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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Overture to Candide (1956) [4:19]
Fancy Free - complete ballet (1944) [26:53]
Anniversaries for Orchestra (1944-1948-1964-1989) (orch. Sunderland 2016) [15:32]
Overture to Wonderful Town 1953) (arr. Harmon) [5:21]
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Première recording (anniversaries)
rec. 2016/17, Sala São Paulo, Brazil
NAXOS 8.559814 [52:25]

Very sensibly Naxos have chosen to release as two separate discs the recordings from the relatively recent 8-disc box set of Bernstein: Marin Alsop's Complete Naxos Recordings which had not been available singly before. Important to note that Alsop's valuable traversal of her mentor Bernstein's work is still far from complete; no West Side Story [dances, overtures or show excerpts - except a rather odd concert version of the Mambo], Dybbuk, Songfest to name but three major scores. Hopefully, she will go onto record these and other works - certainly her interpretations are committed and impressive and a good place to start a Bernstein collection if modern digital recordings are a prime consideration.

All four works presented here are very well played by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and recorded in bright up-front sound that suits the character of much of the music. The disc opens with a predictably sparkling Candide Overture - this is pretty much a bullet proof piece as long as the orchestra are up to scratch and the conductor hits a tempo with suitable brio. Most do with a typical timing of somewhere between 4:15 - 4:25 covering most versions. Only Aaron Copland with the Czech PO or Iain Sutherland on a recent Somm disc in Hannover are significantly slower - to the music's detriment. Bernstein conducting Bernstein in all this repertoire has to be a reference point and his earlier New York PO version on CBS/Sony still sparkles as much if not better than most and sounds well in the latest transfer.

The longest work offered on this rather under-filled disc is the 1944 Jerome Robbins choreographed Fancy Free. Frank K. DeWald puts it very well in his brief but useful liner; "...in many ways [Fancy Free] defines the composer the world would come to know in the decades ahead." All the more remarkable when you consider that both the main creative artists were just in their mid-twenties. This is a great score which does distil all the brashness, display and underlying insecurities of not just Bernstein circa 1944 but perhaps the wider USA as well. Again Alsop conducts an effective and enjoyable performance of this impressive work. At less than twenty seven minutes Bernstein and Robbins cram in as much incident, narrative, opportunities for choreographic display and a sequence of memorable tunes as many a full-length ballet. Would I choose Alsop's version over all others in the catalogue? - no. For a couple of reasons; crucially she chooses not to include the Big Stuff prologue. The more I consider this score the more I think any performance or recording should include it. Bernstein conducting Bernstein here is not a lot of help; the NYPO/CBS version does not include the song while the Israel PO/DG remake does - but sung in an indulgently unappealing manner by Bernstein himself. Several other recordings include Big Stuff albeit in varying styles of recording and performance. These include Andrew Litton in Bournemouth on Virgin, Andrew Mogrelia in Nashville on Naxos and best of all David Zinman on Decca/Argo in Baltimore. The importance of its inclusion is two-fold; it sets the sleazy down-at-heel mood which is shattered by the testosterone-fuelled rim-shots heralding the opening Enter Three Sailors. Secondly, the music is poignantly referenced later in the score during the emotional heart of the work in the Pas de deux. No Big Stuff no reference.

What is interesting about Alsop's interpretation is its emotional ambiguity. As mentioned this is a score that superficially can seem all about confidence and display and the certainty of youth. But as with so many of Bernstein's works - right through his creative life - there is an undertow of brittleness, loss and doubt that undermines these absolutes. Alsop gives an edgier less good-natured performance than some. Her rhythms tend toward nervous syncopation rather than confident swagger - Bernstein/NYPO embodies this latter style to perfection. Perhaps the absolute ideal balances both facets but I enjoyed Alsop's slightly uneasy - emotionally not technically – approach. Perhaps one could consider Bernstein's oeuvre as an "Age of Anxiety" spread across several decades? Alsop is certainly better than the previous Naxos version from Andrew Mogrelia who is rather literal with this score - his powerful coupling of the complete Dybbuk is the reason to buy that disc. For Fancy Free alone the Zinman recording is my current first choice.

The main and overwhelming reason to purchase this new disc is the presence of the world première recording of the Anniversaries for Orchestra. This is a suite of eleven very short pieces derived from a series of piano works Bernstein wrote over a 45 year period. In total Bernstein wrote 29 brief vignettes collected into four 'books'. Variously these mark friendships, relationships, professional acknowledgements, memorials and the like. The original piano works have been recorded complete at least once - the version I know is by Alexander Frey on Koch. Orchestrator Garth Edwin Sutherland heard all 29 performed in 2016 and decided to orchestrate a selection. In the end he chose eleven and he has done a superb job. Although barely fifteen minutes long this emerges as a wholly enjoyable and very idiomatic set of miniature portraits in music. More to the point, the São Paulo players rise to the occasion and the considerable demands of the music. Part of Sutherland's brilliance is that in these already distilled miniatures he has further distilled the essence of the Bernstein sound; from intertwining instrumental pairings to carefully handled sparse textures. Whether these are meant as pen portraits of the specific person I am not clear; No.6 "For William Schuman" is just 44 seconds of angular energy and the following No.7 "For Stephen Sondheim" has a song-like lyricism so perhaps these reflect the professional aspect of those people. No.8 "For my daughter, Nina" has a gentle tenderness that is hard not to hear as the love of a parent for a child. As a composer Bernstein strove for greatness on the largest stage and the grandest scale and it is precisely by those measures that he is most often perceived to have failed; think Symphony No.3 'Kaddish', or Mass or his large-scale opera A Quiet Place. All works that have possibly more detractors as admirers. However, these little Anniversaries show that he had a real genius for an apt miniature. I guess it would infuriate a musician who wanted to storm the heavens to be celebrated for these musical bonnes bouches but better to be celebrated for something than nothing at all.

For sure Bernstein did not want to be remembered as "just" the composer of West Side Story and I suspect that could be widened to include all his musical theatre works. But in reality, West Side influenced the Musical Theatre genre more than any of his concert or 'classical' works did the contemporary music field. Wonderful Town is the most traditional '50's musical of the three major musicals he wrote. But it is still packed full of great tunes and exhilarating music. So taking the overture from that show in an orchestration by Charlie Harmon is a fun and entertaining way to complete this disc. Again the São Paulo orchestra enter into the spirit of the music and play well. I do have a nagging feeling that Alsop is not completely comfortable with this idiom - again things are just a fraction straight. Direct comparison with Rattle's first studio recording of this show for EMI/Warner emphasises the point - I have not heard Rattle's recent re-make. Rattle and his Birmingham Contemporary Music Group use the Don Walker charts which I assume are for the original pit line-up so the sound skews more towards the frontline reeds and lead brass. But Rattle gets the swagger and swing just right not just the pit-band sound. This is cocky, post-war boom music. Again Alsop is good, just not as good.

The engineering on the disc is good - the orchestra is well balanced and has exactly the kind of bite and presence this music needs. The detailing of the scoring registers well which in the Anniversaries is a repeated joy. For that work alone this is a must-buy for admirers of Bernstein the composer. As for the rest Alsop is a faithful and dedicated interpreter, although not necessarily the uniquely endowed performer of this music that the marketing people would have you believe.

Nick Barnard

 

 



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