Bernstein's Serious Symphonic Side

How many who love Bernstein's "popular" music—everything from On the Town and West Side Story to the final Arias and Barcarolles—have actually spent time with his three "serious," gravely introspective symphonies? Perhaps the best way to do so in up-to-date sound is to dive into Warner Classics' superbly annotated and recorded Bernstein: The 3 Symphonies from Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra, Chorus, and "Voci Bianche" of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Together with excellent soloists, Pappano presents the three symphonies on two CDs, with options of a 24/96 download and hi-rez streaming in MQA on Tidal. The recording balances out Bernstein's three soul-searching introspections with the original version of Prelude, Fugue and Riffs for clarinet and jazz ensemble, which Bernstein initially conceived for the Woody Herman Band.

Pappano's is far from the only recording of these works. Amongst the many available, Bernstein's different recordings of the symphonies with the Israel Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic, pianist Krystian Zimerman's recent recording of Symphony No.2, "The Age of Anxiety" with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic; and Bernstein's own take on Prelude, Fugue and Riffs with Benny Goodman and the NYP are all downloadable in hi-rez. Yet Pappano's effort stands out for quality of sound and depth of conviction.

Pappano is one of many living conductors and artists who spent time with Bernstein. A few years after watching "Lenny" work with conducting fellows at Tanglewood, he was proposed as a potential assistant for Bernstein's recording of Puccini's La Bohéme. Although that position never came to Pappano—who was already engaged to assist conductor Daniel Barenboim—he and Bernstein spent time discussing Puccini and literature at Bernstein's house in Fairfield, CT. Other conductors—Marin Alsop comes to mind—may have spent far more time coaching with Bernstein, but Pappano's undisputed excellence as one of today's top opera conductors makes him ideally suited to the nigh-operatic scope of Symphonies 1 and 3.

Both Symphony No.1, "Jeremiah" (1942) and Symphony No.3, "Kaddish (1961–1963, rev. 1977) reflect Bernstein's virtually Mahlerian struggle with faith. While Bernstein embraced his Judaism, and did not convert to Christianity as did Mahler and so many other Jewish composers and conductors who faced anti-Semitic persecution (footnote 1), he struggled throughout his life to come to terms with the 20th century's class, racial, and economic divides. He acknowledged as much in 1977, when he said "The work I have been writing all my life is about the struggle that is born of the crisis of our century, a crisis of faith."

The extremely powerful Symphony No.1 depicts the fate and lamentations of the Jewish people, who ignored the pleas of the prophet Jeremiah as they let themselves be seduced by the twin evils of power and greed. The three-movement work culminates in a powerful Lamentation, whose excerpts from the Biblical Lamentations are so moving sung by contralto/mezzo-soprano Marie-Nicole Lemieux that they virtually take the breath away. Lemieux virtually rips the roof off the temple with a powerhouse performance that, even though less than technically perfect, is as genuine in its cries of pain as were those of Janis Joplin and other greats (footnote 2). This performance must be heard.

The far-longer Symphony No.3, "Kaddish"—there's a video version with Bernstein on YouTube—includes extended sections for speaker. These were intended for Bernstein's wife, Felicia Montealegre, who performed in the American premiere and recorded the work with Bernstein and the NYP. A long time in coming—the original commission, for the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony in 1975, was never fulfilled—Symphony No.3 was completed shortly after the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Bernstein, who was deeply influenced by Kennedy, subsequently dedicated the profoundly Jewish work to the first Catholic President of the United States.

That the overly dramatic, quasi-melodramatic narrations by retired soprano Dame Josephine Barstow, 77, in Pappano's recording appear to be very much in the Montealegre mold does not make them any easier to embrace. Much more affecting, to these ears, are the beautiful vocalizations of soprano Nadine Sierra and the boys chorus, and the huge orchestral outpourings. Anyone who has ever undergone a crisis of faith and managed to get through it without blaming everything on "the Jews" will find echoes of their own struggle in this work.

I admit to having a tough time getting into "The Age of Anxiety" (1949). Perhaps, after a dozen more listens, I'll eventually get to like this somewhat abstract work, which reflects Bernstein's take on W.H. Auden's eponymous poem.

Symphony No.2 tells the tale of four lonely people who meet in a New York bar after the beginning of WWII, get drunk, and struggle with what has befallen the world. Foreshadowing Bernstein's own crisis with alcohol, this symphony for piano and orchestra posits the piano as an almost autobiographical protagonist who sees himself mirrored in the orchestra.

As Bernstein related in a televised interview with Humphrey Burton, the people

"get to know one another, and through friendship and the circumstances, which are the beginning of the War—War news coming out of the radio—and abetted by liquor, they become very close. And in fact, when the bar closes, they are invited by the girl to come up to her apartment for a nightcap. So they go on drinking . . . they have a party up there. This is all fake, of course—it's fake hilarity and comes to grief—but not to grief, but to nobility. They pass out, and somewhere in the aftermath of that false hilarity during the War, trying to be what they think might constitute . . . being 'happy' during miserable times, at least one of the characters does find the core of faith . . ."

That character may not have been Bernstein, but he certainly did manage to have a lot of fun amidst struggle. Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, one of many works that brought Bernstein's jazz-tinged Jewish-American sensibility into the concert hall, seems a fitting cap to his three serious symphonic outpourings.

Footnote 1: Bernstein had an even harder time embracing his homosexuality: see here and here.

Footnote 2: In the summer of 1968, I stood less than 50 feet from Joplin in a free performance in St. Louis, and found myself shivering uncontrollably before her in 80° weather because her pain was so all-consuming and wrenching.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"I'm not interested in an orchestra that sounds like itself, I'm interested in an orchestra that sounds like the composer" ........... Leonard Bernstein :-) ............

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Totally applies to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which sounded totally different in Mahler No. 3 and, on the next night, Shostakovich No. 4. And that's heard from the same row, one sit away, in the second balcony. See my review of the Mahler here:

Time to pack as we head from Paris to London. 7 concerts in Paris, many of which I'll be writing about.

dalethorn's picture

Nice to know that Lenny could channel the original composer across all those centuries.