If there’s an essential “Leonard Bernstein at 100” album, this one, so far, is it: excellent performances of relatively unknown music deserving to be heard.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Necessarily a bit less ambitious than Sony Classical’s 25-disc Leonard Bernstein – The Composer but of equal value is Andrew Cooperstock’s new recording of Bernstein’s complete music for solo piano. Much of this music has flown under the radar, both during Bernstein’s life and after, and this two-disc set from Bridge Records marks the first time it’s all been recorded and collected in one place.
Granted, some of these pieces (especially the early Piano Sonata) need a sympathetic advocate to bring them off. But most, like the several volumes of Anniversaries, the Sabras, and the Bridal Suite, sing with Bernstein’s trademark lyrical warmth and invention. They simply need to be played (well), far and wide.
Several of the Anniversaries – there are twenty-nine in all, commemorating births, anniversaries, and memorializing the deaths of many of Bernstein’s family and friends – are familiar from appearing in other Bernstein works. Most of the Five Anniversaries, for instance, were also used in the Serenade; and movements from the Thirteen Anniversaries turn up in Mass, the Concerto for Orchestra, and Arias and Barcarolles. They’re a varied set of miniatures that are held together, most of all, by Bernstein’s distinctive voice.
A bit more unified are the Four Sabras and the Bridal Suite. The former dates from the early ‘50s (its first movement is recycled in Candide) and reflects Bernstein’s love of Jewish music. The latter is a charming, sometimes very whimsical piece celebrating the 1960 marriage of his friend Adolph Green to Phyllis Newman. Also included here are Music for the Dance, no. II and Non troppo presto, short pieces Bernstein wrote before turning twenty, and not published until 2010. Plus, there’s the Piano Sonata, the relatively late Touches, and his very first published score, a piano transcription of Copland’s El salon Mexico.
It’s an impressive collection. Cooperstock’s playing of it all is tonally rich, mightily rhythmic, and smartly paced. He has a clear understanding of the Bernstein’s idiom and knows how to best make it speak – which is not a gift to be taken lightly. It’s not too much to say that his performances of the Anniversaries are, as of yet, the best-recorded (they are); they’re probably the best-played of the set, too.
Perhaps most impressive of the big pieces is Cooperstock’s reading of Touches, a 1980 score written for the Van Cliburn Competition that year. It features Bernstein at his most cerebral – strict and compact, but plenty jazzy. There are a couple of other recordings of the piece already available, but none of them exhibit the expressive weight and structural coherence Cooperstock brings to the work.
He also turns in a strong reading of the Piano Sonata. Yes, it’s a student piece and there’s no getting away its sometimes rather stiff shortcomings. But Cooperstock draws out the first movement’s rhythmic playfulness and delivers a shapely account of the harmonically-pungent second.
And El salon Mexico sparkles. In all, if there’s an essential “Leonard Bernstein at 100” album, this one, so far, is it: excellent performances of relatively unknown music deserving to be heard. Isn’t that what musical centennials ought to be about?
There several good reasons to warrant checking out Pentatone’s new recording of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, but perhaps the best is to hear Christian Elsner’s diabolical Knusperhexe. This is a perfectly one-dimensionally wicked character but Elsner has so much fun with the role – it sounds like a cross between Gerhard Stolze’s Mime and Andy Serkis’ Gollum – that it almost overshadows all the other good stuff going on here.
And there’s a lot, from Ricarda Merbeth’s overwhelmed, impatient Mother to Albert Dohmen’s warmhearted Father to some superb playing by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin (RSOB).
At the heart of the piece, Katrin Wundsam’s Hänsel is full of boyish impetuosity and, while Alexandra Steiner’s Gretel sings with plenty of innocence brightness, her character is wise and clever beyond her years. Throughout the performance, Wundsam and Steiner play off of one another tartly: their dialogues are always full of warmth and wit. Some spots, like the famous “Abendgebet,” are genuinely touching. If they’re not quite as spectacular as the Elisabeth’s (Grümmer and Schwartzkopf) in these roles, well, who is? All the same, Wundsam and Steiner make a plenty boisterous pair of siblings.
Marek Janowski presides over the whole affair with a certain affectionate gusto. His tempos are, as usual, on the quick side and, while there are spots (mainly in the orchestral moments) that might benefit from a bit more spaciousness, he runs a tight, lively ship and the whole performance packs plenty of energy.
Above all, the RSOB shines. Janowski draws playing of sonic warmth and emotional depth from the ensemble, especially its brass section, which consistently acquits itself gloriously.
Overall, the recorded sound is crystalline and singers are never covered by the ensemble. Actually, the opposite happens a few times, though this seems to be a result of natural balances at this performance in Berlin’s Philharmonie (where Hänsel und Gretel was taped live last December) than a matter of microphone placement.
While there may be starrier cast Hänsel und Gretels – Karajan had Grümmer and Schwarzkopf, Jeffrey Tate had Anne-Sophie von Otter and Barbara Bonney, Colin Davis had Angelika Kirchschlager and Dianna Damrau – there are no weak links here and Janowski’s interpretation is a satisfying one. Given that Humperdinck’s score isn’t exactly overrepresented in the catalogue, it’s a welcome release, too.
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.