Bernstein Orchestral & Vocal Works

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Bernstein Orchestral & Vocal Works

  • Songfest
  • (7) Anniversaries, In Memoriam: Nathalie Koussevitzky
  • Symphony No. 1, 'Jeremiah'

This belated 'memorial' issue brings together two of Bernstein's most successful concert works (written more than 30 and taped nearly 50 years apart) with Slatkin at the piano for a suitably elegiac, thematically related interlude. The St Louis orchestra made the pioneering 78rpm set of the Jeremiah Symphony in February 1945—Bernstein's first studio sessions with any symphony orchestra—and this CD transfer is included at Slatkin's behest ''by way of documenting the orchestra's auspiciously begun and proudly maintained connections with Bernstein and his music''. Certainly the portentous, hieratic tendencies of the last movement are less apparent when the singer is as young and fresh of voice as Nan Merriman, and it is only in the central scherzo that the orchestra fails to cope with the demands of the idiom. No doubt the complex Stravinskian rhythms posed considerable technical problems—and it may not have helped that the conductor steadfastly refused to use a baton in this period. Bernstein re-recorded the piece twice but it has not established itself in the repertoire as he must have hoped given the early enthusiasm of Reiner and Cantelli.
Bernstein's one recorded Songfest was not remade, although in fact his team of soloists does not always blend well thanks in part to the abrasive edge of DG's recording. Slatkin and his engineers have different priorities. At first, the results seem recessed and lacking in impact, the swaggering eclecticism oddly muted. On the other hand, the more generalized, arguably more comfortable approach is conspicuously successful in holding things together. Textually and conceptually the score has had a chance to settle down (Bernstein's version was made soon after the premiere) and the pamphleteering element in the chosen material—bicentennial America seen as a rainbow coalition of oppressed minorities—is now less obvious than its literary merit and ready singableness.
While indebted to Britten's Spring Symphony as much as any indigenous model, especially in terms of overall structure, many of the individual songs are as haunting and personal as anything in West Side Story. Their neglect seems unaccountable. True, the orchestration is not always tactful, and 'operatic' vibratos can work against each other when forced, even with Slatkin's taut, sprightly treatment of the outer sections minimising any difficulty. One possible criticism of Slatkin's sextet might be that their singing is not entirely consistent in tone. Wendy White's familiarity with Bernstein's world comes over strongly in her detailed pointing, whereas Linda Hohenfeld sounds expertly pretty rather than angry (let alone authentically Puerto Rican) in her show-stopping number ''A Julia de Burgos''. Here at least one misses Clamma Dale's specificity in the DG Washington performance under the composer. Only the penultimate song, a curiously glowering setting of Edna St Vincent Millay's sonnet ''What lips my lips have kissed'' has worn less well. It's a tough nut to crack, lacking the deft touch Bernstein brings to the rest, regardless of autobiographical subtexts or Schoenbergian shenanigans. Paradoxically he thought most highly of it. Slatkin's special commitment to the composer is movingly corroborated in the notes.'

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