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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Leonard Bernstein on ‘The Age of Anxiety’ (extract from an interview with Humphrey Burton) [1:48]
Symphony No. 2 ‘The Age of Anxiety’ (1948-49) [38:02]
Krystian Zimerman (piano)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 13-16 June, 2018, Philharmonie, Berlin.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 483 5539 [39:50]

Just recently, when I reviewed a live recording of Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, I mentioned that the first half of that London Symphony Orchestra programme contained a performance of ‘The Age of Anxiety’ in which Rattle and the LSO were joined by Krystian Zimerman. My Seen and Heard colleague, Claire Seymour reviewed one of the two concerts in question. Claire noted that Zimerman was clearly under the weather but notwithstanding this she found much to appreciate in his playing – and in the orchestral contribution, too – and observed Zimerman’s “instinctive affinity with Bernstein’s music”. Some six months later Zimerman and Rattle teamed up again in Berlin to perform Bernstein’s symphony and the performance was captured for CD.

Bernstein’s three symphonies are works with which I’ve always struggled – the Third in particular. Too often he gives me the impression that in these scores he was simply trying too hard. That said, it seems to me that ‘The Age of Anxiety’, despite its somewhat hybrid nature – part symphony, part concerto – is his most impressive venture in the genre. Krystian Zimerman is an apt choice as soloist because, as he reminds us in a booklet interview with Jessica Duchen, he had a long performing association with Bernstein, who he first met in the 1970s. They recorded Brahms and Beethoven concertos together and performed ‘The Age of Anxiety’ in concert. It was a deliberate decision on the pianist’s part to play the work again to honour the Bernstein centenary.

He makes a fine job of it. His playing in ‘Masques’ strikes me as completely in the idiom. He throws off the dizzying, jazzy piano part with great aplomb. (In passing, this movement prompts once again the question: was there anything musical that Lenny couldn’t do? After all, he himself played this devilish piano part in the first performances of the work.). A while ago I heard Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing the piano part in Marin Alsop’s recording of the symphony (review). I dug the disc out again, and once more I admired Thibaudet’s playing but his tempo is just a fraction slower than Zimerman’s and the Polish pianist is even more daring in his playing. Where the score demands it, Zimerman can be driving and full of energy, as at the start of Variation 9 in ‘The Seven Stages’ or in Variations 13 and 14 at the end of that section.

However, I think Zimerman is even more impressive in the many passages where the pianist is given ruminative soliloquies to play. So, for example, he really captures the listener’s attention in the Adagio section of the ‘Epilogue’, where his playing is really thoughtful and almost sounds gently improvised in a dimly-lit nightclub when nearly all the patrons have made their way home. Much earlier, his first solo in Variations 1 and 2 of ‘The Seven Ages’ is pensive and inward while in Variations 5 and 7 his ruminations have great delicacy.

The orchestral contribution is equally fine. Right at the start, where Bernstein daringly scores his ‘Prologue’ solely for a pair of clarinets, you feel that the Berlin players are wholly in tune with the music. Here the clarinettists offer playing that is wistful and oozing atmosphere. In all the swift passages the virtuosity of the Berliners really pays dividends: the playing is always razor-sharp and punchy. But it’s the sheer weight of tone that the orchestra produces that particularly grabs your attention. Never does the sound seem bloated but, for instance, Rattle and his orchestra deliver the angst-ridden climax of ‘The Dirge’ (track 17, 5;28-5:41) with great power and dramatic weight. ‘The Dirge’ contains the most challenging and austere music in the symphony and here it’s marvellously delivered. The Baltimore Symphony plays really well for Marin Alsop on the Naxos disc but they can’t match this level of tonal depth. I found Rattle’s way with the music highly persuasive throughout.

I think it helps that this sophisticated pianism and orchestral playing has been captured in a first-rate recording. The technical team responsible is producer Christoph Franke and engineer René Möller. I’m not certain, but I think they may work not for DG but for the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall because they have been involved with a good few of the releases that I’ve heard from the orchestra’s own label. The DG recording is cut at a somewhat higher level than the Naxos competitor and it has terrific impact. The orchestra is superbly presented; there’s real depth in the bass register – sample the double basses at around 3:00 in ‘The Dirge’ – while the woodwind, brass and percussion all make their respective marks very satisfyingly. Solo instruments are clearly heard but in excellent balance with the overall sound of the orchestra. As for the solo piano, it seems to me to be ideally balanced with the orchestra and the sound of the instrument is very truthfully reported.

The performance of the symphony is preceded by a brief extract from a longer conversation between Bernstein and his biographer, Humphrey Burton. In this segment of the discussion Bernstein offers a few thoughts on ‘The Age of Anxiety’. We’re not told when the conversation was recorded but my guess is that it was in the first half of the 1980s.

So, if you want a very fine performance of ‘The Age of Anxiety’, recorded in splendid sound, this is a version that’s very well worth considering. However, now we come to the crucial caveat. I have been racking my brain in an effort to remember if I have ever reviewed a disc with such a short playing time. I honestly can’t recall such an instance and one really does have to ask whether it can be justified to release a full-priced CD with a playing time of less than 40 minutes. Despite the undoubted musical merits of this release – and they are many – I think DG are taking something of a liberty in releasing this recording without any coupling whatsoever. I don’t know what else was on the concert programme when this performance was recorded; I’m sure there were good reasons why other music from that concert could not be included here. Surely, however, DG could have come up with something suitable to add to the disc. It’s disappointing that one has to modify the welcome for this excellent release simply because the playing time is so ungenerous.

John Quinn



 




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