West Side Story Suite (arr. William David Brohn)
Lonely Town (On the Town, arr. Brohn)
Make Our Garden Grow (Candide, arr. John Corigliano)
Serenade after Platos Symposium
New York, New York (On the Town, arr. Brohn)
Joshua Bell (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by David Zinman
CD No: SONY SK 89358 Duration: Reviewed: August 2001
Bernstein & Bell - West Side Story et al
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
The above order matches that of the CD an hours worth of original and arranged Bernstein, the latter for Joshua Bell. You wouldnt know the half-hour Serenade was included from the cover; Zinman and the Philharmonia only just get a mention. So, its Bells CD and Bernsteins, sort of.
Half the CD is of arrangements. The thought of West Side Story dominated by solo violin put the wind up me. In reality, its not at all bad. William David Brohn is an old-hand arranger, a good one too. Hes created for Bell a twenty-minute fantasy just like in the 19th-century, Sarasates Carmen Fantasy for example and as such it works well enough. The tunes are great of course, and theyre more than just tunes; this is Bernstein writing above the musical, creating something unique, something written in popular mode imbued with musics great classical heritage.
Brohn opens with a haunting refrain, one not out of place in Roy Harriss Third Symphony. Its difficult to think of Bells violin as a character; we are a long way from West Side and its Story. Brohns medley and linking material lucidly scored and sympathetic to Bernsteins conception does not compete with the symphonic dances that Sid Ramin and the late Irwin Kostal conceived under Bernsteins supervision (Brohn hasnt departed too much from this precedent in his orchestration), which is such a tremendous orchestral synthesis of the music-theatre original. Brohn complements that by including some songs not used there; think of the best-known numbers of WSS and they make an appearance here well, most of em - played with real affection by Bell.
Of the other arrangements, Brohns of New York, New York is an oddity Bell sounds like Stephane Grappelli, the Big Apple now a South coast resort in the good old UK. Lonely Town has its indelible melody intact, smoochy violin no replacement for human sentiment though. These are arrangements; Corigliano has re-created the Candide excerpt with a composers gift. This is successful partly because it requires Bell to be more direct in his expression; Coriglianos pay-off is as unexpected as it is convincing.
Serenade has fared well on record. Bernstein himself recorded it three times with Stern, Francescatti and Kremer. Since then weve had McDuffie/Slatkin (EMI), Dicterow/Slatkin (New York Phil box) and Hahn/Zinman (Sony). Zinmans second recording is like the rest, excellent.
Ah, real Bernstein Serenade is as he wrote it. Five movements based on Platos Symposium. As Lennys daughter, Jamie, remarks, You dont need to read Platos Symposium to enjoy this spirited piece, by turns haunting and jesting, full of soulful sonorities and surprising rhythms.
If Bells profile and the universality of West Side Story brings Serenade to a wider public, this CD will be worthwhile. Its a great work; along with the first two symphonies and Songfest, it represents Bernstein at his best for the concert hall. Scored for solo violin, strings, harp and percussion, such instrumentation suggests Bartok, yet its closer to Prokofiev in harmony and atmosphere. Certainly theres a European basis Bell puts Serenade among the top 20th-century violin pieces, up there with Prokofiev and Shostakovich overt Americanisms less present than might be thought, until the extended finale with its intense introduction, bluegrass element and nightclub bass.
Bell and Zinman a very sympathetic conductor of this repertoire, the Philharmonia responsive and virtuosic, swinging and sensitive give a winning performance of this ever-delightful piece, one wistful, energetic and alive to aphorisms, syncopation and tenderness; references and individuality are acknowledged and encouraged. Anyone coming new to Serenade will do very well by this performance, which, like the whole CD, is vividly recorded.
Joshua Bell performed the West Side Story Suite and Serenade after Platos Symposium at the Proms. Click here to read Chris Caspells review