Of Leonard Bernstein’s three Symphonies, the first two are jewels in his compositional crown (whether for the concert-hall or the theatre), The Age of Anxiety especially. Antonio Pappano and his Santa Cecilia forces, plus guests, do all the music here proud.
Jeremiah (1942) is a compact, three-movement affair – ‘Prophecy’, ‘Profanation’, ‘Lamentation’ – opening ominously (a wide dynamic range exploited, reproduced handsomely) becoming angst-ridden and glowering (Pappano’s use of antiphonal violins explicit). This is a young man’s music, but so assured, nowhere more so than in the (attacca) Scherzo that is incantatory and rhythmically pagan – intoxicating – the Cecilia players on their mettle, high trumpets scorching the air, horns similarly (although from 3’12 a slightly greater presence for them would have been welcome to balance the trumpets) before a glorious melody emerges that, had Bernstein re-used it, would have been a perfect fit in West Side Story. With Marie-Nicole Lemieux delivering the Hebrew text with intense declamation, searing at times, the slow Finale more than holds its own.
Symphony 2, The Age of Anxiety (1949/65), based on the near-contemporaneous and Pulitzer Prize-winning “Baroque Eclogue” by W. H. Auden, is a masterpiece. Auden’s extensive poem deals “with man's quest to find substance and identity in a shifting and increasingly industrialized world.” Musically, Bernstein’s Symphony is in two movements and six parts, the latter division matching Auden’s design. From the opening clarinet duet, expressing the loneliness of three men and a woman, to the resolute conclusion, the music is emotionally engaging and, on its own terms, ingenious, the latter quality most-evident in the fourteen variations (two sets of seven) that constitute the work’s second and third parts. A piano is the leading character – Bernstein the pianist at the first performance, Koussevitzky conducting – a role that Beatrice Rana fulfils admirably, although at times she is too closely balanced, even if this were a Concerto, which it is not. But, what a performance! Nowhere more so than in ‘The Dirge’ (section four), Pappano uncompromisingly exposing the music’s pained dissonance to a stomach-kicking and very disturbing climax – nerve-shredding – highlighted by brutal timpani and bass-drum strokes (perfectly judged in sonority); human sorrow at its most wretched; here Bernstein encompasses what most of us feel at some time; music that tells us we are not alone however abject we may become.
Symphony 3, Kaddish (1963), may be thought of as a problematical piece, and despite the composer’s two recordings, it’s Pappano who makes the strongest case for this narrated, vocalised (children’s and adult choruses, soprano soloist) and large-orchestrated score. Josephine Barstow is superb and dignified as the speaker, every syllable of the composer’s script (as revised by him) made clear and meaningful, opening with “Oh my father ... I want to pray, I want to say Kaddish, my own Kaddish...”. The text is wholly personal, revealing Bernstein’s contradictions and doubts, his appeals and rapprochements – complex. Musically it is compelling, eloquent, forceful, tender, harmonically adventurous and imaginatively written, whether exploiting Varèse-like percussion, a range of characterisation, and a sounding-together of diverse forces. The rhetoric is totally human, Pappano inspiring something special, a shared carousel of emotions, reaching for the sky, protesting, questioning, and finding light out of darkness.
Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (1949) was destined for Woody Herman but arrived with Benny Goodman. It’s a tour de force of painstakingly notated improvisation – pulsating, ecstatic outbursts, surreptitious strides and a crazed conclusion. ‘Count' Tony (a moniker good-enough for Ellington) and his Santa Cecilia jazz band (including saxes, trumpets, trombones, piano and drum-kit) give a thrilling rendition, a jam session with extra fruit, Alessandro Carbonare (the orchestra’s principal clarinet) sensational – they all are .
There may be a few cavils, but the power of the music and the music-making – insightful and deeply committed, honed with passion and compassion – won’t relinquish a five-star rating for a release packaged with annotation, texts and plenty of photos, not least of Bernstein himself who was no stranger to this noble Roman institution. One wouldn’t want to be without the composer’s own recordings (there are three each of Jeremiah and Age of Anxiety, the latter with pianists Lukas Foss, twice, and Philippe Entremont) and this Warner Classics set is – frankly – equally essential. Now, how about Songfest and the West Side Story Symphonic Dances.