The Age of Anxiety (1949, rev, 1965) [35:18]
Jennifer Johnson Cano (mezzo); Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, Maryland, USA 21, 23 November 2014 (Symphony 1), 27-28 September 2013 (Symphony 2)
Disc 2 [69:40] 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)
Disc 3 [65:04]
Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion (1954) [31:18]
Facsimile – Choreographic Essay for Orchestra (1944) [18:38]
Divertimento for Orchestra (1980) [18:09]
Philippe Quint (violin)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, UK, 12-13 January 2005
Discs 4 -5 [65:11+38:50]
Mass - A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers (1971) [104:01]
Text from the liturgy of the Roman Mass. Additional texts by Stephen Schwartz and Leonard Bernstein
Celebrant - Jubilant Sykes (baritone)
Morgan State University Choir; Peabody Children’s Chorus
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, October 2008
Disc 6 [48:34]
On the Waterfront - Symphonic Suite (1954) [19:25]
Chichester Psalms (1965) [17:53]
On the Town - Three Dance Episodes (1944) [10:32]
Thomas Kelly, Treble; Elizabeth Franklin-Kitchen, Soprano; Victoria Nayler, Alto
Jeremy Budd, Tenor; Paul Charrier, Bass
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. at Lighthouse, Poole Centre for the Arts, U.K., 14-15 April 2003
Disc 7 [53:46] Mambo from West Side Story (with concert ending) (1957) [2:21] Slava! A Political Overture (1977) [4:07]
Suite for Orchestra from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976 –arr Charlie Harmon) [17:02]
CBS Music (1978-orch.Sid Ramin, Jack Gottlieb and Garth Edwin Sunderland) [7:16] (WP rec)
Times Square Ballet from On the Town (1944) [1:10]
A Bernstein Birthday Bouquet (eight variations on New York, New York from On the Town by Luciano BERIO (1925-2003), John CORIGLIANO (b. 1938), Jacob DRUCKMAN (1928-96), Lukas FOSS (1922-2009), Leon KIRCHNER (1909-2009), William SCHUMAN (1910-92), Toru TAKEMITSU (1930-96) and John WILLIAMS (b.1932)) (1988) [21:28] (WP rec)
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec Sala São Paulo, Brazil in December 2016
Disc 8 [52:25]
Overture to Candide (1956) [4:19]
Fancy Free (1944) [26:53]
Anniversaries for Orchestra (1944-89- orch Garth Edwin Sunderland,2016) [15:32] (WP rec)
Overture to Wonderful Town (1953- arr Charlie Harmon) [5:21]
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec Sala São Paulo, Brazil in June & July 2017
DVD [76:00] Leonard Bernstein – Larger than Life
A film by Georg Wübbolt (Documentary/Biography) [52:00]
Bonus: Interviews with Marin Alsop, Gustavo Dudamel, Kent Nagano [24:00]