Saturday, January 7, 2017

Alsop Conducts the Early Bernstein Symphonies on Naxos

At the end of this coming week, Naxos will release the latest recording in its American Classics series, currently available for pre-order from The “classics” in question are the two symphonies that Leonard Bernstein wrote during the Forties: the first (“Jeremiah”) composed in 1942 and the second (“The Age of Anxiety”) composed in 1949 (but subsequently revised in 1965). This was the time after he had completed his studies at the Curtis Institute of Music (which followed his having received his Bachelor’s degree from Harvard in 1939), after which he spent the summer of 1940 at Tanglewood taking Serge Koussevitzky’s conducting class. His first major appointment would be during the 1943–1944 season of The Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York (now known as the New York Philharmonic), when he served as assistant conductor to Artur Rodziński.

The first symphony was not premiered until January of 1944 when Bernstein conducted it with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Mezzo Jennie Tourel sang the Hebrew excerpts from the Book of Lamentations in the third (and final) movement. The New York premiere came in March of the same year, again with Tourel, and the piece won the 1944 New York Music Critics’ Circle Award for best American work. In 1977 Bernstein acknowledged that this symphony marked an early stage in his efforts to write about “crisis of faith” through music. In other words the score does not constitute liturgical music but, rather, a reflection on the liturgy. Bernstein is hardly the only composer to have taken such a stance, but it is unclear how aware he was of efforts of either his contemporaries or past composers to pursue the same goal.

These days the phrase “crisis of faith” runs the risk of sounding hackneyed. In a world in which monetary value seems to have driven just about any other value off of the playing field, it is unclear how many people bother to thing about faith at all, let alone be troubled by it. To some extent the symphony runs a similar risk of sounding dated. Indeed, those who have built up familiarity with how music was being made during the first half of the twentieth century are likely to recognize more than a few instances of tropes associated with the music of Aaron Copland. This should not surprise anyone, since Bernstein viewed Copland as one of his mentors.

The second symphony, on the other hand, is named after an 80-page poem by W. H. Auden, who gave it the cryptic subtitle “A Baroque Eclogue.” I use the adjective “cryptic” because the eclogue is usually associated with Virgil, rather than the Baroque period. Furthermore, in Virgil’s hand, eclogues were relatively short. Indeed, Virgil’s eclogues tended to be the brief exchanges of pastoral dialogues, while Auden’s poem amounts for a four-character drama whose opening scene is set in a New York bar. Bernstein himself was also a bit cryptic in writing an extended piano part, suggesting that this piece was as much a concerto as a symphony. Furthermore, like much of what Auden wrote, this lengthy poem does not make for casual reading. (I am still waiting for the right opportunity to give it the deep attention it deserves.) Thus, what is more interesting about Bernstein’s score is his approach to writing variations, which may or may not reflect Auden’s text, even at the surface level of a “reader’s summary.”

This new recording is the latest in a series of performances by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Marin Alsop. The pianist for “The Age of Anxiety” is Jean-Yves Thibaudet (whom I was fortunate enough to hear perform this work in concert with the San Francisco Symphony in May of 2015). American Classics has provided Alsop with an accommodating platform for presenting Bernstein’s music, having released her performance of “Kaddish,” his third (and final) symphony in 2015. Naxos also released the two-CD set of her recording of Mass in 2009.

On her latest album she continues to present Bernstein’s music in the best possible light. The problem is that, at this distance from the Forties, that light does not shine as brightly as it once did. Ultimately, the juices only really get flowing during “The Masque,” the middle section of the second part of “The Age of Anxiety.” This is where Bernstein got to cut loose and disclose his deep affection for jazz pianist (apparently a far more conducive comfort zone than matters of crisis of faith). Those who know the repertoire may detect a serious effort to channel Willie “The Lion” Smith, one of those pioneers who was greatly admired by the emerging bebop generation (and rightly so). Thibaudet clearly shares that same affection, and his approach dazzles as brightly today as Bernstein wished it to do in the Forties. For her part Alsop provided Thibaudet with just the right context for what is unmistakably the most memorable portion of the entire album.

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