A mentor once mentored by Aaron Copland and Sergei Koussevitzky, an inexhaustible creative figure, a prolific composer, a brilliant conductor, an insightful lecturer, and a restless intellectual unceasingly asking the big questions about what music is and why we make music, Leonard Bernstein would have turned 100 years old this year. Living and composing and writing at warp speed, ever overscheduled and running from working vacations in Martha’s Vineyard to concerts in Tel-Aviv, to recordings in Boston, to master classes in London, to rehearsals in New York, and to record yet another Mahler in Vienna, Bernstein worked hard and lived hard and changed the face of Classical music in America in the 20th century.
In a collection of 8 CD’s and 1 DVD, ever-surprising Naxos has just paid homage to Lenny in its recent release Leonard Bernstein Marin Alsop: The Complete Naxos Recordings.
Here are the titles, all splendidly conducted by Marin Alsop: Symphony No. 1, ‘Jeremiah’; Symphony No. 2, ‘The Age of Anxiety’; Missa Brevis; Symphony No. 3, ‘Kaddish’; The Lark; Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium); Facsimile: Choreographic Essay for Orchestra; Divertimento for Orchestra; Mass; Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront; Chichester Psalms; Three Dance Episodes from On the Town; Mambo from West Side Story; Slava! A Political Overture; Suite for Orchestra from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; CBS Music; Times Square Ballet from On the Town; A Bernstein Birthday Bouquet; Overture to Candide; the Ballet Fancy Free; Anniversaries for Orchestra; Overture to Wonderful Town.
The collection is lovingly curated, with liner notes by Marin Alsop, Frank K. DeWald, David Ciucevich, Robert Hilferty, and Sean Hickey. The packaging of the seven CD’s and one DVD is compact and handsome, divided into eight separate single pockets that neatly fit into a small lightweight box. The engineering of the 7 CD’s, some of it going back fifteen years is all top-notch.
Symphony No. 1, ‘Jeremiah’ was written in 1942 and recorded years ago with Bernstein at the podium. Given the fact that Marin Alsop apprenticed at Tanglewood as an aspiring young conductor with Bernstein as her conducting teacher, one might imagine that she leads her Baltimore forces with the spirit of her mentor hovering about, so inspired and inspiring her work is. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano delivers a strong performance with a creamy lyric mezzo voice uncannily similar to that of the great Jennie Tourel, the mezzo-soprano soloist in the 1944 premiere with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
The first CD is shared between the ‘Jeremiah’ Symphony and the Symphony No. 2, ‘The Age of Anxiety,’ composed in 1949 and later revised by Bernstein in 1949. Both these works and the 1963 Symphony No. 3, ‘Kaddish’, have much in common. All three are narrative works, inspired by literature – whether W. H. Auden or the Hebrew sacred writings, either text-driven and utilizing vocal soloists or, as in the case of The Age of Anxiety employing an instrumental soloist as a protagonist of sorts, in this case the excellent Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
Missa Brevis, a choral work sparsely accompanied by percussion, Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium), and the better-known Chichester Psalms evidence Bernstein’s lifelong preoccupation with matters of the spirit. All are deeply serious works that show both the acquiescently faithful side of the man in their content and the pragmatically questioning side of the artist in their form. Ever searching for new ways to express his musical ideas, and not one to be bound by traditional constraints, Bernstein named these works the way he wanted, attaching to some the label of symphony even though none of them followed the academic definition of that form.
When it comes to “Lenny”, the populist man of music who held us happily captive with his talks on television or to his musical alter ego, Maestro Bernstein, he who shed light in so many unexpected ways on everything under the musical sun, the Naxos collection is generous and evenhanded.
To lighten things up there is the 1965 Symphonic Suite of moody film music from the Hollywood film On the Waterfront. Dance music was close to Bernstein’s heart as witness the terrific Three Dance Episodes from On the Town, and the equally exciting complete ballet Fancy Free, commissioned by the American Ballet Theatre in 1944 and choreographed by Jerome Robbins.
There are arrangements of music from Bernstein’s hit Broadway shows Wonderful Town and West Side Story, and from the ill-fated 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And there is the Overture to Candide, played with spunky American pizzazz by the Brazilians of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra. There is also the playful Anniversaries for Orchestra, a collection of ten musical birthday salutations to friends of the composer, and to his wife, Felicia Montealegre, orchestrated by Garth Edwin Sunderland in 2016.
The Naxos release includes several reissues and several brand new recordings. Throughout the seven CD’s Marin Alsop magisterially commands the three orchestras with which she has had a long and fruitful relationship: the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. There is much love, much craftsmanship, and much fine music-making in this comprehensive collection of Alsop’s conducting of Bernstein’s music.
There is a potent story here told in sound: it is a true-life tale about a giant of American music, along with a stunning survey of the musical arts in America in our time. An unabashed self-promoter of the Lenny brand, a conflicted and flawed and compassionate and driven human being with a larger than life persona and an ego to match it, and a legendary artist with an unquenchable thirst for music-making, whether at the podium or at the piano as soloist or at his desk as composer, Bernstein at age 100 lives on in these recordings.
Rafael de Acha
PS: In my effort to get this review posted as soon as possible I completely neglected to mention the very nice DVD that’s part of the ten-disc box!