I have not had very many kind words heretofore for the ongoing Bernstein issues on the super-budget Naxos label. And generally that's been because we have earlier presumably definitive recordings conducted by Bernstein himself. But this issue is different. I've spent a good deal of time comparing the 'Jeremiah' Symphony as recorded by Bernstein and this new issue from James Judd conducting the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Although there are some differences - Bernstein's performances are perhaps a bit more intense - the New Zealanders who, while I wasn't watching, have become a major orchestra, actually outplay the Israel Philharmonic (1977) and the New York Philharmonic of this score under the composer. In the first movement, 'Prophecy,' the orchestra's divided strings really dig in, the horn soloist plays with real angst, the winds coruscate and the percussion bring you up out of your seat. In 'Profanation' there is rhythmic snap fully the equal of Bernstein's--let's give some credit to conductor Judd for that--and the ensemble playing is as passionate as it is precise. In the 'Lamentation' movement the contralto soloist, Helen Medlyn, is fully the equal of both Christa Ludwig (IPO) and Jennie Tourel(NYPO)--and I thought I would NEVER say that; they are two of my favorite singers, Tourel particularly in Bernstein's music. Medlyn pours out beautiful sound as she limns the mournful Hebrew lyrics.
Just as the 'Jeremiah' Symphony was Bernstein's first big essay for orchestral forces, the 'Concerto for Orchestra,' subtitled 'Jubilee Games,' was his last. As far as I know there has only been one previous recording of it with Bernstein conducting the dedicatee orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic, and I've not heard it. Consequently I was somewhat unprepared for the music itself. All the usual Bernstein hallmarks are there--American-inflected Stravinskian rhythmic vitality, characteristic turns of melody, both complicated and spare textures, virtuosic writing for various intruments in sometimes odd instrumental combinations--but there is a granitic quality that one rarely encounters in his music. We're told there is a good bit of improvisation built into the score, especially in the first movement, subtitled 'Free-Style Events,' a percussion-dominated seven minute piece that has an intriguing controlled chaos about it. The second movement, 'Mixed Doubles,' an original theme with seven variations, pays homage to the 'Game of Pairs' movement of Bartók's 'Concerto for Orchestra.' Instead of like pairs of instruments, however, Bernstein couples mostly unaccompanied disparate pairs--e.g., double bass and viola; English horn and contrabassoon. The principal players of the NZSO have a real chance to shine here, and they do. The third movement, 'Diaspora Dances,' is an odd-metered, forward-driving piece that crams a lot of incident into its five minutes. One hears echoes of the dance music in 'West Side Story' cheek-by-jowl with Jewish folk dance rhythms and textures. The finale, 'Benediction,' uses a melody Bernstein had invented in one of his early piano 'Anniversaries' pieces. It closes with a benediction beautifully sung by rising American baritone, Nathan Gunn, to the familiar 'May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord lift up his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace,' sung in Hebrew, bringing the whole to a serene and consolatory end.