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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Marin Alsop - The Complete Naxos recordings
Larger than Life a film by Georg Wübbolt
rec. 2003-2016
NAXOS 8.508018 [8 CDs: 450:48 & DVD 76 mins]

This Naxos celebration of Bernstein’s centenary brings together all of the recordings of his music conducted by his protégée Marin Alsop as well as some new and world premiere recordings. Marin Alsop decided that she wanted to be become a conductor when, as a 9 year old, she attended and was inspired by one of Bernstein’s Young People’s concerts with the NYPO. Bernstein took her under his wing when she was aged 31 and he became her tutor, friend and hero. His music is obviously close to her heart. By way of a superb bonus there is also a documentary DVD in which colleagues and members of the Bernstein family give an insight into Bernstein’s life and work. A lavish booklet is also included containing full texts and translations.

Georg Wübbolt’s film is an intimate portrait of Bernstein’s life as a composer, conductor and teacher. Everything he did was full of energy and commitment. His love of Mahler is the cornerstone of the rehearsal sequences included in the film and it is also good to see some excerpts taken from his famous NYPO Young People’s concerts. Bernstein enjoyed working in teams rather than in isolation. This explains why his love of conducting and projects such as West Side Story in many ways show him in his best light. Yes, composing was important to him, but he clearly didn’t especially enjoy the actual process of writing music. Kent Nagano, Marin Alsop and Gustavo Dudamel share their experiences of working with Bernstein and there are also some short interviews with the man himself. This is a very enjoyable DVD.

CD1
The Jeremiah Symphony is a setting of the Lamentations for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. The symphony has three short movements, opening with a slow, solemn and powerful Prophecy. This is followed by an energetic scherzo - Profanation. The concluding Lamentation showcases Jennifer Johnson Cano in fine voice, delivering the deeply felt music with emotional restraint and subtlety. This short symphony is approachable and enjoyable at first hearing with the influence of Copland not so far away. Bernstein’s inspiration for the second symphony was W.H. Auden’s poem, The Age of Anxiety. (1947). The symphony is most unconventional in its structure. Part one consists of an opening Prologue and 14 variations. Part two is a Dirge, Masque and Epilogue. Taken as a whole this is more exuberant than the Jeremiah Symphony and the contrasting variations are superbly played by Jean-Yves Thibaudet. The influences of Copland and Shostakovich can be heard running through part one. In part two the The Masque makes a big impression with its jazzy scoring for piano, double bass, timpani and percussion. I still favour Bernstein’s own CBS recordings but Marin Alsop’s recording is first rate with great playing from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and vivid Naxos sound.

CD2
The CD opens with the highly attractive Missa Brevis. Running for just over 10 minutes the music sounds like a modern take on mediaeval choral music with percussion added to give the music an extra edge when required. This is a skilfully written piece that bounces along with gaiety and charm. The São Paulo Symphony Choir performs the mass with a precise attack and rhythmic vitality. Personally I simply can’t take to the Kaddish symphony. Admittedly there are stretches of imposing and exciting music along the way. There are also a few moments of bombast and some fine melodies but this is all negated by the intrusive narration. The political and religious messages running through the text sound uncomfortable and somehow dated. It must be said that the performance and recording quality are exemplary. The incidental music to The Lark was written in 1955 and as recorded here it includes a somewhat less intrusive narration by Claire Bloom in a concert version of the piece. The Lark is based on the life of Joan of Arc and Bernstein’s music (as pointed out by other reviewers) is written in the same vein as Le Roi David by Honegger. The musical choruses are beautifully varied with their religious and French folk song influences. This is a lovely performance by the chorus but the narration has clearly been added in the studio later.
 
CD3
From Baltimore via São Paulo we now move on to Bournemouth. The talented Marin Alsop brings some real pizzazz to the south coast of England. On the Waterfront is classic Bernstein, with echoes of the romantic episodes and dance numbers of West Side Story. This is a superb film score and it captures much of the desolation and dark backdrop of the New York docklands. The opening horn solo - magnificently done here - sets the tone. The dynamic range is remarkable with the horn solo sounding as if coming from another world. The climaxes are shattering. The Three Dance Episodes from the musical On the Town are given brash, exciting performances with the BSO really on its toes. Times Square goes with a real swing, especially those fine smoking solos from clarinet, trumpet and saxophone. The conductor and orchestra bring the atmosphere of New York fully to life. Chichester Psalms is given a magnificent performance. The chorus sings with tremendous energy and power. To pick out one highlight the 23rd Psalm setting contains some of the composer’s finest music and the thirteen-year-old Thomas Kelly does a great job in his difficult boy soprano part. I still have a soft spot for the Aled Jones version on the old RPO label but this is its equal. This is tonal, tuneful, marvellous music and it is one of the highlights of this box set. The recording is spectacular with great presence.

CD4
The Serenade is in effect a 5 movement violin concerto. It was commissioned by the Koussevitsky Foundation and the composer presents the listener with a series of related statements in praise of love. The inspiration behind the work is Plato’s Symposium. The opening movement Phaedrus contains a germ of a theme later transformed into the song Maria from West Side Story. The contemplative second movement is followed by a mercurial Waltonian scherzo and a beautiful adagio. The concluding Socrates opens sternly but elements of country fiddle music and jazz gradually propel the work to an exhilarating conclusion. Philippe Quint plays the solo part quite brilliantly. The Divertimento, written for the Boston Symphony centenary, is highly entertaining. This is the composer letting his hair down and having fun. There are 8 short movements (Sennets and Tuckets, Waltz, Mazurka, Samba, Turkey Trot, Sphinxes, Blues, In Memoriam: March; The BSO Forever) and the score brings to mind the Jazz Suites of Shostakovich. The music is littered with quotations: Till Eulenspiegel, Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique and Beethoven’s fifth symphony just for starters. Turkey Trot is an outstanding orchestral miniature. The ballet Facsimile was written for Jerome Robbins and has as its theme the search for meaning in the spiritual wasteland following World War. The music is quite tense and uncompromising compared to most of the composer’s other scores but there are also some tender moments and colourful passages to be heard. There is some fine playing by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and the recording is full, warm and clear.

 
CDs 5 & 6
Marin Alsop considers Bernstein’s Mass to be his greatest work. I simply can’t agree with her assessment. I personally find it patchy and often embarrassing to listen to, especially the additional text written by Bernstein and his co-writer Stephen Schwartz. The piece was composed to memorialize John F. Kennedy, America's first Catholic president. It was performed at the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington in 1971. It was badly received at the time. The work is a melting pot of crossover musical styles built around the structure of the Roman Catholic Mass with a celebrant playing the central role. It’s a curious mix of Broadway, jazz, classical, gospel hymns, rock, pre-recorded tapes and pop. It makes Havergal Brian’s Gothic sound like chamber music by comparison. The music is often quite exciting and showy in a Carmina Burana sort of way but the majority of the Mass sounds hollow and, to my ears, seriously dated. Most of the material wouldn’t have made it into West Side Story or Candide. This isn’t really a Mass. As described by the composer it’s a Theatre Piece. Maybe if approached with that in mind others will get more out of the work than I did. If Godspell is your thing then it may have more appeal. Having been somewhat uncharitable about the work I have to say that the performance is a triumph. Orchestra, soloists and choirs are on top form and the recording is spectacular. This is another marvellous CD from Ms Alsop. It’s just not for me! Is it a masterpiece or a badly misjudged flop? Buy this fabulous set and draw your own conclusions.

CD7
In many ways this is the most entertaining disc of the set. It’s exuberant and stylish from beginning to end and shows off Bernstein’s remarkable melodic gifts to the full. It’s a shame that we don’t get to hear the complete Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. The short playing time at 53 minutes would have allowed for this to be included. Instead we just get a tantalising snippet - Mambo. Another snippet is the very brief Times Square ballet from On the Town. However this is included here, quite sensibly, as a reminder of New York, New York, the tune used in the eight variations that comprise A Bernstein Birthday Bouquet which then follows it. The variations are by Berio, Kirchner, Druckman, Foss, Corigliano, Williams, Takemitsu and Schuman and the first performance took place at Tanglewood in 1988 in honour of the composer’s 70th birthday. They form a satisfying suite that is fascinating and enthralling. The whole thing radiates good cheer and affection. The musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was a theatrical flop despite Bernstein’s attractive score. The suite is a medley of the show’s best numbers, opening with a joyous march. There is a humorous central calypso and finally a moving and solemn chorale that slowly builds to a glowing climax. CBS Music consists of a group of 5 miniatures written for the 50th anniversary of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). These have been skilfully orchestrated in the style of Bernstein. The 29 second long waltz is a real charmer. São Paulo Symphony Orchestra plays with great spirit, captured in vibrant Naxos sound.

CD8
The São Paulo Symphony Orchestra gets us underway with a bright, musically unrushed and alert performance of the Candide Overture. Fancy Free is a ballet by Jerome Robbins and the premiere took place in April 1944 at the old Metropolitan Opera House, New York. The story of 3 sailors enjoying their shore leave in New York was later used in Bernstein’s musical On the Town. Opening with 4 rim shots the ballet score has a prominent part for piano. The music, sultry and very much jazz influenced, is divided into 7 scenes with a central Pas de Deux. There are passages that owe something to Stravinsky, Gershwin and Shostakovich but Bernstein successfully conjures up the downtown atmosphere of urban New York in his own style. Over a period of 40 years Bernstein composed a series of intimate piano vignettes dedicated to his family, friends and colleagues - his answer to Elgar’s Enigma Variations perhaps? In 2016, from the 29 short pieces available to him, Garth Edwin Sunderland selected 11of them and presented them in his orchestral version Anniversaries for Orchestra. In its 15 minute span the work displays a full range of emotions and to Sunderland’s credit the orchestration is tastefully done and retains the intimacy and clarity that must have existed in the piano originals. This is a very useful and enjoyable addition to the catalogue. The overture to Wonderful Town is a straight forward medley of tunes taken from the show. It’s pleasant enough in its own way but nothing special. The disc has excellent Naxos sound and Marin Alsop delivers everything with her usual style and panache. The São Paulo Symphony Orchestra plays with terrific élan but the string textures are somewhat thin compared to their colleagues in Baltimore and Bournemouth.

To summarise, this is a fine Bernstein collection by Marin Alsop. Performances and recording quality are consistently good or outstanding and the documentation and DVD are first rate. I’ve been careful not to mention too many other recordings by way of comparison along the way, the point being that this box set should be snapped up by all lovers of Bernstein’s music. Another winner from Naxos.

John Whitmore
 
For reviews of individual releases, see the Bernstein entry in the Naxos American Classics series.

Contents (showing original release numbers)
CD1
Symphony No. 1 Jeremiah (1942) [24:14]
Symphony No. 2 The Age of Anxiety (1949, rev, 1965) [35:18]
Jennifer Johnson Cano (mezzo); Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop
rec. live, 21, 23 November 2014 (Symphony 1), 27-28 September 2013 (Symphony 2), The Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Hebrew text and English translation included
NAXOS 8.559790 [59:32]

CD 2
Missa Brevis (1988) [10:31]
Symphony No.3 Kaddish - original version* (1963) [42:32]
The Lark - Concert version of incidental music (1955) [16:34]
Claire Bloom (narrator), Kelley Nassief (soprano), Paulo Mestre (counter-tenor),
Maryland State Boychoir, Washington Chorus, São Paulo Symphony Choir
Members of São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra* conducted by Marin Alsop
rec. Joseph Mayerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, USA, 28 and 30 September 2012 (Symphony), Sala São Paulo, Brazil, 29-30 November 2012 (Missa Brevis and The Lark)
NAXOS 8.559742 [69:40]
CD 3
On the Waterfront – Symphonic Suite from the Film [19:25]; Chichester Psalms [17:53];
On the Town – Three Dance Episodes [10:32]
Thomas Kelly, treble
Elizabeth Franklin-Kitchen, soprano
Victoria Nayler, alto
Jeremy Budd, tenor,
Paul Charrier, bass
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop
rec.at Lighthouse, Poole Centre for the Arts, UK on April 14th-15th 2003
NAXOS 8.559177 [48:36]
CD 4
Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion* (1954) [31:18];
Facsimile – Choreographic Essay for Orchestra (1944) [18:38];
Divertimento for Orchestra (1980) [18:09]
Philippe Quint (violin)*
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop
rec. Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, UK, 12-13 January 2005.
NAXOS 8.559245 [65:04]
CD 5 and 6
Mass - A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers (1971) [103:38]
Jubilant Sykes (tenor); Asher Edward Wulfman (boy soprano); Morgan State University Chorus; Peabody Children’s Chorus
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop
rec. Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, USA 21-22 October 2008
NAXOS 8.559622-23 [64:53 + 38:35]
 
CD 7
Mambo from West Side Story [2:21]; Slava! A Political Overture [4:07]; Suite for Orchestra from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (arr. Harmon) [17:02]; CBS Music (orch. Ramin, Gottlieb and Sunderland)* [7:16]; Times Square Ballet from On the Town [1:10]; A Bernstein Birthday Bouquet (1988)* [21:28}
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop
* World Premiere recordings
rec. Sala São Paulo, Brazil 8-10,11,12 and 16 December 2016
NAXOS 8.559813 [53:46]
 
CD 8
Overture to Candide [4:19]; Fancy Free [26:53]; Anniversaries for Orchestra (orch. Sunderland 2016)* [15:32]; Overture to Wonderful Town (arr. Harmon) [5:21}
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop
* World Premiere recording
rec. Sala São Paulo, Brazil 28-30 June, 6-7 July 2017, 12 December 2016
NAXOS 8.559814 [52:25]




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