Bernstein & Bell – West Side Story et al

0 of 5 stars

Leonard Bernstein
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 Plato’s “Symposium”
New York, New York (On the Town, arr. Brohn)

Joshua Bell (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by David Zinman

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: August 2001
CD No: SONY SK 89358

The above order matches that of the CD – an hour’s worth of original and arranged Bernstein, the latter for Joshua Bell. You wouldn’t know the half-hour Serenade was included from the cover; Zinman and the Philharmonia only just get a mention. So, it’s Bell’s CD … and Bernstein’s, 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, it’s not at all bad. William David Brohn is an old-hand arranger, a good one too. He’s created for Bell a twenty-minute fantasy – just like in the 19th-century, Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy for example – and as such it works well enough. The tunes are great of course, and they’re more than just tunes; this is Bernstein writing above ’the musical’, creating something unique, something written in ’popular’ mode imbued with music’s great classical heritage.

Brohn opens with a haunting refrain, one not out of place in Roy Harris’s Third Symphony. It’s difficult to think of Bell’s violin as a character; we are a long way from West Side and its Story. Brohn’s medley and linking material – lucidly scored and sympathetic to Bernstein’s conception – does not compete with the ’symphonic dances’ that Sid Ramin and the late Irwin Kostal conceived under Bernstein’s supervision (Brohn hasn’t 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, Brohn’s 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 composer’s gift. This is successful partly because it requires Bell to be more direct in his expression; Corigliano’s 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 we’ve had McDuffie/Slatkin (EMI), Dicterow/Slatkin (New York Phil box) and Hahn/Zinman (Sony). Zinman’s second recording is like the rest, excellent.

Ah, real Bernstein – Serenade is as he wrote it. Five movements based on Plato’s “Symposium”. As Lenny’s daughter, Jamie, remarks, “You don’t need to read Plato’s “Symposium” to enjoy this spirited piece, by turns haunting and jesting, full of soulful sonorities and surprising rhythms.”

If Bell’s profile and the universality of West Side Story brings Serenade to a wider public, this CD will be worthwhile. It’s 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 it’s closer to Prokofiev in harmony and atmosphere. Certainly there’s 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 Plato’s “Symposium” at the Proms. Click here to read Chris Caspell’s review

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