BERNSTEIN Symphony No 3. Missa Brevis. The Lark
There are a number of recurring themes in Bernstein’s symphonic work (indeed his works for the stage) and the most omnipresent of them is the big ‘crisis of faith’ issue. Symphony No 3, Kaddish, is (along with Mass) the most specific in that regard, but the word ‘faith’ for Bernstein was as much about cementing the belief in who he was and what he sought to achieve as in any religious ideal. He was always reaching for the unreachable and seeking an answer – any answer – to the eminently Ivesian ‘unanswered question’. Kaddish is as much about addressing the creative spirit as the spirit of creation, and as a composition it is at heart most emphatically about the struggle to express exactly who he was as a composer and consequently as a man.
For that reason I have always enjoyed his daughter Jamie Bernstein’s reworking of the narration for Kaddish – recorded for Chandos under Leonard Slatkin (a terrific performance, too) – which makes this point more pertinently and personally than one could have imagined, not least in the conceit of addressing ‘my father’ to Bernstein himself, just as he had in turn sought to address his Creator. It is a telling twist on the original narration, recorded here in a performance of great conviction from Marin Alsop, with the wonderful Claire Bloom achieving a happy medium between the declamatory and the confidential.
Kaddish may be overcooked in some respects but as an example of Bernstein’s compositional gamesmanship – the motivic manipulation for one – it can and does dazzle. It’s also fun to hear him wrestling with the tonal or atonal question: do I write what I think I should write, meaning that which might impress my peers and elevate me to the ranks of the ‘serious’, or do I write what I want to write and indeed write best? He manages both here, pitting tone-rows against the aleatoric and a big ‘rainbow’ of Brahmsian-cum-Bernsteinian tune which ultimately comes to represent his own moment of truth. And, as always, there are instances of pure gold – a consoling lullaby at the heart of the piece (featuring limpid soprano Kelley Nassief) which Bernstein called his ‘Pietà’.
The companion pieces here might well necessitate purchase for hardcore Bernstein aficionados. Just as Bernstein’s ‘voices’ fuelled his inspiration – ‘As long as I sing I shall live’ is a key line in the Kaddish narration – so Joan of Arc’s drew him to Jean Anouilh’s play L’alouette when in 1955 he made musical flesh of Joan’s ‘voices’ with his incidental music for a Broadway production starring Julie Harris, Christopher Plummer and Boris Karloff. And from this mix of French rustic and lofty medieval, he later recycled and expanded the liturgical elements into a short Mass – Missa brevis – for the occasion of Robert Shaw’s retirement from the Atlanta Symphony. This pithy but harmonically vibrant little piece is especially notable for its concluding ‘Dona nobis pacem’ – a moment that brings such outrage in his theatrical masterpiece Mass but here even manages a little dance of contrition.