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Bernstein kaddish 4235822
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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Symphony No. 3 ‘Kaddish’ (1963 rev. 1977) [39:30]
Dybbuk Suite No. 2 (1974) [17:03]
Montserrat Caballe (soprano), Michael Wager (speaker)
Wiener Jeuness-Chor, Wiener Sängerknaben
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (symphony), New York Philharmonic (Dybbuk)/Leonard Bernstein
rec. April 1975, CBS Studio, New York, USA (Dybbuk); August 1977, Rheingold-Halle, Mainz, Germany (Symphony)
Text and translation included
Presto CD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 423 582-2 [56:03]

Kaddish is the Jewish prayer for the dead, although it does not in fact mention death. It is a set of praises of God, which, in English translation and to a non-Jewish listener, seem rather like those in the Psalms. It is written in a mixture of Aramaic and Hebrew. In this symphony Bernstein sets it in the original language for a solo soprano, chorus and orchestra but he also adds a framing narration in English.

Bernstein wrote this narration himself, and in it he inveighs against God for the ills of the world before turning round to offer comfort and praise. This narration is clearly sincere and deeply felt. However, sincerity is no guarantee of literary quality, and this narration is a very poor piece of writing. If you compare it with Bernstein’s obvious model, the speeches of Job in the Bible, it is embarrassing: the book of Job is not only a sacred book but also a superb work of literature; Bernstein’s narration does not claim to be the first and it is certainly not the second. Moreover, the narration is in places woven into the musical texture, so that it cannot easily be omitted or skipped over.

The Kaddish itself is set in three sections. The first is fast and exciting, with great rhythmic vitality and numerous contributions from the expanded percussion section. The second is a gentle Andante, with an attractive melody which sounds quite wonderful as sung here by Montserrat Caballé, no less. The third section begins with a Scherzo, which is the background for a passage in which the speaker exhorts God in a dream to renew his faith in man. At this point a boys’ choir sings the third section of the Kaddish prayer. This leads to the finale celebrating the renewal of faith in a fugue.

As should be clear by now, this is a problematic work. Indeed, Bernstein revised it, shortening the narration and doing some other rewriting. It is this revised version we have here. Other interpreters have tried substituting different narrations but the problem remains. Nor does the music, for all its sincerity, seem to be quite out of the top drawer of Bernstein’s composing, if one thinks of the Chichester Psalms or West Side Story. It is vivid and effective but not particularly memorable and in fact a bit thin. I do wonder whether Bernstein spent too much time in his other career as a conductor to develop a proper idiom of his own,

The performance, under the composer, is obviously authoritative. I do find it a slightly odd decision to use an Israeli orchestra but Austrian choirs, who presumably don’t know Aramaic or Hebrew and have learned their part phonetically. I would have expected it the other way round. Still, they all sing and play with a will and I have already praised Montserrat Caballé’s contribution. Michael Wager does what he can with the narration.

There is room for a filler. This is a suite from Bernstein’s ballet Dybbuk. A dybbuk in Jewish folklore is, according to the sleevenote, ‘the disembodied spirit of a dead person which seeks entry into the body of a living being.’ The actual story of the ballet is a love story gone wrong, in which the disappointed lover becomes a dybbuk and is finally united with his love in death. The suite here is in four movements which are nicely contrasted and effective but no equal of the ballets of Bernstein’s mentor and model, Aaron Copland. Here Bernstein is on his old stamping ground with the New York Philharmonic, who play vigorously for him.

The recording is analogue but still sounds well. This is a straight Presto reissue, and so has not been updated to include the year of Bernstein’s death. The booklet is exemplary, with an informative note and all the words of the symphony, including the Kaddish prayer in both its Hebrew script and in transliteration, as well as translations into English, French and German. There are other recordings of the symphony, but I imagine Bernstein fans will want this one.

Stephen Barber

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