Recording of November 2018: Bernstein: Arias and Barcarolles

Bernstein: Arias and Barcarolles
Isabel Leonard, mezzo-soprano; Ryan McKinny, bass-baritone; San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas
SFS Media SFS-0073 (24/96 download). 2018. Jack Vad, broadcast & mastering eng., postprod.; Jason O'Connell, post-prod. DDD. TT: 32:54
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

Why name this short digital download or streaming–only release of a live San Francisco Symphony performance from 2017—its native 24/96 PCM broadcast sound is a notch lower than the best-recorded titles in SFS Media's series of Davies Symphony Hall broadcasts— as our "Recording of the Month"? Because, as the centennial of the birth of Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) draws to a close, this new recording of his eight Arias and Barcarolles from conductor Michael Tilson Thomas—whom Bernstein asked to play piano alongside him when the original version of the cycle, for four voices and piano four-hands, premiered in New York City in 1988—is definitive and essential listening.

Arias and Barcarolles is far more personal and confessional than other Bernstein works. These duets for mezzo-soprano and baritone on the subjects of marriage and relationship express the bisexual composer-conductor-pianist's conflicts about his own marriage and his lingering sense of loneliness. They and other songs in the cycle also reflect Bernstein's acerbic, oft-conflicted critical nature, which frequently surfaced in his political activism and social commentary, including his cutting critique of middle-class suburban materialism and marriage, Trouble in Tahiti, and its sequel, A Quiet Place.

Even the title of Arias and Barcarolles is a mocking commentary on ignorance at the highest levels of government. After Bernstein's April 1960 performance at the White House, for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ike commented, "You know, I liked that last piece you played: it's got a theme. I like music with a theme, not all them arias and barcarolles."

Bernstein wrote the texts for most of the songs. The exceptions are "Little Smary," which he attributed to his mother, and "Oif Mayn Khas'neh (At My Wedding)," a poem in Yiddish by Yankev-Yitskhok Segal. Dedicated to Tilson Thomas, the song describes how people who initially disapproved of a musician's lifestyle (MTT is gay) ended up so moved by his music that they danced themselves into a frenzy. (MTT's grandparents, the Thomashefskys, were stars of New York's Yiddish theater, and Bernstein's father spoke Yiddish.)

Other songs are dedicated to Bernstein's family and friends. The only two conflict-free songs are the extremely touching "Greeting," composed in 1955, and the short, beautiful, wordless "Nachspiel," motivated by Bernstein's loves for his then 88-year-old mother and the piano's 88 keys—with a brief echo of West Side Story.

Arias and Barcarolles has a curious history. When Bernstein called Tilson Thomas's London flat to ask if his mentee would like to play piano with him in a new piece that would premiere in four months, he'd barely begun composing it. By the time MTT had returned to New York, Bernstein seemed to be working day and night on the cycle. As pages were completed, MTT, Lukas Foss, Michael Barrett, and others alternately joined Bernstein to play the work in progress.

A year after the New York premiere of the original version, for four voices and piano four-hands, came a version for two voices and four hands. In 1990 came the work's only piano-and-voices recording, with New York Festival of Song singers Judy Kaye and William Sharp, and Barrett and his pianist partner, Steven Blier. Then, in 1993, three years after Bernstein's death, MTT recorded for Deutsche Grammophon a version orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin, with Frederica von Stade, Thomas Hampson, and the London Symphony Orchestra. With singers Jane Bunnell and Dale Duesing, Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony recorded a version orchestrated by Bright Sheng—but it is MTT's first recording that, despite harsh string tone and a bright digital edge, has unquestionably led the pack.

That could now well change. Despite having a bit less air and space for vocal expansion, a lot more ambient noise, and a lower recording level than other SFS Media releases, MTT's second take is still the best-sounding recording of the cycle. It also features two of our finest relatively young singers: Isabel Leonard and Ryan McKinny, respectively stars of the Metropolitan and San Francisco opera companies. True, Leonard sounds a bit too focused on vocal production to fully let go in some songs, and doesn't begin to touch the remarkable freshness and emotional vulnerability of von Stade's heartfelt, deeply endearing performance of the tender "Greeting." But while McKinny's sometimes pushed top is no match for Hampson's mellifluous voice in first bloom, his extra energy sometimes suits the songs better than Hampson's velvet smoothness.

Most important, this recording lets us fully appreciate the depth of MTT's affection for Leonard Bernstein and Arias and Barcarolles. His attention to the sound and balance of the orchestral musicians he has conducted for decades produces extended sections of rare beauty. Ultimately, Tilson Thomas allows us to fully grok the greatness of this succinct summation of Bernstein's genius.—Jason Victor Serinus