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Reconsidering Bernstein's symphonies

by Tim Pfaff

Reconsidering Bernstein's symphonies

Among Leonard Bernstein's many personal identifications with Gustav Mahler was his fervent desire to be remembered as much — or more — as a composer than as a conductor. The score to "West Side Story" alone has accomplished that, but Bernstein hoped there was a place for us serious composers, too.

It's fair to say, if not fair to the compositions themselves, that Bernstein's three symphonies have gotten a much-needed boost from the composer's centennial, if largely by way of recordings. The obvious candidate for live performances during the Bernstein Centennial, now drawing to a close, was the Second, subtitled "The Age of Anxiety" (after the Auden poem that so moved the composer). All three symphonies feature major solo contributions, but the Second is such a crackling dialogue between solo piano and orchestra that it has the vitality of a concerto.

Credit Bernstein student, colleague and proponent MTT for keeping faith with the piece, having performed it with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet in both this and previous SF Symphony seasons. But even in the most savvy performances, the booze-fueled, mid-WWII angst in this symphonic "tone poem" leaves a less enduring impression than does its heavily jazz-inflected central section.

A new all-star recording with the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle with Krystian Zimerman (DG), a Bernstein colleague who has grown into one of the world's most illustrious pianists, somehow dulls the work's momentum by substituting monumentality. Perhaps the problem lies in a telling quote by Zimerman on DG's own website: "I always liked the piece. Bernstein knew that this is exactly the advantage an interpreter has: the ability to give a piece a life that the composer is sometimes too ashamed, too modest or too uncomfortable to present in the work himself."

This lingering, amorphous sense of shame still fouling the reception of Bernstein's symphonies is unceremoniously shown the door by Antonio Pappano's new recording of all three with his Roman Orchestra dell'Accademia Nationale di Santa Cecilia (Warner Classics), an orchestra with which the composer himself enjoyed a warm association.

Tossing in "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs" in the bargain, Pappano gives the most electrifying, detailed, convincing — and, to the point, moving — performances of the works to date, improving on the composer's own without somehow implying more shame. Pappano's "The Age of Anxiety" is everything DG's is not, snappy without being self-indulgent, playing the orchestra off against a hair-on-fire Beatrice Rana at the keyboard.

The key to bringing Bernstein's large symphonic works off is, pace Zimerman and legions of others before him, not backing off from their soul- and heart-on-the-sleeve fervor. But even with advocacy as trenchant as Pappano's for the First Symphony, "Jeremiah," its chances of sneaking back into the active repertory are slim.

Completed in 1942, it shows Bernstein already pushing at the edges of the form, one could argue prematurely. The prophet's lament about the damnation man brings on himself, sung here with conviction but barely controlled vibrato by the estimable mezzo Marie-Nicole Lemieux, is ultimately brought down by its own weight.

If no less declamatory, the Third Symphony, "Kaddish," intoning the Jewish prayer for the dead, deploys enormous musical forces — full orchestra, chorus, soprano soloist and narrator — with vastly greater skill to significantly greater impact. Completed and first performed in 1963, it has "West Side Story" breathing down its neck in all the right ways, finger-snapping rhythms consorting with dazzling instrumentation encapsulating a big tune you can't miss — or fail to be carried away by — even on the first go.

A performance under Leonard Slatkin capped the New York Philharmonic's "Bernstein's Philharmonic" series in 2017, arguing for its ongoing stage worthiness and its place at the peak of the composer's canon. Nowhere is Bernstein's personal struggle with the Almighty, faith and doubt, in a to-the-death rumble, more brass-knuckled than here.

Its success in performance has always relied on the Speaker who declaims Bernstein's text, conceived for performance by his wife, Felicia Montealgre, who herself knew a thing or two about rage at the creator. If you find their first recording of the "Kaddish," until now the finest, over the top, none of Bernstein's modifications since are likely to change your estimation. It's Bernstein at his most God-bothered — "Tin God, your bargain with man is tin, and crumples in my hand" — and all but sure to fall unhappily on the ringing ears of listeners spared that conflict.

Pappano has sagely paired the original score with the revised narration, and, critically, found himself the perfect Narrator in Josephine Barstow, the veteran British soprano who here proves she can carry the drama with words alone. The choral singing is as incisive and exquisite in every detail as the playing, and Nadine Sierra's soprano floats over it all like a benediction.

"Prelude, Fugue and Riffs" then wreaks righteous havoc in this unmissable recording.


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