Leonard Bernstein Celebration

Bernstein
Prelude, Fugue and Riffs
Symphony No.2 (The Age of Anxiety)
West Side Story – Prologue; I feel pretty; Somewhere
Candide – Overture; I am easily assimilated; Lament
On the Town – Three Dance Episodes; I can cook, too
Wonderful Town – Overture; One hundred easy ways to lose a man; A little bit in love
Trouble in Tahiti – Island Magic

Kim Criswell (soprano)

Andrew Marriner (clarinet)

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)

Maida Vale Singers

London Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop


Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 11 July, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This concert juxtaposed two ‘sides’ of Leonard Bernstein the composer, and each half was separately labelled – “Bernstein in the Concert Hall” followed by “Bernstein on Broadway”.

During his lifetime, Bernstein’s concert music – with one or two notable exceptions – was often dismissed or derided, and it was invariably left to Bernstein the conductor to perform his own works. Since his death, there has been a noticeable reawakening of interest in his output: Leonard Slatkin’s series of recordings on Chandos springs to mind.

Prelude, Fugue and Riffs is a rare example of a Bernstein concert work without a specific programme or literary reference. Originally commissioned by Woody Herman, who never performed the piece, it found a place in “Wonderful Town” as a dance sequence, but was dropped from the final version. It was eventually premiered on an edition of the Omnibus television programme (in the States) entitled “What is Jazz?”. Benny Goodman made the first recording shortly after.

Prelude, Fugue and Riffs is scored for, in effect, a ‘big band’ – five each of saxophones and trumpets, four trombones, piano, percussion, solo double bass and clarinet. It was given a lively performance by members of the LSO under the direction of Marin Alsop, though it was not a blemish-free rendition; one or two high trumpet notes were ‘ducked’ and there was at least one missed saxophone entry in the fugue. Andrew Marriner’s feline clarinet solo enlivened the proceedings in the Riffs, and the thematic culmination leading to what is, to all intents and purposes, a ‘jam session’ was undeniably stirring.

The conductor had given a brief spoken introduction to this opening item, and she then introduced Bernstein’s Second Symphony with some illustrations from the orchestra. This was entertaining and will have proven useful to listeners unfamiliar with the score. Inspired by W.H. Auden’s poem of the same title, The Age of Anxiety is a piano concerto in all but name and follows the outline of Auden’s “Baroque Eclogue” very closely. Bernstein wrote a very detailed note, which was reproduced alongside annotation and commentary from Bernstein’s biographer Humphrey Burton in this evening’s programme-book, which was not (rather surprisingly) entirely free from errors.

Whatever Bernstein himself may have thought, it is not necessary to be intimately acquainted with Auden’s sometimes-thorny verse to be able to appreciate the second of Bernstein’s three symphonies. Cast in two large parts with three continuous sections in each, the piano is a kind of protagonist/reflector on the incidents and thinking contained in Auden’s poem. Like much of Bernstein’s work it is, ultimately, a quest for faith.

Bernstein himself was the soloist in the first performance in 1949, which was conducted by Serge Koussevitzky, to whom the symphony is dedicated. Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the soloist on this occasion, did not give a reading of total conviction, nor was it always technically secure. There was some surprising imprecision in the placing of chords, and given that he had his head in a copy of the music for most of the time, one wonders quite how well prepared he was for this demanding part. Some of the gentler, more ruminative passages, were effectively phrased, but when agitation was in the air, the volatile piano writing was not always accurately realised. He was, however, convincing in the jazzy ‘Masque’ of part two, tossing off some fiendish passages with considerable finesse.

Anyone who experienced the composer himself conducting the LSO in this work back in 1985 with Krystian Zimerman as soloist will have a lasting memory to treasure. Bernstein’s own impassioned advocacy is probably unmatchable, since he elicited a performance of almost Tchaikovskian intensity and fervour. Alsop took a rather tauter view of the music than did the composer, but with an appropriate and consistent sense of urgency. The tempestuous conclusion of the first part was most thrilling, and the finale glowed with convincing optimism. On the way there were some less than happy moments, with some imprecise entries, and evident insecurity of ensemble in the percussion-led ‘Masque’. I was unable to rid myself of the thought that this whole concert would have benefited from more rehearsal.

“Bernstein on Broadway” began with excerpts from his best-known work, though it is interesting to note that the composer harboured fears of being remembered solely “as the composer of West Side Story”. The ‘Prologue’ made a dramatic opening, although we were only given half of it. This was also marred by some infelicities – and missed entries – from the brass. Kim Criswell joined for “I feel pretty”, and I wasn’t completely sure that her mezzo-ish voice is entirely suited to the higher-lying line for this number, though she sang confidently enough.

I had doubts too about the second half as a whole and I wondered whether these disparate excerpts really ‘worked’ as a sequence, quite apart from entrusting no less than eight different characters to the same singer. Criswell’s wistful singing of “Somewhere” was poignant. Unlisted was the subsequent ‘Procession and Nightmare’ sequence – played with admirable conviction – and the Maida Vale Singers provided the choral refrain to “Somewhere”.

In the purely orchestral items – the “Candide” overture and the Dance Episodes from “On the Town”, there was some caution in Alsop’s approach. Just a touch more dynamism and less measured tempos would have made all the difference. Criswell was at her best in the ‘upbeat’ numbers – the racy “I can cook, too” and the self-deprecating “One hundred easy ways” were convincing in their nuance and conveying of double-entendre. I would have enjoyed them more had not every utterance from Ms Criswell been greeted by guffaws from a particularly vocal member of the audience.

Criswell sang one of Bernstein’s loveliest melodies – “A little bit in love” – quite touchingly, but one number that didn’t work was the “Lament” from “Candide”. Written for the title role – a tenor – the upward transposition did not do the melodic line many favours, though it was good to hear this more ‘serious’ side of Bernstein’s Broadway writing, and the accompaniment was played most eloquently, with expressive wind and string solos.

The evening concluded with another comparative rarity – “Island Magic” from the 1952 opera “Trouble in Tahiti” (not, incidentally, written for Broadway). In this affectionate parody of Hollywood-movie ‘hit’ songs, Criswell was tremendous and gave a performance of considerable panache.

Here, though, as elsewhere in this ‘Broadway’ sequence one wondered whether the amplification of the singers was strictly necessary since it lent unwelcome stridency and, surely, Kim Criswell’s voice is strong enough to project without artificial assistance.

However, it was heartening to encounter these two facets of Bernstein’s creative output and to be reminded of the remarkable diversity of styles which was his to command. He was the LSO’s President in the last few years of this life, and it is exciting indeed to learn that the orchestra and Marin Alsop are to mount a performance of Bernstein’s rarely performed and provocative Mass on 5 June next year.

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