Symphony No.2 (The Age of Anxiety)
West Side Story Symphonic Dances
Jean Louis Steuerman (piano)
Florida Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded 19 & 20 May 2001 at Au-Rene Theatre, Broward Centre, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: November 2002
CD No: NAXOS 8.559099
Duration: 64 minutes
It’s good to find one of Leonard Bernstein’s finest concert works, the Second Symphony, available at budget price in a good performance. Hopefully the popularity of Candide and West Side Story will being more listeners to this symphony with piano obbligato inspired by W H Auden’s Eclogue focussing on four people who meet in a bar and interrelate to an optimistic, or at least hopeful, conclusion.
Bernstein takes a lot of flack as a composer. That he straddled Broadway and the concert hall confuses people who love to categorise. Well, music is music, and West Side Story is here made symphonic, an orchestral overview of his music-theatre piece (it’s not a musical in the accepted sense!). James Judd leads a polished and sympathetic account, not as hair-raising as the composer’s own (Sony and DG) nor, on its own terms, quite as sinister or edgy as the music demands – West Side Story, after all, is about gang warfare, dangerous love and is ultimately tragic. On a purely musical level, Judd’s obtains lucid balance and fine playing and all the familiar tunes are there to be enjoyed. The fleet Candide overture doesn’t fully savour Bernstein’s gift for mimicry; it’s high-spirited without tease of frolic.
Age of Anxiety better responds to Judd’s very musical if slightly streamlined approach. Again one notes a lack of atmosphere and, here, a less than fully penetrating insight into the music’s character-study; the ’meaning’ of the poetry and the very personal, and no doubt autobiographical, response of the composer seems a little too incidental. In other words the genesis of the music isn’t explicit enough.
Age of Anxiety has done well in recording terms. There are four versions featuring Bernstein – from him playing the solo part with Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony (in 1949) to three recordings as conductor, two with Lukas Foss as pianist, one with Philippe Entremont. Like Britten conducting his own music, it’s good to have other interpreters. For Symphony No.2, the full-price competition is from Dmitri Sitkovetsky (Hyperion) and Leonard Slatkin (Chandos). For the former, the pianist is Marc-André Hamelin, as virtuoso as you might expect, while James Tocco’s insights are ideally objective and integrated. The piano is a commenting fifth character, let’s say Bernstein himself.
The tight construction of the symphony’s first movement – variations on variations – is well attended to by Judd. The second movement – of Berg-like intensity and organisation, free (if precisely notated) jazz and something-better-over-the-horizon conclusion – doesn’t quite hold the attention as it can do. Attentive to the demands of the score if not always the psychology of Bernstein’s subjective reaction to Auden, Judd’s version, nevertheless, makes an excellent introduction to this great piece. Steuerman is a powerful if too much the concerto soloist; he is sometimes too loud (as recorded), and the sound overall, while clear and colourful, is aggressive in forte passages. If the music hits the spot then I recommend Slatkin and, then, Sitkovetsky’s slightly oblique yet curiously compelling account. Of course Bernstein’s own recordings are obligatory!