Age of Anxiety & Bolcom’s Piano Concerto

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.2 (The Age of Anxiety)
Concerto for Piano and Large Orchestra

Marc-Andre Hamelin (piano)

Ulster Orchestra
Dmitry Sitkovetsky

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: July 2001
Duration: 60 minutes

This unique coupling of Bernstein’s Symphony No.2 (featuring concertante piano) and William Bolcom’s 1976 Piano Concerto is singularly apposite and makes for a fascinating disc. Both composer-pianists, writing 30 years apart, have produced works that speak of the neuroses of the American mindset in the 20th-century.

Bernstein’s symphony/concerto hybrid, taking its subtitle, subject matter and formal structure from WH Auden’s famous ’eclogue’, is as authentic a distillation of the American zeitgeist of the 1940s as Edward Hopper’s ’Nighthawks’, reproduced on the CD’s front cover. Written around the time of the American Bicentennial celebrations, Bolcom’s concerto uses a manic collage of Americana to articulate the question of what his country could authentically celebrate.

The relationship of Bernstein’s symphony to Auden’s poem is a problematic one. Bernstein modelled the piece on the structure of the poem to a remarkably detailed degree and he initially considered a reading of the poem to be an absolutely necessary precondition to a proper understanding of the piece. As the work took on a life of its own, however, he came to see the poem more as a backdrop and indeed, in part, a liability, insofar as its agenda dictated the music’s content sometimes to its detriment. As a result, he revised the work in 1965, particularly the ’Epilogue’, where the stratagem of the original form had required that the soloist be silent (apart from a single chord) whereas musical logic required otherwise.

The performance tradition of the piece has been a continuation of this move away from a literal concern with its programmatic content toward an appreciation of the work based on its purely musical content. Leonard Slatkin, whose own recording of Bernstein’s First and Second Symphonies will shortly be released on Chandos, is one of a number of interpreters who have spoken of the need to listen to ’Age of Anxiety’ as a musical discourse. Indeed, the bipartite, six-movement structure based on the poem reveals itself as a symphonic design – if the first half of the work is taken to be the first movement and the three sections of the second half are perceived as slow movement, scherzo and finale respectively.

A comparison of the present performance with Bernstein’s own recording on DG (his third) with the Israel Philharmonic and Lukas Foss taped at the 1977 Berlin Festival (now a DG ’Original’ on 457 757-2) illustrates this trend. Even in the 1970s, Bernstein instinctively produces a reading that wrings every last ounce of Mahlerian subjectivity out of the music. By contrast, Sitkovetsky and Hamelin present a more detached view of the work. Listen for instance to the string tone at the beginning of the passacaglia that opens ’The Seven Stages’ (track 9) – Bernstein’s performance drips with emotion, Sitkovetsky is solemn and self-contained. Or the ’indecisive’ ending of the same movement – where Bernstein is angular and vehement, Sitkovetsky locates a vein of Shostakovich-like double meaning.The soloists also divide down the same line. Foss is more forthright than Hamelin, but the latter finds more light and shade in the music, a subtler performance all round. That said, Bernstein and Foss win hands down in the sudden explosion of jazz that is ’The Masque’. Hamelin’s conservatoire-style playing and restrained Ulster percussion can’t compete with the effortless high-jinks of Lenny himself.

Like Britten’s recordings of his own music, Bernstein’s version will always have a special place with its combination of authoritative reading and masterly technique (and recorded sound that is still competitive). Those wanting to hear the piece given a fresh interpretation which emphasises its purely musical merits (and how ingenious for instance is the ’Chinese whispers’ of ’The Seven Ages’, where each variation is a variation on its predecessor), should not be disappointed by this new version.

The inclusion of Bolcom’s concerto makes this disc well worth having. Its collage of musical styles (in the first and third movements) can only be described as Ivesian and results in a real roller-coaster of a piece. The first movement begins with an ascending C major scale of halcyon simplicity (which registers strikingly like a reversal of the descending scale with which Bernstein had lead us into ’the realm of the unconscious’). This is progressively overlaid with Tourette-like jarring detail until we are lost in a world of formless Cageian happenings, from which escape is by means of a passage for solo piano with a very attractive habanera at its centre – it is a strength of the piece throughout that its invented ’tonal’ material is fresh enough to work on its own terms. The C major music eventually returns but this time clad in garish orchestration a la Gershwin. The movement ends in a mood of panic.

The slow movement, ’Regrets’, is the only music in the concerto that seems to reach us without inverted commas – Bolcom’s real voice, as it were. This turns out to be a vein of mildly dissonant introspection, out of which the mayhem of the finale bursts forth, in a shocking manner such as Maxwell Davies might have fashioned in his ’foxtrot’ period. This is a kaleidoscope of quotations of patriotic American songs and marches, together with pseudo-patriotic original material, notably a cornet solo that turns into a country waltz that turns into a Broadway show. The climax is a crazy free-for-all that suggests George W Bush on speed. The final gesture is emphatically one-of-a-kind.

Hamelin acquits himself well in the solo part. The orchestral contribution is efficient overall but the wilder passages sound like the Ulster Orchestra and Sitkovetsky are some way off their regular territory. The recorded sound is fine in both works, although the densest parts of the Bolcom could ideally have been clearer.

Bolcom’s concerto is a highly original and engaging work. He regards it as one of his ’bitterest pieces’ (he has written other works which place America in a much more positive light – e.g. his beloved Pacific Northwest in the Fourth Symphony) but has apparently discovered that audiences have taken it at face value and been ’entertained’ by it. This may say as much about the general lack of irony and self-deprecation often to be found in the American psyche as about the nature of music.

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