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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Songfest (1976-77) [43:18]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
An American in Paris (1928, ed. Mark Clague) [17:08]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
An Outdoor Overture (1938) [8:85]
Wolf Trap Opera, National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic/James Judd
rec. 2018, Elsie & Marvin Dekelbourn Concert Hall, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, College Park, Maryland, USA
Texts included

Recently, in reviewing a new recording of Leonard Bernstein’s first two symphonies, I remarked that I have often struggled with his serious concert hall music. On reflection, I should have made a couple of exceptions to that broad statement. One is the colourful choral work, Chichester Psalms and the other is Songfest.

I may be wrong, but I think this may be only the third recording of Songfest, Bernstein’s contribution to the American bicentennial. I bought the composer’s own version when it came out. There was another one, I believe, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, but I’ve never encountered that. Disappointingly, Lenny’s protégé, Marin Alsop didn’t include it in her multi-disc survey of his music for Naxos; instead the label now gives us a version conducted by James Judd.

Songfest was intended to be a contribution to the musical celebrations of the US Bicentennial in 1976, but Bernstein missed the commission deadline and in the end the work wasn’t premiered in full until October 1977 though, as Jack Gottlieb pointed out in his notes accompanying the composer’s own recording, a few excerpted items had by then been heard in public. Bernstein’s premiere recording was made in December 1977, a few weeks after the first performance, and the same six singers were involved. In passing, I find it odd that when Naxos headline Songfest as the major item on this disc the notes about it by Richard E Rodda are quite slender by comparison with the comments about An American in Paris. Bernstein composed a work of twelve short movements, divided into six parts, and scored it for six vocal soloists and a very large orchestra, though the full instrumental ensemble is sparingly deployed. All the soloists get individual items to sing and there are also a number of settings in which two or more voices combine. The selection of texts, all by American poets, is eclectic, to put it mildly; most of the chosen poets are twentieth-century, though the selection ranges right back to Anne Bradstreet (ca 1612-1672) who has the distinction, Richard Rodda tells us, of being America’s first published poet.

The six singers are all members of Wolf Trap Opera. This organisation, founded in 1971, is based in Virginia. It runs a summer residency for emerging professional singers. Among its alumni are Lawrence Brownlee, Michelle DeYoung, Dawn Upshaw and Eric Owens, so the pedigree is strong. The sextet who take part here are, both individually and collectively, impressive. The two mezzos, Taylor Raven and Zoie Reams, have plum assignments: respectively ‘Music I Heard with You’ and ‘What lips my lips have kissed’. Both singers are very good.

Baritone Joshua Conyers makes a fine impression in the slinky number ‘The Pennycandystore beyond the El’. He has a bigger voice than the (very good) baritone who sings for Bernstein but I really like Conyers’ way with the music and his rich, velvety voice sounds great. I presume it’s Kerriann Otaño who sings ‘A Julia de Burgos’. This is a really vital number and Ms Otaño’s rich timbre suits the Spanish words and the flamboyant music. We find Lenny at his most poetic in the Whitman setting ‘To What You Said’. It’s a touching, gentle solo for the bass to which the other singers contribute background humming. The music is simple and direct in its appeal to the listener, though there’s sophistication beneath the surface. Patrick Guetti sings it very well, with lovely tone and clear diction. I think Donald Gramm gets more out of the words on the composer’s own recording but the song still comes over very well here.

Bernstein flirts with – but avoids – sentimentality with that setting. According to Jack Gottlieb’s detailed notes for the Bernstein recording, Lenny made a deliberate decision not to set Anne Bradstreet’s ‘To My Dear and Loving Husband’ for solo voice precisely because he feared the naiveté of the poem would have induced a sentimental setting. Instead, he set it as a trio for all three female soloists. The three Wolf Trap ladies sing it with no little feeling and lovely tone, their voices blending well. If I express a slight preference for the trio who sing for Bernstein it’s because collectively their diction is a little clearer and because I think their delivery of this tender song is a bit more touching.

The full sextet takes part in the opening and closing numbers. ‘To the Poem’, a setting of words by Frank O’Hara (1926-1966) gets Songfest off to a bold, declamatory start. The present performance certainly commands attention. The final number is a setting of ‘Israfel’ by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). Bernstein gives this the full treatment: the vocal writing is florid and elaborate. Throw in extremely colourful writing for the orchestra and you have an exuberant end to the work. And why not? After all, it’s not every day a nation celebrates its 200th birthday.

Songfest is in many ways a portrait of its composer in that the music is multi-faceted and ranges from the simple and lyrical to the flamboyant. Not every movement works as well for me on a level of subjective taste – I’m not a big fan of the tenor solo, ‘Zizi’s Lament’, for instance – but overall, the work is entertaining and full of life. The present performance is excellent with six fine singers expertly partnered by James Judd and his outstanding orchestra. The members of the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic need not fear comparison with the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington D C who do the honours for the composer.

I love An American in Paris and this new recording has a particular allure in that it uses the new (2019) critical edition; is this the first appearance on disc of this new edition I wonder? The edition has been prepared by Mark Clague, the Editor-in-Chief of the George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition. In an absorbing note in the booklet, he explains that there are two significant differences between this score and the version to which we’re accustomed. One concerns the use of saxophones. Gershwin specified no less than eight different saxes in his original orchestration, including a trio of soprano saxes. Unfortunately, well-meaning editorial work in the 1940s reduced the eight saxes to three – and even these were designated as optional. Here, the full octet is restored and, boy, do they make a difference at times! (Try the episode beginning at 7:23, where they’re smooching in the background. Even better, listen to them in the exuberant passage from 11:39.) The other changes concern the famous taxi horns. Gershwin was, apparently, very specific as to the pitches of the horns but an editorial misunderstanding after the composer’s death meant that the horns were notated at incorrect pitches. Now we can hear what Gershwin intended.

As Leonard Bernstein is the big featured composer on this CD, I thought it would be appropriate to use his recording with the New York Philharmonic for comparisons; it was something of a shock to be reminded that it was made as long ago as December 1958. Lenny’s recording, which uses the familiar version of the score of course, has unbeatable pizzazz and has the streetwise NYPO in full flight. You can tell there’s a difference in the pitches of the taxi horns (from 0:33 in the new recording) but to be frank the difference isn’t earth shattering. When the Blues episode arrives, Bernstein really milks it, aided and abetted by the sassy New Yorkers. He takes the passage much more broadly than Judd does – and the New York Phil’s principal trumpet plays with fab vibrato! The Bernstein way is gloriously indulgent but, my goodness, it works! Judd adopts a more flowing tempo and sounds a bit cool by comparison. On the other hand, if you think that Bernstein’s way with this section is too much of a good thing then Judd’s approach belongs more to the very justifiable view that An American in Paris is an orchestral tone poem. Elsewhere, Bernstein provides a Technicolor view of the score; Judd is more restrained, but his bright, breezy and often bustling performance is very enjoyable.

Copland’s An Outdoor Overture acts as a filler; it receives an alert and entertaining performance.

I’ve encountered the work of the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic on several previous Naxos CDs of American music. I’ve never been disappointed by their performances and this latest programme evidences the same professionalism, polish and commitment that I’ve heard before. James Judd guides them expertly through the music.

I enjoyed this disc very much. It’s especially recommendable for Songfest, not least because to the best of my knowledge it’s the only single-disc version currently available and it’s a work that is very well worth getting to know, especially in this fine performance.

John Quinn

Wolf Trap Opera members
Kerriann Otaño (soprano); Taylor Raven (mezzo-soprano); Zoie Reams (mezzo-soprano); Alexander McKissick (tenor); Joshua Conyers (baritone); Patrick Guetti (bass)

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