Bernstein
Symphony No.1 (Jeremiah)
Symphony No.2 (The Age of Anxiety)
Divertimento
Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano)

James Tocco (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 9889
Duration: 79 minutes
Reviewed: August 2001
Unlike his stage works, Bernstein’s three symphonies have long been on the periphery of being core repertoire of 20th-century music. The debate regarding their symphonic status, or lack of it, and their vexed relationship with texts has perhaps impeded a fuller appreciation of their purely musical qualities. They may also have suffered from the problem that Britten’s operas initially experienced, namely that first recordings under the composers themselves were so authoritative that there were no challengers during the composers’ lifetimes. As a result, these works tended to be stuck in a hallowed performance tradition.
Happily, a new generation of interpreters has emerged to bring fresh insights to Bernstein’s symphonies. Erato released a recording of Kaddish, Third Symphony, a couple of years ago; Hyperion recently released a version of Age of Anxiety (CDA67170 - reviewed elsewhere on this site) and now Chandos has issued this splendid disc of the first two symphonies.
Of the two, Jeremiah is the more straightforward; its admittedly unconventional slow-fast-slow structure is the least text-dictated of Bernstein’s symphonies. The first movement is couched in a strenuous rhetoric familiar from much other mid-20th-century American music (Piston, Diamond, Mennin, et al), but, unlike a good deal of that music, it does not sound dated, which is due in part to the overwhelming conviction and burning intensity of the writing. The second movement functions as a sort of scherzo. It’s a rhythmic tour de force with beguiling melodic material closely derived from Hebraic liturgy. The third movement sets text from the Book of Lamentations and offers, in Bernstein’s words, “comfort, not a solution” in its mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon. Like Britten, Bernstein had an unerring genius for finding the right music with which to distil the essence of human compassion - this movement is a powerful illustration of that gift.
Slatkin is a musician steeped in the American musical tradition of which Bernstein was such a vital part; his account of Jeremiah is recognisably out of the same stable as the composer’s own on DG (457 757-2), which was recorded live at the 1977 Berlin Festival. Slatkin’s unforced, fluent rendition is an attractive complement to Bernstein’s more emotionally charged version. Bernstein’s account of the first movement clearly articulates an arch of rising and diminishing emotion, whereas Slatkin’s approach is more measured. Likewise, in the second movement, Bernstein focuses on the violently disruptive metrical irregularities; Slatkin plays these down to obtain a more fluid motion.
Both conductors find the finale’s wellspring of compassion and both are well served in this by their singers, Christa Ludwig for Bernstein, Michelle de Young for Slatkin. Both singers rise to meet the great climax with real power, but Ludwig’s more declamatory approach and the palpable sense of electricity generated by a live performance make the Bernstein account for me the more moving and involving at this cathartic passage of the work.
The Age of Anxiety inspired by, and structured around, WH Auden’s poem, has a similar trajectory to Jeremiah. Both works describe a journey from a crisis of faith to a resolution, albeit a provisional one. The Second Symphony has the ghost of a conventional symphonic structure (as Peter Maxwell Davies might say) buried within a bipartite, six-movement structure modelled on the poem.
Symphony No.2 also doubles as a piano concerto; the 1965 revision shifted the work more in this direction and away from the poetic structure by incorporating the soloist into the epilogue where hitherto the piano had been silent until the final chord. The first half of the work comprises a prologue followed by two sets of variations depicting the relationships between Auden’s four lonely drinkers in a Third Avenue bar. The first set of variations in particular posits the novelty of a variation that varies its predecessor rather than a common theme - an effective means of depicting verbal discourse without substance. The second half, which in symphonic terms embraces a slow movement, scherzo and finale, follows the protagonists’ taxi journey, party and apotheosis. The slow ’Dirge’ corresponds to Auden’s lament for the loss of the father figure, the ’Colossal Dad’, and treats this musically by references to Brahms and Schoenberg. The ’Masque’ is a sudden blast of brittle jazz that issues into the epilogue, where a Zen-like realisation that the divine is in the ordinary is mirrored in an abrupt modulation into simple diatonic writing.
Over the years, Age of Anxiety’s performance-trend has been towards a playing-down of the work’s poetics in favour of a more abstract approach. Both extremes can be observed in a comparison of the two recent releases and Bernstein’s own DG performance (coupled with Jeremiah as detailed above). Broadly speaking, Bernstein (with Lukas Foss as pianist) is on a permanently-high emotional voltage; Sitkovetsky (with Marc-Andre Hamelin) is cool and detached; Slatkin and Tocco are somewhere in between.
This is illustrated at the very beginning of the work where a quiet dialogue between two clarinets leads to the entry of the soloist with a chorale-like passage. Bernstein and Foss are already animated and forceful; Sitkovetsky and Hamelin are literal and neutral; Slatkin and Tocco are desolate and lonely - it is their approach that is the most convincing.
At the beginning of the second set of variations, ’The Seven Stages’, Bernstein is awash with grief, whereas Sitkovetsky is curiously formal and objective, and Slatkin is decisive. I particularly liked Slatkin’s pungent, burnished wind instruments in the ’Dirge’ but neither this performance nor Hyperion’s can match Bernstein in the ’Masque’ which is a wingding from beginning to end.
Slatkin’s pianist, James Tocco, is a Bernstein protégé and his playing has an appropriate brittle, wiry brilliance well suited to the music and certainly preferable to Hamelin’s more classical style, nimble-fingered as he is (although Chandos’s piano, as recorded, is rather tinny). Both pianists are more virtuosic and resourceful than Foss.
In summary, Slatkin’s version is a full-blooded account; this is the one to go for if you want a viable alternative to the composer himself and preferable to Sitkovetsky’s generally aloof and unidiomatic reading (his CD’s main attraction is William Bolcom’s hugely entertaining piano concerto).
The inclusion of Divertimento makes Slatkin’s disc even more desirable. This is one of Bernstein’s most delightful scores, with his West Side Story vein to the fore. Which other composer of international stature in 1980 would, or could, have written a tune like that of the ’Waltz’ - with no inverted commas whatsoever? Or ’Turkey Trot’, for which the only description is ’irresistible’. Or ’Blues’, which knocks together Fancy Free’s ’Big Stuff’ and a euphonium melody that surely gives a nod to the title theme of Bernard Herrmann’s score for “Taxi Driver”. Or the mock-Sousa finale (similar to the march-music in Bernstein’s Mass). I slightly prefer Bernstein’s more loving way with the ’Waltz’ and his more preening ’Turkey Trot’ (DG 447 955-2) but otherwise Slatkin is exemplary.
The Chandos sound is in the house-style but not as over-reverberant as sometimes can be. The natural, soft-grained acoustic complements Slatkin’s perceptive interpretations perfectly and is preferable to DG’s headache-inducing brightness, even if that brings greater clarity. Slatkin is strongly recommended all round.

 

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