Leonard Bernstein, well known for his dramatic stage music, also has a fair amount of serious concert and choral works to his name, some of which hasn't really made the same impact on general audiences (even though his concert works are extremely personal). His three symphonies, and to some extent, his Chichester Psalms and Mass, all deal with faith; faith in mankind, but through Bernstein's perspective in Judaism and struggles with sexuality. This CD features three concert works: Symphonies 1 & 2, and some lighter fare with Divertimento for Orchestra.
Symphony No. 1, subtitled "Jeremiah", is a 25-minute, three-movement work (Prophecy, Profanation, and Lamentation), the last movement utilizing a solo mezzo-soprano to the text of "Lamentations of Jeremiah". Written in 1942, the world issues of the day, especially involving the Jewish community, could certainly be at the forefront of the ideas in this work. The first movement, while slow, is filled with chaos; string-based and in an uneven meter (5/4), raw brass punctuations hit throughout the movement; there are moments of calm, but turmoil is the voice that speaks through dissonance and texture. The second movement scherzo is also in a constantly changing time, a bit of his dramatic stage writing comes through, with memorable themes, occasionally a cinematic sweep; but the mood is of the destruction after the chaos, and again brass and percussion punctuations bring home the point, as well as the off-kilter rhythmic emphasis. The final movement is a lament after the destruction of Jerusalem by Jeremiah; sometimes evoking chanted Hebrew liturgy, sometimes an emotional reaction. The finale ends in comfort with faith, but without solution. The symphony is a masterpiece, an emotional, occasionally dissonant, work which speaks on many levels.
The 38-minute Symphony No. 2 "Age of Anxiety", based on W. H. Auden's poem of the same name, combines Jungian psychology with issues of faith and sexuality, both issues for Auden and Bernstein. The orchestration features a prominent piano solo in addition to orchestral forces and a large battery of percussion. In two parts, Part 1 (Prologue, The Seven Ages, and The Seven Stages) and Part 2 (The Dirge, The Masque, and The Epilogue) follows the story of four ordinary people in New York who meet at a bar: Quant, an aging widower (intuition), Malin, a doctor (thought), Rosetta, a shopper (feeling), and Emble, a young seaman who realizes he is attractive to both men and women (sensation). The Prologue introduces the locale and mood briefly with a subdued clarinet duet, and the fourteen variations which follow, are more portraits than variations, often following the characters thoughts. The Seven Ages are reminiscences of youth to age, and The Seven Stages are the interaction of the characters, especially Rosetta who is attracted to Emble, and she invites everyone to her apartment. The Second Part begins with the Dirge, the four traveling in a cab, wondering why they accepted the invitation, represented by the dreamy, almost brutal music, including a 12-tone theme amidst a tonal world. The exciting and jazzy-sounding Masque finds Emble and Rosetta dancing, the rest wanting to leave; she sees them out, and Emble is passed out. The Epilogue ends in a reaffirming tone and a grandiose conclusion. Solutions of Judaism and Christianity, as well as seeing the path laid out before them, are feelings at the end. Slightly esoteric, the music on its own is interesting; the first part more mood driven and textured, while the second part is more thematic and contrasting.
Written in 1980 for the centenary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the 15-minute, 8-movement Divertimento for Orchestra is a gas. Each short part is a snipit of Bernstein's diverse compositional style. Sennets & Tuckets a fanfare, Waltz in 7/8, Mazurka, Samba, Turkey Trot, Sphynxes, Blues, and ending with a March, all centered around the pitches B & C.
Leonard Slatkin is by and far, the best interpreter of Leonard Bernstein's music, save Leonard Bernstein. A superb performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with special kudos to the excellent brass section. Leonard Slatkin gives invigorating interpretations of these heavy works, reveling in Bernstein's penchant for captivating rhythms and textures. The special performers, Michelle DeYoung and James Tocco, voice and piano respectively, are excellent performers and give spot-on performances. The Chandos sound is impeccable: a clear, spacious recording, where all voices can be heard crisply, with fullness. With these works, you can see an evolution of Bernstein's compositions, all superior concert works, all with heavy, serious subjects that were personal to the composer; be forewarned, however, unlike his stage music, this music is often gritty and dissonant: not for everyone. At 79-minutes length, the CD is chock-full of Bernstein's serious concert works; with unbeatable performances (save Bernstein alone), this CD is well worth the price.