Leonard Bernstein – The Composer is, in terms of breadth and performances, perhaps the best of all possible overviews we can hope to get from any single label of this iconic American composer’s substantial and varied output.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Leonard Bernstein was a lucky man. A charismatic conductor, versatile composer, accomplished pianist, gifted teacher, he was a celebrity for most of his lifetime and now, nearly thirty years after his death, his star continues to burn brightly. His upcoming centennial in 2018 has given many ensembles around the world cause to present much of his music over the coming two seasons, while also allowing for the usual audio retrospectives to crop up.
The early highlight among these latter is Sony Classical’s 25-disc box set, Leonard Bernstein – The Composer, a handsome, if somewhat redundant, collection of all of Bernstein’s music he conducted for the label (back when it was CBS Masterworks), plus most of his theater works, many songs, and, for good measure, a set of albums featuring Bernstein’s music adapted and performed by other hands.
It’s quite the compendium. Of course, if you’ve followed Sony’s Bernstein releases since his death in 1990, you may well already own much of what’s here, thanks to their earlier Bernstein Century and Royal Edition series. What this set does, though, is to bring everything together under one (boxed) roof, remaster much of it, and present a rich cross-section of Bernstein’s theatrical endeavors which, for all their fame, benefit from the close comparison on offer here. (There’s also a nice, big booklet, generously illustrated, with written introductions by Jamie Bernstein and John Mauceri, to help curate.)
It’s not a perfect set: aside from a few excerpts, almost none of the music from Bernstein’s final decade (when he was a Deutsche Grammophon (DG) artist) is present, and there are some early mono recordings in Sony’s vault that could easily have replaced certain of this series’ later reiterations of songs from West Side Story. Those caveats aside, Leonard Bernstein – The Composer is, in terms of breadth and performances, perhaps the best of all possible overviews we can hope to get from any single label of this iconic American composer’s substantial and varied output.
Above all, this set demonstrates the stylistic consistency, emotional depth, and dramatic range of Bernstein’s still-sometimes-dismissed and -misunderstood compositional output. The recordings of his orchestral music in it are uniformly superb and almost entirely definitive. Fancy Free, the “Dance Episodes” from On the Town, Facsimile, the Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront, the Overture to Candide, the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Chichester Psalms, and Dybbuk have never been topped by any conductor on any label, and that includes Bernstein’s re-recordings of all of them in the ‘70s and ‘80s with the Israel Philharmonic for DG.
The few other works that have serious rivals in the catalogue have aged well: Zino Francescatti’s 1965 performance of the Serenade, for instance, comes across powerfully. And Benny Goodman’s account of the clarinet solos in the Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs is raucous and gleeful.
Bernstein’s three symphonies also impress. He recorded all of them twice, once for Sony and again for DG. For my money, only the Second (“The Age of Anxiety”) was bettered in the later cycle: Lukas Foss was more at home in Bernstein’s jazzy idiom than Philippe Entremont and the Israel Philharmonic was better recorded than were the New Yorkers. Otherwise, Jenny Tourel’s account of the finale of the Jeremiah Symphony (no. 1) compares favorably to Christa Ludwig’s later one. And the playing of the New York Philharmonic (NYPO) here has, at times, a bit of an edge that the Israel Philharmonic (later on) lacked.
Bernstein’s DG recording of the Kaddish Symphony benefits from some judicious revisions of its occasionally embarrassing narration. The only problem is that plenty of cringe-worthy moments remain in that edited text. So, given that the spoken parts of both versions are flawed, it’s hard to argue against the original one offered here with Bernstein’s wife, the actress Felicia Montealegre, holding absolutely nothing back in her performance. Tourel, Bernstein’s good friend and long-time collaborator, shines in the soprano’s solos, as do the NYPO and Camerata Singers.
Bernstein was, by nature, a man of the theater and Kaddish (at least until the later Concerto for Orchestra) is his most theatrical symphonic score. As for his musicals, they consistently demonstrate a composer freely drawing on a variety of elements – from popular styles of the day to sophisticated symphonic episodes – to craft an array of dramatic results, from riotously funny to dead serious.
For instance, to listen to On the Town and Wonderful Town, Bernstein’s two shows with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, is to experience a blast of the jazz, swing, jitterbug, torch songs, and the like Bernstein grew up with in the ‘20s and ‘30s – not to mention an array of quirky, often loveable characters that tend to be far more than cardboard cutouts, and some of the cleverest lyrics penned by any team of twenty-somethings.
The recordings of those pieces included here – Bernstein’s 1960 account of On the Town that reunited several of the principals (Comden, Green, Nancy Walker, and Cris Alexander) sixteen years after its debut and the 1958 television cast recording of Wonderful Town led by Leonard Engel (with Rosalind Russell reprising her Tony Award-winning role of Ruth) – are virtually unbeatable. The playing and singing on each is consistently fresh, sometimes even brash. Much of the former swings with a natural ease that’s not to be found in Michael Tilson Thomas’s 1992 re-recording on DG (that one not so well cast, either, with a host of opera singers taking over some of the lead roles). And, while Simon Rattle’s 1999 Wonderful Town for EMI continues to hold up well, there’s much to recommend this one, above all Russell’s no-nonsense Ruth.
Then there’s Bernstein’s ill-fated “valentine to operetta,” Candide, which turns up twice in this set, first in its original 1956 Broadway soundtrack with the incomparable Barbara Cook singing Cunegonde, then in Hugh Wheeler’s 1973 “Chelsea Version.” For all the popular success of the latter, it’s the original, with its dry wit and brilliant performances, that leaves the stronger impression.
West Side Story is also represented by a pair of recordings: the original 1957 Broadway cast (with a fresh-voiced Larry Kert as Tony, Carol Lawrence as Maria, and Chita Rivera as a blazing Anita) and the 1960 film soundtrack. Hearing the two side-by-side provides some curious contrasts, mainly to the detriment of the film version (where the songs are reordered and certain questionable lyrics are cleaned up). But the singing and instrumental playing on both is filled with brio.
Equally fervent is Mass, Bernstein’s 1971 Kennedy Center opener. Nearly fifty years on, Alan Titus’ Celebrant is spellbinding: a wholly convincing blend of innocence, conviction, and, ultimately, disillusion. And Bernstein’s larger study on the challenge of maintaining religious faith amid the distractions of the modern world remains, itself, all too relevant.
Bernstein’s incidental music to Peter Pan and his one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti round out this overview of his theater music. The former is not a major work, though several of the songs (like “Who Am I?,” “Build My House,” and “Peter, Peter”) feature Bernstein at his most natural and unaffected. The latter, a commentary on alienation and marital loneliness set amid the backdrop of an idyllic 1950s suburbia, taps a similar lyrical vein, though with a bit more of a satirical edge.
Bernstein the songsmith is represented both as filler on several of the orchestral discs and on a set of three albums, the highlight of which is the re-release of Leonard Slatkin’s exceptional 1992 St. Louis Symphony recording of Songfest, a celebration of American diversity written for the 1976 bicentennial. I’ve argued that this piece is among Bernstein’s most important and ought to be central to the repertoire of American orchestras and conductors. Slatkin and a cast of singers that includes Wendy White and John Cheek make a powerful case for it.
Also excellent on that disc is Marilyn Horne’s “I Will Breathe a Mountain,” a set of eight Bernstein songs ranging from the early “Rabbit at Top Speed” (from La bonne cuisine) to the finale of Arias and Barcarolles, Bernstein’s final important score, completed in 1988.
Among other vocal highlights is Jenny Tourel’s reading of the complete La bonne cuisine (in Bernstein’s English translation), Blanche Thebom singing “Afterthought,” and a re-release of The Bernstein Songbook, the last a 1988 compilation of snatches from musicals (full recordings of all are included in this set, but the disc makes a nice overview of some of their high points).
It’s the final set of CDs – mostly arrangements of Bernstein’s music by other hands – that are the most eyebrow-raising. Some are remarkably awful. The Canadian Brass’s all-Bernstein album is possibly, as far as the arrangements go, the group’s worst, full of schlocky deconstructions of songs from West Side Story and Candide and ending with what can best be described as a truly byzantine setting of “Gee, Officer Krupke,” hip-hop beats and all.
Then there are Joshua Bell’s renditions of four syrupy arrangements of selections from West Side Story, Candide, and On the Town on an installment that’s supposed to focus on Bernstein’s chamber and concert music. Only two true “chamber” scores are present: the eighty-second-long Rondo for Lifey and the twelve-minute-long Clarinet Sonata, the latter of which is treated to no less than three different settings (including one iteration for orchestra). Where’s any of the solo piano music? The pieces for brass and piano? The Piano Trio? Dance Suite? Except for Bernstein’s recording of the Seven Anniversaries filling out an earlier disc, none of it is anywhere in sight here. That’s a bit of a programmatic misfire.
Harolyn Blackwell’s A Simple Song is more musically satisfying, though it offers its share of quirks (like an arrangement of the song cycle “I Hate Music” that unnecessarily adds percussion). But there’s an affecting set from West Side Story, a nice rendition of the title song, and a rare performance of Bernstein’s “Sean Song” (for Sean Lennon) to balance out the odd moments.
Best of this last set is “Leonard Bernstein in Jazz,” a two-disc album of various ensembles and artists – the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Aaron Bell Trio, Branford and Ellis Marsalis, and Andre Previn among them – playing sets based almost exclusively on West Side Story. Here, the level of musical invention is, generally, working on a high level and, while it would be nice to have a wider sampling of Bernstein standards to draw from (Mass seems like it would offer particularly fertile territory to explore), there’s impressive stylistic and technical variety on display (just check out the range of “Marias” between Brubeck, Marsalis, and Previn).
In his predictably scathing review of Mass in 1971, New York Times critic Harold Schonberg paid Bernstein something of a backhanded compliment, admitting that he was a very adept composer of light music (no small accomplishment that) but, when he “reached for the infinite,” he was usually “thrown for a loss.” Taken as a whole, this box refutes that claim. Bernstein reached for the infinite (if not always the sacred) in nearly everything he wrote, sometimes with smaller gestures (like “Some Other Time” from On the Town or “Tonight” in West Side Story or “A Simple Song” in Mass), sometimes with big ones. If his grandest moments sometimes veer into statements that are uncomfortably personal (as parts of Kaddish and Mass arguably do), well, it’s part and parcel of the man himself, who was unabashedly emotional, provocative, contradictory, infuriating, and brilliant – and public (or nearly so) about it all.
The music is, in the end, the perfect mirror of its composer and this box is Bernstein’s aural biography. Or, rather – as near as we’re probably going to get – his autobiography. That his music coheres so well, despite its debts to various, sometimes conflicting, stylistic, philosophical, aesthetic, and spiritual viewpoints is nothing short of remarkable. But its ability to speak to the moment shouldn’t come as a surprise. At his formidable best, Bernstein was classical music’s Great Communicator. His music never shied away from the gritty questions and problems of the day and many of his deepest concerns – about race, social and economic justice, and the like – remain unresolved in our time. That fact, rather tragically, ensures his music’s timeliness.
But, beyond that, it’s a great body of work: clever, profound, witty, sad, exhilarating, sweet, meaningful, and expressive. With this set, you can experience it all, up close. Taking it all together, then, it seems safe to say that Bernstein, whose larger compositional legacy was unsettled at the time of his death, is, by his centennial, far more than just the composer of West Side Story (as he, himself, once lamented!). That’s good news – for him and us.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.