Before long, the floodgates will open on celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), one of the greatest composers and conductors in the history of American music. Orchestras everywhere are programming his music in 2018 and his Broadway shows will surely enjoy revivals all over the country. The record companies have already started too; over the past few years, Naxos has been recording all Bernstein’s major works and many of the minor ones too, in performances conducted by one of his outstanding protégées, Marin Alsop, music director of both the Baltimore Symphony and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra in Brazil. This latest instalment is every bit as good as its predecessors. Alsop has a great affinity for Bernstein’s style, and the Baltimore Symphony plays splendidly.
Bernstein composed three symphonies over the course of his career – none of them in any way traditional. Symphony No. 1 has a mezzo-soprano soloist in the last movement, Symphony No. 2 is virtually a piano concerto, and Symphony No. 3 has a narrator, a soprano soloist and a chorus. Each is concerned to a greater or lesser extent with what Bernstein called “the struggle that is born of the crisis of our century, a crisis of faith.”
Although Bernstein was raised in the Jewish faith and remained a passionate adherent of Judaism all his life, he struggled to reconcile the evil and injustice he saw all around him with belief in God. This struggle, which is fully depicted in his Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish,” also appears in his earlier symphonies. The final movement of his Symphony No. 1 is a setting of a text from The Lamentations of Jeremiah, in which the prophet Jeremiah seeks to come to terms with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, and his Symphony No. 2 was inspired by W.H. Auden’s poem, The Age of Anxiety (1947), which deals with man’s search for identity in a post-war world. The symphony loosely follows the structure of Auden’s poem in purely musical terms – no words, only notes. It is one of Bernstein’s finest pieces, from the brooding melancholy of the clarinets in the opening bars to the exhilarating and jazzy Masque movement, to its powerfully affirmative ending.
In Alsop’s rendition of the “Jeremiah” Symphony, Jennifer Johnson Cano literally brings a fresh and appealing voice to both the Biblical text and the music. In Symphony No. 2, Jean-Yves Thibaudet offers a softer and more lyrical touch at the keyboard than authoritative predecessors such as Lukas Foss and Philippe Entremont. Then there is the recording quality. Tim Handley is the producer, engineer and editor for all of Alsop’s recordings of the Bernstein symphonies and illuminates textures with consummate skill. The percussion parts are remarkably well rendered, without overwhelming the rest of the orchestra.
Bernstein himself made excellent recordings of his symphonies — first with the New York Philharmonic for Columbia Records and then with the Israel Philharmonic for DG — and one might well ask how recordings by other conductors could even come close. After all, Bernstein was not only a gifted composer, but one of the leading conductors of his time.
That said, one could ask the same question about other composer-conductors — Stravinsky and Britten come readily to mind — who have left an authoritative recorded legacy. The answer is that great musical masterpieces seldom reveal all their secrets in a single performance, even when the composers themselves are at the helm.
For more about Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday visit the website www.leonardbernstein.com which also offers a full list of his compositions, a discography, a videography and many other resources for both scholars and music-lovers.