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Nazareno LSO0836
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Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)
Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs (1949)
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Ebony Concerto (1945)
Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960)
Nazareno (arr. Gonzalo Grau, 2000/2009)
Katia and Marielle Labèque (pianos)
Chris Richards (clarinet)
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, December 2018, Barbican Hall, London

Here are three compositions that pay homage to jazz, mambo, and other Afro-Caribbean–influenced music of the Americas. Of the two featured composers that assay jazz-inflected pieces, Leonard Bernstein was certainly to the manner born. Schooled though he was at Harvard and the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, studying with such esteemed classical figures as Walter Piston and Fritz Reiner, one of Bernstein’s earliest enthusiasms was for the music of George Gershwin. And when Bernstein moved to Manhattan after his years at Curtis, he worked for Harms Music, transcribing jazz and pop compositions. He even let down his hair playing piano in New York jazz clubs. So it’s no surprise that Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs pretty successfully crosses over between classical and jazz compositional techniques. Written in 1949 for clarinetist and bandleader Woody Herman’s the Thundering Herd, the piece was never played or even acknowledged by Herman, who seems to have been distracted, disbanding and then assembling one band after another in the late forties and early fifties. Instead, Bernstein debuted the work on Omnibus, a rather highbrow American television series, in 1955.

How it went over with the TV audience, I can’t say. Hopefully, it was better received than Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto, which was not a critical smash at its debut. But more about the Stravinsky in a bit. Bernstein’s work is cleverly constructed to allow jazz and classical elements cohabit in the first two movements before fully unleashing the improvisatory fervor of jazz in the last. The “Prelude” features brass and tom-toms in a spirited interplay, while the “Fugue” is more restrained, saxophones and clarinets (both Woody Herman’s specialty) crooning a suave polyphony. “Riffs,” as the name implies, is more freewheeling although, as note writer David Gutman tells us, the only truly improvisatory aspect of “Riffs” is that that “the performers themselves actually decide when the piece should stop!” Bernstein’s musical influences seem wide ranging. While “Riffs” really sounds like a jam session, elsewhere there are excursions into Broadway/Hollywood jazz à la Gershwin (with pre-echoes of West Side Story). There is even strip-club jazz—as well as some of that open-fifths Americana that Aaron Copland introduced to the world. Do I detect Stravinskian influences as well? Bernstein certainly would have been familiar with the Russian composer’s earlier fling with the Thundering Herd. Parts of the “Fugue” movement remind me of Stravinsky’s strangely wonderful Octet for winds and brass.

Speaking of Stravinsky, the Ebony Concerto, which the critics didn’t really cotton to, is hard to like, in my opinion. Woody Herman himself apparently had a higher opinion of the work, though even he seemed to cavil. In an obituary of the bandleader published in the New York Times (October 30, 1987), Herman is quoted as saying “For Stravinsky it was a challenge to write for this ridiculous combination of instruments. He had no desire to write jazz or anything like it and the work should never have been judged a jazz piece.” As with Stravinsky’s much earlier Ragtime, it seems the Russian composer really didn’t “get” American popular music. The Ebony Concerto starts affably enough, with soft sounds from the clarinet over an offbeat tom-tom accompaniment. Later, those “ridiculous” instruments, including guitar and harp, join the party. Things get more animated and rhythmically vertiginous, though “swing” is hardly a word that characterizes the proceedings. The second movement is dirge-like, though there are some livelier interjections from winds and brass. The same pattern prevails in the finale. We start with what sounds like a funeral procession paced by the snare drum. Could Stravinsky have been thinking of those celebrated jazz funerals down New Orleans way? Probably not. There follow a couple of up-tempo variations on the dirge theme for clarinet and sax. Toward the end of the movement, we’re in a territory inhabited by Stravinsky’s great Symphony of Psalms, last movement finale: radiant, ethereal, the absolute antithesis of swing. What did Herman think about that? Overall, the Ebony Concerto is an interesting experiment rather than one of the high points of Stravinsky’s storied career.

Then we have Osvaldo Golijov’s Nazareno—actually, an arrangement of Golijov’s music by Venezuelan composer Gonzalo Grau. Grau was commissioned by the Lebèque sisters to distill Golijov’s blockbuster The Passion According to Saint Mark into a showcase for two pianos and orchestra. The original work is a strange amalgam of musical tradition going back to the Baroque and Latin American pop. Since Grau’s treatment only hints at the Gospel story via the titles of the individual movements, a listener can be forgiven for approaching this music without thinking of the Bible. In fact, only the last two movements, named “Tormenta y Quitiplá" and “Procesión,” seem to hint directly at actions in Mark’s Gospel, the former referring to Jesus’s agony in the Garden and the latter to his progress toward the Crucifixion. But really, it’s mostly a musical, not an historical, excursion that Grau takes us on. The first movement, “Berimbau,” “refers to the Brazilian bow-shaped singlestring instrument,” as Edward Bhesania informs us in the notes to the recording. The second movement, “Tambor en blanco y negro,” suggests that the two pianos will show off their percussive abilities, which they certainly do. “Guarcha y Mambo” is all about those two animated Cuban dances. Of course, these movements allude as well to sections of Golijov’s Passion, but you’d be hard pressed to identify their ties to the Gospel story. Only in the fourth movement, “Sur,” does Grau take time for storytelling. The troubled ostinato figures in the pianos portray Jesus’s soul battle in the Garden of Gethsemane, strings and woodwinds helping to paint the picture of that quiet anguish. Elsewhere in the work, brass and percussion--along with the pianos, of course—dominate, making a mostly joyful noise. In fact, for me, it’s just a bit too noisy and animated without enough of the gentle respite that the “Sur” movement brings. The performers must surely be tired out after all this hypertensive activity, and I’m kind of tired as well by the end of the piece. But I can certainly imagine that in concert Nazareno makes quite an impression.

To that end, Katia and Marielle Labèque tear through the score with proprietary zeal. And the members of the LSO are with them every step of the way, sounding as if the only stuff they ever listen to is Cuban dance music. I expected Simon Rattle to know his way around these scores; his take on Gershwin and Bernstein in earlier recordings let me know that all this music was in good hands. Even if the Stravinsky and Golijov-Grau are not my absolute favorites, I appreciate the qualities of these performances under Sir Simon and find his version of Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs spot on.

I listened to the recording as a stereo download. It was punchy and highly detailed; in this music, the notorious dryness of the Barbican acoustic seems actually a plus. I’m going to assume there is a greater sense of depth in the SACD version. In stereo, the duo pianos are a bit overbearing for my taste. Cut the volume a little when you get to Nazareno, and you should enjoy the ride a good deal more.

Lee Passarella

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