I’ll admit being predisposed to like this CD from the outset, featuring as it does not only the music of one of my favourite composers, but being performed by as it were my home team, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. In fact the album was recorded just down the road from me, in as it says on the back cover, "Lighthouse, Poole Centre for the Arts".*
For those who don’t know, the American conductor Marin Alsop is one of the rising stars of the last decade in the classical world, and the BSO is very fortunate to have her as their principal conductor. Alsop is tremendously well versed in 20th century American music, having conducted many celebrated performances of music by the likes of Copland and Barber. Indeed, she has recorded the music of composers as diverse as George Gershwin and Mark O’Connor, as well as four volumes of Samuel Barber with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. She retains a particular love for Leonard Bernstein, noting in the booklet that her love of his music began when her father took her seek hear the composer conducting the New York Philharmonic when she was nine, and continuing when she was fortunate enough to work with Bernstein at Tanglewood in 1988. She is absolutely full of her praise for Bernstein both as an artist and as "a true humanitarian" of "limitless curiosity" and "boundless generosity".
This album then is not just another disc but one in which seeks to do justice to the music of "a hero that exceeds one’s expectations". It is certainly a well balanced portrait, offering music from various defining aspects of Leonard Bernstein’s output. The modern classical music of the title work, the orchestral jazz of "The Three Dance Episodes" from the musical On the Town, and the composer’s own suite from his singular film score, On The Waterfront (1954).
Lasting almost 20 minutes and in six sections, though played here without break in a single movement, the suite covers the main material of the Oscar-nominated score and incorporates some music which was ultimately not used in the final film. As most will know this is a cynical New York drama, one of the films which helped make Marlon Brando’s reputation. The score is both unmistakably urban, with a muted trumpet playing in atmospheric noir fashion, and later the introduction of big city saxophones, and unmistakably Bernstein. There is a rhythmic dance sensibility to the more dramatic passages and the gift of melody which graces all the composer’s most popular music, particularly that other New York tale, West Side Story. The BSO play with real drive, the sound being spacious and full yet not lacking detail and Alsop’s vision of the music, alternately compassionate and ferocious, is a strong rival to Bernstein’s own recording used as a filler on the 2CD version of his symphonic West Side Story recorded with Kiri Ti Kawa in the 1980’s.
This is how the album begins. It concludes with the jazz infused "Three Dance Episodes" from On the Town (1944), the composer’s musical theatre story of three sailors on leave in the Big Apple. From the jaunty confident swagger of "The Great Lover" the BSO play with considerable tenderness in the reflective "Lonely Town: Pas de Deux" ending with an exhilarating take on the infectiously feel-good "Times Square:1944".
The centrepiece of this diverse triptych is Chichester Psalms, written in 1965 as a commission for Chichester Cathedral, to be performed by the combined choirs of Chichester, Salisbury and Winchester cathedrals for a summer music festival. In fact the piece was premiered in New York in July 1965, and only reached England a month later. The music is scored for mixed choir, boy solo, strings, three trumpets, three trombones, two harps and percussion. The texts draw on Psalms 108, 100, 23, 2, 131, 133, and, composed during a major period of the escalation of the Vietnam War, question "Why do the nations rage…" ultimately offering an alternative of dwelling "Together in unity". This message combined with resolutely tonal music of considerable energy and beauty has resulted in one of Bernstein’s most popular works.
From the massed choral grandeur of the opening – "Awake, psaltery and harp: I will rouse the dawn" – it is clear this is to be an impassioned and fully engaged performance. It is electrifying music-making of considerable clarity. Featured treble Thomas Kelly has just the right sense of pure melody for the central setting of Psalm 23, though perhaps the originally intended cathedral setting would have supported and filled out his voice just a little more to even better effect. His singing is nevertheless both beautiful and touching, so much so that when the mood changes explosively mid-way the result is genuinely startling, even when one knows what is coming. Alsop skilfully brings out the opposing tensions such that the closing has a intriguingly ambiguity, leading to a finale which journeys through darkness to find a peace which is all the more rewarding for being won at a price. The human condition is explored and the prognosis declared hopeful in music which boldly goes its own way, resolutely defying the prevailing serial orthodoxy of its times.
48 minutes may be on the short side for a modern album, but this is certainly among the very best of the many Bernstein albums to have come my way in the last year or so, and who is going to argue at Naxos super-bargain price.
Bernstein on Broadway – music from On The Waterfront, On the Town and others…
DVD review: On the Waterfront
* If you’re wondering how a symphony orchestra, chorus, soloists, conductor and recording team can fit into a lighthouse, puzzle no longer. Until last year the venue, which isn’t a lighthouse, and is some distance inland from the inside of Poole Harbour, had the self-explanatory name Poole Arts Centre. What was wrong with this has never been explained, but when the venue was lavishly revamped – mostly successfully, though the new open plan ground floor foyer is hideously noisy and uncomfortable and concert goers now have to walk the full length of the open plan café to reach the ground floor toilets – the name was changed to Lighthouse. As this is clearly misleading it was felt necessary to add an explanatory subtitle. Hence: Lighthouse, Poole’s Centre for the Arts. How this improves on the clear and concise Poole Arts Centre remains a mystery.