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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Symphony No 1, ‘Jeremiah’ (1939-43) [23;43]
Symphony No 2, ‘The Age of Anxiety’ (1945-49, rev. 1965) [35:08]
Anna Larsson (mezzo-soprano); Roland Pöntinen (piano);
Arctic Philharmonic/Christian Lindberg
rec. 2017, Stormen, Bodö, Norway. DSD
Text and English translation included
BIS BIS-2298 SACD [59:43]

I first encountered the partnership of Christian Lindberg and the Arctic Philharmonic in a stimulating set of the last three numbered Tchaikovsky symphonies (review). The music on this latest disc couldn’t be more different. However, it’s not Christian Lindberg’s first foray into the music of Leonard Bernstein for BIS: I greatly enjoyed a splendid 2016 compilation of music for the stage which he recorded with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (review).

I must confess that I’ve never quite come to terms with Bernstein’s concert music. I really enjoy his music theatre compositions – and I greatly admire the compositional skill behind that music – but I suppose I could sum up my reservations about the concert music by saying that, to me, it seems too often that the composer is trying too hard. I don’t for one moment doubt the sincerity, especially in a work such as the ‘Jeremiah’ Symphony, but there just seems to me to be something lacking, though I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Back in 2017 I found much to admire in a similar coupling of these two symphonies which Marin Alsop set down live in Baltimore (review). Bernstein was her mentor and she has a very direct link to his music. I was interested to see how Lindberg’s performances would compare.

By comparison with its successor, the ‘Jeremiah’ is relatively conventional in design in that there are three movements. As Geoffrey Block tells us in his valuable booklet essay, the origins lie in a piece which the young Bernstein wrote in 1939 and sent for comments to his mentor, Aaron Copland. The piece was entitled ‘Lamentation’ and he described it as a ‘Hebrew song for mezzo-sop and ork’ (sic). In due course, Bernstein used this as the basis for a symphonic work with the preceding two movements emotionally linked to the ‘Lamentation’ setting.

The first movement, ‘Prophecy’ has a very strong, determined opening as the new kid on the symphonic block lays down a marker (the piece was entered – unsuccessfully - for a competition in 1943). Lindberg is very impressive here and I think his performance is somewhat harder-edged than Alsop’s, though that may be due in part to the differences in recorded sound. The BIS sound has terrific impact and places the listener quite – but not excessively – close to the action whereas Alsop’s Naxos sound is a little more distantly balanced. There follows some music that is more subdued but still tense before Bernstein reverts to the rhetorical power of the opening, producing a big climax (around 4:50). Even when the volume is low, this is music about which there can be no half measures and Lindberg, in alliance with the engineers, ensures that Bernstein’s music makes its proper impact. Listeners who prefer a balance that more closely reflects a concert hall ambience may prefer the Naxos sound – and that fits with the live concert provenance of her recording - but I must say that I find the Lindberg/BIS style is vivid. Lindberg manages the quiet ending very sensitively.

The middle movement is called ‘Profanation’ and it’s worth looking at what Bernstein had to say about this in his original programme notes, a key extract from which is helpfully quoted in the BIS booklet: ‘the scherzo (‘Profanation’) [aims] to give a general sense of the destruction and chaos brought on by the pagan corruption within the priesthood and people.’ Marin Alsop is appreciably quicker in this movement than Lindberg: her performance plays for 6:59, his for 7:49. It has to be said that Alsop almost exactly mirrors the composer’s own timing of 6:39 in his New York recording of the work. Alsop therefore would seem to have authenticity on her side, and yet I think that at his slightly steadier tempo Lindberg achieves greater bite, weight and incisiveness. Alsop’s account is very good indeed but hers is more of a scherzo whereas Lindberg seems to me to bring out a dark quality in the music which seems to accord better with the composer’s own description. I freely confess, though, that had I not read those words of Bernstein and listened ‘blind’ I might have formed a different view of the relative merits of the two performances.

The last movement brings the setting for mezzo of selected verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Lindberg’s soloist is Anna Larsson and she offers impassioned, full-toned singing. Her commitment to the music is never in doubt but I must say that at times I found it hard to discern the words she is singing. (BIS helpfully provide a transliterated version of the Hebrew text as well as an English translation, as do Naxos.) Jennifer Johnson Cano, who sings for Alsop, is also very impressive in her advocacy of the music and though she’s not recorded quite as closely as Larsson her diction is clearer. Both singers are very eloquent but by a short head I prefer Ms Cano. The short, subdued orchestra postlude comes off very well in the Lindberg recording.

The Second Symphony, ‘The Age of Anxiety’ was inspired by the 1947 poem of the same name by W H Auden. Bernstein made no attempt to set any of Auden’s verse, nor did he specifically chronicle in music the story line of the poem. Instead, he used the innovation of a prominent solo piano to represent the four characters who appear in the poem. The structure of the work is very unusual – or, at least, it was back in the 1940s. The symphony is divided into two parts, each of which contains three sections. Part I consists of ‘The Prologue’ followed by ‘The Seven Ages’ and ‘The Seven Stages’. Part II comprises ‘The Dirge’, ‘The Masque’ and ‘The Epilogue’. ‘The Seven Ages’ and ‘The Seven Stages’ each consist of seven short variations, all of which last for less than two minutes, and here I think Naxos score a point over BIS by tracking each variation separately. Often, it’s clear where one variation ends and the next starts but that’s not always the case and when I reviewed the Alsop disc, I found it invaluable to have the benefit of the individual tracks. The work as a whole includes a lot of strongly felt music and there’s a great deal of brilliant writing but I struggle to discern any sense of symphonic development. I’m sure the fault is mine, and perhaps I’m way off beam, but the work seems to consist of a series of sections, all of them interesting but not really binding together in a whole.

‘The Prologue’ opens with a duet for two clarinets. Lindberg’s players are soulful and subtle. The pianist is first encountered at the start of ‘The Seven Ages’. Roland Pöntinen impresses here with beautifully ruminative playing. Jean-Yves Thibaudet plays for Marin Alsop and he’s also convincingly pensive. In fact, I should say here and now that I would not care to express a preference for one of these pianists over the other: both are terrific. It’s also worth saying that the Alsop recording, which was made in the same venue as the recording of ‘Jeremiah’ but just over a year earlier, seems to me to be fractionally more forward than was the case with the ‘Jeremiah’.

In both performances Variation III (Largamente, ma mosso) is expressively done. Elsewhere, there’s no little brilliance, both in the music and in the performances, not least in Variation V and I like the thoughtfulness which both pianists bring to Variation VI. ‘The Seven Stages’ opens with a short passacaglia (Moto moderato, ma movendo) Then the Lindberg / Pöntinen account of Variation IX (Più mosso [tempo di valse]) has brilliance, even a touch of brashness – I mean that as a compliment. The succeeding variations often require brilliance of execution and, indeed, a degree of edginess at times; the BIS performers deliver the goods – as do, in fairness, the Naxos team.

Part II opens with ‘The Dirge’. At the start this is dissonant and angst-ridden and the punch in Lindberg’s performance and recording conveys those things well. In mid-section there’s a slightly calmer passage where Roland Pöntinen’s playing is admirably thoughtful and often delicate. Then he leads the way back to the potent, dissonant music. ‘The Masque’ is an astonishing thing to find in a symphony – or, at least, it was in those days: a dizzying, jazzy movement for the piano accompanied just by percussion and a solitary double bass. The marking is Extremely fast and that’s how it’s delivered by Pöntinen and his colleagues. He displays dazzling virtuosity and really conveys the spirit of the music. Thibaudet and his comrades-in-jazz also deliver the goods. The music moves without a break into the closing section, ‘The Epilogue’. Originally, Bernstein gave the solo piano very little to do but he revised the section in 1965, greatly expanding the piano’s role: both Lindberg and Alsop use the revised version; indeed, I doubt the original version is ever heard nowadays, save on old recordings. Much of this section is an Adagio for the orchestra but the pianist interrupts the proceedings to deliver an extended, cadenza-like rumination. After this the orchestra reverts to the slow music, quietly at first, and then brings the symphony to a big rhetorical conclusion.

I remain unconvinced that ‘The Age of Anxiety’ truly works as a symphonic composition. However, fine performances such as this one – or, indeed, the Alsop version – show the music off to best advantage and make a powerful case for Leonard Bernstein’s concert music.

This is a fine disc. The musicianship is of the highest order and I think Christian Lindberg is a very convincing guide to these scores. I don’t know if we will hear him on disc again with the Arctic Philharmonic because he stood down as their principal conductor in 2019. This disc is further evidence that theirs was a very successful partnership. BIS have recorded these performances superbly. I mentioned earlier that the Alsop recordings, made live under concert conditions, offer a concert hall perspective. It’s the sort of aural perspective you might get if sitting in the middle of the stalls. The BIS sound has you, in effect, positioned in the front stalls. Personally, that impactful approach works for me, especially in music like this which needs to be delivered with punch and presence. That’s certainly what engineer Fabian Frank has provided. I listened to this disc as an SACD, using the stereo layer, and was very satisfied. The documentation is up to the label’s usual high standards.

John Quinn

 

 



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