Composer, conductor and pianist, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts and studied at Harvard and the Curtis Institute before going on to become a protégé of the conductor Sergei Koussevitzky (1874-1951).
He came to prominence in 1944 after stepping up to conduct when Bruno Walter (1876-1962) fell ill, going on to become Musial Director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958. As a composer he wrote for Broadway including the musicals Candide and West Side Story. His classical works included an opera, orchestral and choral works and chamber and instrumental music.
Marin Alsop www.marinalsop.com was a pupil of Leonard Bernstein and, therefore, is uniquely qualified when performing her teacher’s works which she has done to acclaim on a series of recordings for Naxos www.naxos.com. Following on from her excellent recording of Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Kaddish’ she now returns with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra www.bsomusic.org for a recording of Symphonies Nos. 1 ‘Jeremiah and No.2 ‘The Age of Anxiety.’
Symphony No. 1, ‘Jeremiah’ (1942) was written for a competition organised by the New England Conservatory. Though Bernstein didn’t win the prize the conductor Fritz Reiner arranged for the composer to conduct his new symphony in Pittsburgh. It went on to win the Music Critic’s Circle Award for 1943-44.
The symphony grew out of a setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. It is in three movements with the first, Prophecy receiving a finely judged opening from Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conjuring a sense of longing. The music rises through some beautifully expansive passages, wonderfully paced, allowing all of Bernstein’s details to emerge in the quieter moments. The music rises again, more intensely, bringing much passion before arriving at a terrific climax and tailing away in the wonderfully hushed coda.
We are taken straight into the jaunty opening of Profanation, Alsop providing some very fine contrasting passages as the rhythmic theme moves ahead, through some brilliantly dynamic passages, shot through with so many fine touches. This conductor draws some really incisive and taut playing from the Baltimore Symphony. The orchestra really let rip in the later thundering passages before some terrific, fast woodwind passages, indeed the whole orchestra show their brilliant panache and virtuosity right up to the decisive coda.
Mezzo-soprano, Jennifer Johnson Cano www.jenniferjohnsoncano.net joins for Lamentation where the Hebrew text from the Lamentations of Jeremiah bring moments of great melancholy set against sudden dramatic passages, this mezzo and orchestra finding a deep feeling and passion. There are lovely, hushed orchestral moments around which the mezzo winds some exquisite sounds. Later the orchestra rises through a dramatic section before a passage of great beauty from the orchestra. Alsop shapes this music quite wonderfully. The mezzo and orchestra bring greater passion, rising to a dramatic peak before falling to a small string ensemble, Bernstein handling his forces, large or small, quite wonderfully. The music slowly moves forward before finding a degree of serenity in the quite coda.
Marin Alsop, her players and Jennifer Johnson Cano give a performance that really convinces, highlighting a sense of cohesion and organic growth within this very fine symphony.
Bernstein read W. H. Auden’s poem The Age of Anxiety in 1947 and commenced writing a symphony, Symphony No. 2, ‘The Age of Anxiety’ (1949, rev. 1965), inspired by this book length psychological poem where four protagonists find some comfort in sharing their distress. It is in two parts, the first with a Prologue and fourteen variations that are divided into The Seven Ages and The Seven Stages. Part Two consists of three sections, The Dirge, The Masque and The Epilogue. It has a prominent part for piano taken here by the distinguished French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet www.jeanyvesthibaudet.com .
The Prologue: Lento moderato of Part I emerges out of silence with a lovely theme for two clarinets that develops through some very finely nuanced passages with the basses slowly adding a sense of caution.
The Seven Ages opens with Variation 1: L'istesso tempo where the piano of Jean-Yves Thibaudet alone enters gently, bringing a sense of melancholy and reflection. A descending harp motif heralds an increase in tempo and dynamics as the piano and orchestra move forward with more animation in through passages of varying emotional content with soloist and orchestra bringing a sense of continuity to all the diverse variations, Alsop pointing up Bernstein’s lovely tapestry of instrumental sonorities. There is a faster, light fleet section with a terrific rapport between soloist and orchestra as well as sudden mood changes before arriving at the final Variation 7: L'istesso tempo, a wonderfully blended slow, sad woodwind passage that is exquisitely done and out of which a limpid, descending piano motif appears, beautifully combining with a rising woodwind idea.
The Seven Stages opens with Variation 8: Molto moderato, ma movendo where the orchestra brings a heavily laden theme which the piano then takes, both bringing fine harmonies before moving through a lively and rhythmic variations with some wonderful playing from Thibaudet. The penultimate L'istesso tempo brings a dramatic passage of terrific impact before scurrying to a terrific conclusion with
Variation 14: L'istesso tempo (poco più vivace).
Thibaudet opens The Dirge: Largo of Part II with a rising motif which woodwind take up. The strings add some lovely sonorities, with terrific instrumental harmonies. Soon the theme is slowly hammered out with great passion and anger. The piano brings some finely shaped passages and it is the piano that brings the slow, quiet coda as we move into The Masque: Extremely fast in which Thibaudet brings some absolutely terrific jazz style passages along with an ensemble of bass, timpani and percussion, the music drawn from material from On the Town, with terrific panache. There is a terrific outburst as the music goes into The Epilogue: L'istesso tempo where a pianino (small upright piano) is heard to great effect. The strings bring an intensely passionate moment out of which woodwind deliver a plaintive theme. The piano enters, slowly and subtly adding strength with some beautifully controlled playing from Thibaudet. The orchestra rises magnificently before further fine solo piano passages, full of strength and breadth. Eventually the orchestra lead gently and beautifully forward before a powerful climax with a kind of resolution.
Marin Alsop, the BSO and Thibaudet pull this sprawling work together exceptionally well, revealing some quite wonderful moments.
With the finest of soloists and authoritative performances from Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this new release is highly recommended. They receive a vivid, transparent recording from The Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, Maryland, USA and there are informative booklet notes with full texts for Symphony No.2 in Hebrew and English.