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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918 – 1991)
Candide Overture (1956)
West Side Story: Symphonic Dances (1957)
Symphony No.2 The Age of Anxiety (1948, rev. 1965)a
Jean Louis Steuerman (piano)a
Florida Philharmonic Orchestra/James Judd
Recorded: Au-Rene Theatre, Broward Centre, Fort Lauderdale, May 2001
NAXOS 8.556099 [63:30]


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Bernstein’s three symphonies are among his most personal statements; and, though the First Symphony Jeremiah is by far the finest of the three, the Symphony No.2 "The Age of Anxiety", completed in 1948 and revised in 1965, and based on Auden’s eponymous poem, is a quite ambitious, serious work in its own right. To a certain extent, it might also be one of his most autobiographical pieces. The musical structure is rather complex though most of it (in fact the first part of the symphony) is a set of variations on the rather bleak theme stated by two solo clarinets in the very first bars. There is much variety and technical ingenuity in the ensuing music which holds up remarkably well, by Bernstein’s standards. Part 2 falls into three clearly differentiated sections: a dark-hued, sombre Dirge of some power; a capricious, jazzy Mask (a technical tour de force, by the way) and the reconciliatory Epilogue. Bernstein’s Second Symphony is uneven, though the 1965 revision somewhat tightened the overall structure. However the composer’s sincerity is never in doubt, which is why his best works eventually stand the test of time well in spite of the often eclectic style.

The operetta Candide after Voltaire has a complicated genesis (the libretto has often been reworked, adapted, enlarged, rewritten and condensed by a number of writers) but the sparkling overture has been widely popular from the start and has become an orchestral classic. It is a brilliant pot pourri of some of the operetta’s finest tunes, and the music moves along with zestful energy till it reaches its exulting alla Rossini conclusion.

On the other hand, West Side Story was a hit from the start and achieved an incredible number of performances. Its popularity was still greater thanks to the filmed version made in the 1960s and its many musical qualities were confirmed by Bernstein’s late recording of it some years ago. The Symphonic Dances also became quite popular and have been recorded on several occasions.

Globally, the present performances are quite satisfying, though Bernstein’s own recording of the Second Symphony with Lukas Foss playing the solo piano part is certainly the one to have. Their reading of the Mask is particularly fine and wonderfully recorded. My sole complaint about the present release concerns the rather unflattering recording which often obscures some of the many orchestral and instrumental felicities of these scores (the Mask is an instance of the present recording’s failure to bring out many details of the scoring), but this may be due to the venue’s acoustics. In short, not bad at all, but could have been much better.

Hubert Culot

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