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CD Review

Leonard Bernstein

A Jewish Legacy

  • Israelite Chorus 1
  • Dybbuk - Invocation and Trance 2,a,b
  • Psalm 148 3,a
  • Reenah 1
  • Three Wedding Dances a,b
  • Yevarechecha 4,c
  • Halil 5,a
  • Simchu Na 1,c
  • Oif Mayn Khas'ne 4,a,b
  • Vayomer Elohim 6,a
  • Yigdal 1
  • Four Sabras d
  • Silhouette (Galilee) 3,a
  • Hashkiveinu 7,e
1 Rochester Singers/Samuel Adler
2 Patrick Gnage, baritone
2 Jason Smith, bass baritone
3 Angelina Réaux, mezzo-soprano
4 Michael Sokol, baritone
5 Bonita Boyd, flute
6 Cantor Howard Stahl
7 Hans Peter Blochwitz, tenor
7 BBC Singers/Avner Itai
a Barry Snyder, piano
b Jean Barr, piano
c Aaron Miller, organ
d Jack Gottlieb, piano
e Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, organ
Naxos 8.559407 55:47
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Bernstein early, Bernstein late, Bernstein all over the place.

Excepting Halil, "Silhouette," and the excerpts from Dybbuk, Concerto for Orchestra, and Arias and Barcarolles, none of the items on the program have been recorded in roughly fifty years. Indeed, many receive première recordings, and a few, première public performances of any kind. I doubt, for example, that many have heard Hashkiveinu. It's certainly new to me. The producers and Jack Gottlieb have burrowed into Bernstein's legacy of paper and come back with treasure. As you can tell from the timings and the number of works, most of the program consists of miniatures, but they're wonderful miniatures, full of those things that attract listeners to Bernstein's music in the first place.

The release belongs to Naxos' series on American Jewish music, appropriately enough. Unlike many major American Jewish composers, Judaica figures prominently in Bernstein's catalogue. I know of no comparable work in Copland's output other than Vitebsk, for example, or Tehillim in Steve Reich's. Indeed, Bernstein's religious interests inform many of his scores not explicitly "Jewish": the second symphony, Facsimile, Trouble in Tahiti and A Quiet Place. Even Mass owes as much to Jewish tradition (the accusation against God, for example) as to Roman Catholic. Strictly speaking, however, some of the pieces on this program aren't Jewish at all, but Middle Eastern – Halil, Four Sabras, "Silhouette" – and one, the "Three Wedding Dances," from the Bridal Suite Bernstein wrote for the marriage of Phyllis Newman and Adolph Greene.

A few things here more or less duplicate other recordings. Yevarechecha is an arrangement for organ by Bernstein of the last movement of the Concerto for Orchestra. This version beautifully serves a practical, liturgical function. Halil comes dressed in its chamber togs of flute, piano, and percussion. "Oif Mayn Khas'ne" is just one number from Arias and Barcarolles. The Dybbuk excerpt is just that, from (I assume) the piano-vocal score. I like hearing the voices again (as opposed to the orchestral suites), but the première recording of the complete ballet – one of Bernstein's considerable bests – is still available on Sony 63090. Nevertheless, all three pieces "work" here. The Dybbuk number comes over as more sinewy than in its orchestral garb. Halil becomes less lyrical, tougher.

The setting of Psalm 148 particularly interested me. The composer wrote it at roughly age 17, before he took hold of Modernism with both hands. Jack Gottlieb's liner notes characterize the work as "Victorian," which, though slightly inaccurate, will do well enough. Among other things, the young Bernstein shows a keen ear for harmony and effective voice-leading, as well as a preference for leaner textures than his somewhat Wagnerian progressions usually imply. However, Bernstein's melodic gift stands out, even at this early point. He may have written an old-fashioned melody, but it's a great melody of its type, beautifully constructed, with a concern for the "real, right" note at its emotional peak. Bernstein also shows poetic talent, as he adapts the psalm text to English rhyme and meter. His later problems with his own texts stem, I believe, from his overestimation of that talent. Nevertheless, he always had a real flair for light verse.

The "Three Wedding Dances" are pieces d'occasion, as in the sets of piano Anniversaries, the best-known Bernstein examples of this genre. The composer wrote a number of these things throughout his life for friends, family, even family dogs. However, the sheer amount of inspiration and craft that go into such miniatures astonishes you. In the Newman-Green wedding pieces, the first part (not recorded here) puts the first prelude from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, against the Comden-Green song "Just in Time." The first wedding dance is a canonic waltz, the second a cha-cha (shades of West Side Story), and the third a whirling hora.

Four Sabras and "Silhouette" come from Bernstein's trips to Israel. One of the sabras made its way into Candide ("Once again I must be gone, / Moving on to El Dorado"), and the rhythm of another found itself at the dance at the gym in West Side Story. Although Bernstein left plenty of good ideas hidden in such small places, he didn't leave these.

The "Israelite Chorus" comes from Bernstein's incidental music to Christopher Fry's play The Firstborn. It's terrific. If there's more music, I hope somebody records it soon.

The program also has a few of Bernstein's arrangements of traditional tunes: "Simchu Na," "Yigdal," and "Reenah." These are not so much "get-it-done" arrangements as little compositions in their own right. For example, the choral "Yigdal" is a close canon.

Only ten measures, "Vayomer Elohim" seems like a sketch for a new, larger work. Somebody found it among Bernstein's papers in a folder marked "1989" (the last year of the composer's life), but Jack Gottlieb speculates, on the grounds of style, an earlier date, somewhere around Dybbuk (1974). Despite its brevity, it opens up vast mental landscapes, where planets seem to stop turning.

Hashkiveinu, from the Forties, is (as I hope I've implied) a major event for Bernsteinians. For chorus, organ, and baritone soloist, it sings gorgeously, and yet in a different way from its obvious descendent, the Chichester Psalms. Again, a synagogue choir – or a church choir, for that matter – would do well to take it up.

The performances are uniformly fine, with Samuel Adler's Rochester Singers standing out. As far as I'm concerned, this counts as one of Naxos' major releases.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz