BERNSTEIN Symphonies Nos 1-3 (Pappano)
Leonard Bernstein was the Honorary President of the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia from 1983 until his death in 1990. Temperamentally they were exceedingly well suited. Their ethos, their extrovert nature, to say nothing of their innately operatic manner, made them a good fit. And there’s something of Bernstein’s dynamism and eclectic, all-embracing nature in the person of Antonio Pappano whose penchant for, and love of, jazz for starters ticks one of the many boxes that this music demands. So here we have it: the three ages of Lenny the symphonist, fittingly signed off with that short, sharp, wacky jam session Prelude, Fugue and Riffs.
Let me say straight away that these performances come at us with a theatricality that puts them firmly ‘on stage’ where they belong. All three pieces are essentially about the process we all go through to ‘find ourselves’, except that in Bernstein’s case the question of belief and faith was to haunt him, trouble him, from first to last. How to reconcile being Jewish with his essentially agnostic nature. That The Age of Anxiety is flanked by the soul-searching of the Jeremiah and Kaddish Symphonies is nothing if not ironical.
One should give credit for the fact that Symphony No 1, Jeremiah – his very first orchestral work – sprang so fully formed from his imagination. For sure it is mightily filmic, a piece whose movement titles ‘Prophecy’, ‘Profanation’ and ‘Lamentation’ portend and indeed deliver biblical gestures; but the piece is big-hearted, too, and paradoxically there is an almost guilty jubilance in the central ‘Profanation’ movement – a destructive hedonism in which Bernstein’s composerly prowess advances in leaps and bounds, powering forwards on the back of driving rhythms and self-evidently American syncopation. We are pre dating and predicting here the prairie-pounding Scherzo of Copland’s Third Symphony and the Santa Cecilia players fully relish the heat of it (flaring trumpet fanfares and all) only to slink back into the singing melody of the Trio section which hardly needs saying could only have been penned by Bernstein. Then there is resonance in the closing lamentation for the fallen city of Jerusalem (the political overtones will never have eluded Lenny) with Pappano’s solo casting (inspired throughout this set) hitting precisely the right declamatory tone with Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s ripely theatrical delivery.
The Second Symphony, The Age of Anxiety after WH Auden’s tremendous prose poem, is I think Bernstein’s finest concert work – still hugely underrated in some quarters. This searching dark night of the soul, evolving as it does from that lonely two-part clarinet counterpoint at the outset (the musical equivalent of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and one of Bernstein’s most inspired ideas), uses an interlocking variation technique to great effect, each new idea emerging from the last notes of the previous one to create not just a sense of evolution but of new beginnings, too.
Again, Pappano’s choice of the audacious young Italian pianist Beatrice Rana – a rising star if ever there was one – is right on the money. She has the razzle-dazzle in spades, of course, but it is the mercurial throwaway manner (cool, and then some, the jazzy ‘Masque’ at the heart of the piece brilliantly on point) that really excites. That and her ability suddenly to look inwards and to thoughtfully reflect on what is past and what is to come. She and Pappano communicate great kinship in the piece and that inexorable build to the cathartic peroration has impressive inevitability. One of those eternally hopeful Bernstein sunsets or sunrises, depending on your viewpoint.
Symphony No 3, Kaddish, is still the most problematic of the three symphonies for me, one in which the music seems almost incidental to Bernstein’s spoken text. That text – highly emotive as it is – has always struck me as more therapeutic for him than it has ever been for the listener. What we have here is essentially a melodrama, a public venting of his troubled relationship with God, the Father. But Pappano has played an absolute blinder in casting Josephine Barstow in the Speaker’s role. She is tremendous and far and away the most exciting, the most affecting, the most probing narrator of any on disc. One can all too easily forget that she was an English scholar and an actress before she was a singer. She is blistering in her voicing of Bernstein’s angry confrontations with his ‘Tin God’ while the music for its part wrestles with its thorniness, finding respite in the central lullaby and the glorious ‘rainbow’ theme which Bernstein, one feels, knows all too well is the manifestation of his true self. But it is Barstow that makes the piece work as never before in my view and it is Pappano who should take credit for knowing all too well that she would.
Lenny’s Benny Goodman inspired-jam session Prelude, Fugue and Riffs is the most pertinent of postscripts to this terrific set. Alessandro Carbonare emerges from the orchestra to lead his feisty combo through the seven action-packed minutes where classical sleight of hand meets jazz improv. Hard to believe it’s written down. But then that was the general idea.