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RECORD KEEPING | Remembering Leonard Bernstein: Symphony No. 3 “Kaddish”/Sibelius Symphonies

By Paul E. Robinson on March 19, 2016

A look at the legacy of Leonard Bernstein with a DVD and CD of music by Sibelius and others, including Bernstein’s former protégé Marin Alsop.

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Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 5, & 7. Vienna Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein. C major Blu-ray. Total Time: 166.00.

Bernstein: Symphony No. 3 “Kaddish”*. Missa Brevis**. The Lark***. Claire Bloom, narrator*. Kelley Nassief, sop.* Paulo Mestre, countertenor** ***. The Maryland State Boychoir*. The Washington Chorus*. The São Paulo Symphony Choir** ***. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra*/Marin Alsop* ** ***. Naxos. Total Time: 69.40.

It has been more than 25 years since Leonard Bernstein passed away at the age of 72. He was arguably the most gifted and influential musician of his generation. Through his television broadcasts, he inspired millions to explore and learn to love classical music. Through his Broadway hit West Side Story, his reach extended far beyond the ranks of classical music to encompass the entire world.

Growing up in Toronto he turned me on to classical music through his Omnibus television shows on Sunday afternoons. Not long afterwards I was able to see him live playing the Ravel Piano Concerto with the New York Philharmonic at the O’Keefe Centre (now the Hummingbird Centre). Late in his life, he returned to Toronto with the Vienna Philharmonic conducting Beethoven, Brahms and some of his own music at Roy Thomson Hall. He was, quite simply, one of a kind and unforgettable.

Bernstein recorded all the Sibelius symphonies with the New York Philharmonic in the 1960s, but he returned to this repertoire in the 1980s to record even more powerful and probing performances with the Vienna Philharmonic. He recorded the Symphony No. 1 in February 1990, just eight months before he died. In his last years, emphysema had begun to make his life a living hell, but he soldiered on, crisscrossing the world giving concerts, and often at the highest level as these films clearly show.

These performances are magnificent. Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic had developed a very close relationship in the 1970s and 80s with performances of all the Mahler, Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann symphonies and these Sibelius films were planned as part of a complete cycle too. Bernstein did not live long enough to complete the project.

Some critics have suggested that Bernstein became increasingly self-indulgent in his conducting as he grew older, taking slower and slower tempos and wallowing in the emotion of every bar. My own view is that for the most part Bernstein got inside the music in a way that few conductors ever do. With the musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic, he found poetry and beauty often overlooked. And the way he built the climaxes in each of these symphonies is the work of a master conductor. Barbirolli comes to mind as approaching Sibelius in the same way, but Bernstein is even better. As an introduction to Sibelius, I can’t imagine finer performances. Note that with Blu-ray C major easily fits all four symphonies onto one DVD. Excellent video and audio quality and great value for the money.

Bernstein was torn in many different directions throughout his life. Was he a composer or a conductor? Was he a ‘serious’ composer or a Broadway composer? Was he a music educator or a concert pianist? It was characteristic of Bernstein that while critics continued to ask these questions during the course of his career, he himself thrived on the challenge of being all of these things.

One of his major works was the Symphony No. 3 “Kaddish.” It was premiered in 1963 but after that, it was only rarely performed. The Kaddish Symphony is a 40-minute choral symphony with narration. Musically, it is tightly argued but by no means tuneful. But it is powerful, especially in its choral writing. Its most controversial element is the text, written by Bernstein himself. It is about man’s relationship with God. For listeners at the first performances the text was too colloquial for a work with religious pretensions and somewhat uncomfortable in its challenge to religious belief. For Bernstein God is a flawed father figure unable to convince flawed mankind to believe in Him. Ultimately, however, at the end of the symphony man and God are reconciled albeit in an imperfect union.

Marin Alsop studied with Bernstein and has become one of his foremost interpreters. She recently led an unconventional performance of West Side Story in New York that was, by all accounts, a revelation. This performance of the Kaddish Symphony is first-rate in every respect with fine singing and playing from everyone involved. Alsop uses the original version of the score – the composer revised it in 1977 – and reverts to the use of a female narrator. Bernstein had conceived the role for his wife Felicia but in 1977 he revised the part to allow for either a female or male narrator. The distinguished actress Claire Bloom speaks the words beautifully, if not always with real dramatic power.

The CD also includes two smaller Bernstein works. The Lark is a concert version of incidental music written for a Lillian Hellman adaptation of Anouih’s play L’Alouette, about Joan of Arc. Bernstein’s score is choral music that expertly adds a contemporary feel to a recreation of medieval music appropriate to the period of the story. The Missa Brevis is a late Bernstein choral work based on some of the material used in The Lark. Both works are fine additions to the choral repertoire. Brazilian countertenor Paolo Mestre is very impressive in his solo work, and the São Paulo Symphonic Choir produces a forceful but well-blended sound.

  • Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 5 & 7 – featuring Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic is available from Amazon.com.

  • Bernstein: Missa Brevis – Symphony No. 3 ‘Kaddish’ – The Lark is available from Amazon.com and iTunes.

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Paul E. Robinson

Paul E. Robinson

Over the course of his career, Paul Evans Robinson has acquired a formidable reputation as a broadcaster, author, conductor, and teacher. He has communicated the joy of music to more than a generation of musicians and music lovers in Canada and elsewhere.
Paul E. Robinson

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