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LEONARD BERNSTEIN (1918-1990) Candide - Overture, Candide Suite (arr Charlie Harmon), Three Meditations from Mass (Anthony Ross - cello), Five Songs (Beth Clayton), Divertimento for Orchestra  Minnesota Orchestra/Eiji Oue rec 17-18 Feb 1999, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis REFERENCE RECORDINGS RR-87CD [65:03]




This is a technically and musically superb disc. Keith Johnson is well used to recording the Minnesota boys and girls and this shows. Clear easy treble and thrumming bass. The sound picture is a wide open space yet lacks nothing in impact. More to the point all of this is at the service of the music some of which may well be unfamiliar.

We start with the familiar. The Candide Overture especially as heard here strikes me as the counterpart for all those operatic overtures that have a royalty-generating life quite separate from their opera. Donna Diana (Reznicek), Bartered Bride (Smetana) and Kabalevsky's Colas Breugnon. Candide is a true 'champagne' overture: brief, swinging, effervescent and romantic. It gets the full treatment here and gives the composer's own recording a run for its money. The suite was arranged by Charlie Harmon who is preparing a Critical Edition of Bernstein's works. I found that the first section fell rather flat. It seems to drift out of the world evoked by Samuel Barber's totally masterly Souvenirs suite but it does so after going through the oompah and waltz-time motions. Things change at 6.11 where waves seem to pummel a distant shore and music worthy of Rimsky at his most inspired (6.51) floats easefully upwards. The remainder of the suite just did not appeal. I am quite sure that this reflects on music rather than the performance.

The Three Meditations amount to a mini cello concerto presented with subtle artistry by the orchestra's principal Anthony Ross. They were premièred by Rostropovich (Bernstein has not lacked for celebrity soloists). These are drawn from the trendy Mass he wrote for the opening of the Kennedy Centre. Trendiness is not apparent in this sincere and affecting work which with the overture is the laurel wreath of this CD. The first flows with grace - a surefire winner and one that would make a touching impact anywhere. The second is tense and convoluted like a wound up spring. The final Meditation is as long as the other two movements put together. It is predominantly very quiet and one strains to hear the music. It is seriously reflective but finds time for more lively music that sounds as if it was influenced by North African popular culture. The Meditations are unique and although I thought of Bloch's Schelomo a couple of times for the most part I was struck by the work's identity and obvious passion.

The five songs are orchestrations by another Bernstein collaborator, Sid Ramin. They were prepared after an enquiry by Angeline Reaux. Each is very brief and all are in English; the initial two Rilke settings are in translation. All are attractive without being compelling. Beth Clayton's operatic mezzo is ripe and full but I wondered, more than once, if it rather swamped these gem-like miniatures.

Finally we get the light-weight eight movement Divertimento written for the Boston SO centenary. This runs a wide gamut of styles: Old Prague, a gentle waltz, regretful mazurka, a flashy Facade-like samba, an utterly absurd Turkey Trot, an enigmatic Sphinx, a down and dirty Blues and a superficial dashing March.

Both the suite and songs are premiere recordings.

This is a must-buy for Bernsteiners. Others should go for the disc because of its highlights: Meditations and the Overture. Thorough English-only notes with contributions from both Harmon and Ramin as well as Mary Ann Feldman.


Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

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