Fancy Free [complete]
Mel Ulrich (baritone) & Mark Risinger (bass) [Dybbuk]
Abby Burke (vocal), Stephen Kummer (piano), Roger Spencer (double bass) & Samuel D. Bacco (drums) [Fancy Free]
Nashville Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 14-16 May 2005 in Blair Hall, Nashville; “Big Stuff” recorded on 31 July 2006 at the MTSU Dept. of Recording Industry Studio B
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: May 2007
CD No: NAXOS 8.559280
Duration: 74 minutes
This disc contains Leonard Bernstein’s first and last ballet scores, both being collaborations with choreographer Jerome Robbins. Co-incidentally, one of Bernstein’s final London concerts included the complete Fancy Free and the second suite from Dybbuk.
Dybbuk is one of Bernstein’s least known scores. This is only its second complete recording; the composer set down his reading with the New York City Ballet Orchestra, in 1974, around the time of the first production. He later extracted two suites and recorded them with the New York Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon. The music is, to a considerable extent, based on serial ideas – though, as ever, there are tonal moments. Inevitably, as in all Bernstein, these represent the ‘good’ characters, whilst the former are associated with the ‘evil’ forces at work in this disturbing tale of arranged marriage, bodily possession and death – based on the drama by Shlomo Ansky. This is a rather ‘tougher’ sounding Bernstein than we are perhaps used to; the result is one of this composer’s most cogent and compelling scores. A pity that the ballet soon dropped out of the repertoire, though I gather it is to be revived in the US with the original choreography.
This is a ballet score that can exist as a convincing whole without being inextricably linked to the stage drama. There is plenty of variety to engage the listener, from the dramatic opening, with its hierarchical pronouncements from the male singers, to the ‘lighter’ depiction of Leah, the unfortunate object of possession. Shades of Bernstein’s Russian roots (his parents were Russian migrants to America) along with his Jewish ones permeate the score. There are some allusions to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring as well as to Hebraic melodic inflections. Bernstein was clearly drawn to this story and depicts incident and character most effectively.
Whilst the composer’s own approach necessarily has its own authority – if not authenticity – Andrew Mogrelia’s is nevertheless powerful enough in its own way, and he draws fine playing from the Nashville Symphony. There are some especially expressive woodwind passages most sensitively rendered (cf. the oboe in ‘The Fathers’, track 2) and the whole performance has evidently been prepared with care. The male voices are both strong and eloquent when required and if the whole does not quite have the weighty intensity of the composer’s own recordings (Mogrelia’s tempos are usually swifter than Bernstein’s), this is nevertheless a recording to return to.
Placed second on the disc is Bernstein’s exuberant Fancy Free – his first real success as a composer and whose scenario (though not the music) gave rise to “On the Town”; another triumph in his annus mirabilis of 1944. A stage production of Fancy Free begins in an unusual manner – a gramophone record (or should that be ‘phonograph’?) plays a haunting blues song – “Big Stuff”. This is then cut off by the orchestra heralding the arrival of three sailors on 24-hour shore-leave in New York. Naxos’s recording precedes the performance of the ballet by a complete recording of the song – fine in principle, but not as dramatic as Bernstein’s and Deutsche Grammophon’s solution which has “Big Stuff” – inimitably sung (growled?) by the composer and interrupted by the Israel Philharmonic. The complete song is then separately tracked after Fancy Free.
The Nashville Symphony again provides pointed playing and Mogrelia directs purposefully. But in direct comparison to the composer’s various recorded versions, this performance sounds a little cautious – the brash opening, for instance, should strut and swagger more than it does here. Once again, the reposeful moments may be savoured and the reading is certainly enjoyable enough as a whole.
This is a unique coupling and, as such, may be warmly recommended.