BERNSTEIN. Dybbuk (1974). Fancy Free (1944)*.
Mel Ulrich (baritone); Mark Risinger (bass); Abby Burke (vocal)*; Stephen Kummer (piano)*; Roger Spencer (double bass)*; Samuel D. Bacco (drums)*; Nashville Symphony/Andrew Mogrelia, cond.
Naxos 8.559280 (B) (DDD) TT: 74:14

Dance fever. Critics generally agree that the best of Bernstein's "serious" work lies in the ballet. Not counting the dances in his Broadway shows or works later adapted as dances, he certainly wrote a lot of them, relatively speaking, for such a slim catalogue: Fancy Free, Facsimile (1946), and Dybbuk -- indeed, as many ballets as symphonies and all choreographed by Jerome Robbins.

Fancy Free is the first and most often-played. Its plot of three sailors on leave in New York furnished the story of Bernstein's first Broadway musical, On the Town, which in turn spawned the even more popular concert score 3 Dances from On the Town. Fancy Free announced, with a roar, a major voice: unique, personal, thoroughly American, and completely of its time and place. Nothing like it had been heard before. Most attempts at pop or jazz -- always excepting composers like Gershwin, Copland, and Morton Gould -- had kept the vernacular at arm's length, as irony or exoticism, or so sublimated, so abstracted, that it was hard to pick out the popular elements at all. Not since Gershwin had anyone so successfully blended concert music with the American vernacular. If Gershwin is the American Verdi, Bernstein is our Puccini -- more knowing, more polished, more theatrically sophisticated. Gershwin ultimately, I think, resonates more with an audience, but he also composes more clumsily, the amalgam of pop, jazz, and Modernism somehow unstable, the joins visible. Bernstein gives you a smoother, more integrated product. He takes both his background and his education as a matter of course, as opposed to Gershwin, who seems a bit self-conscious about both jazz and Modernism. Fancy Free, a miracle of a score, fully lives up to its title. It has the insouciance of pop, the voice of pop, and the smarts of concert music.

Dybbuk, the last of Bernstein's ballets, has had a troubled reception. When it appeared in the Seventies, the turf wars flared hot and heavy, with Bernstein caught in a no-man's land. The score has both its serial and traditional sections. The dodecaphonists thought it hopelessly old-fashioned while the tonally genteel thought Bernstein had sold them out for dubious reasons of Prestige. It never occurred to either side to take the piece on its own terms. Bernstein recorded the complete ballet once (the premiere recording, originally on Sony, currently available in a 7-disc set on DG). Then he made suites and recorded those. The suites are generally what got recorded. This represents, I believe, the first complete recording of the full ballet since Bernstein's. It reveals a powerful score, one of Bernstein's best, and I hope it leads to an upward re-evaluation of the composer, who I believe gets a raw deal. The ballet certainly lies outside the expectations of those who wanted Bernstein to keep writing new Fancy Frees and West Side Stories. It tells the story of a young man and woman "destined" for each other. The girl's father, however, breaks his promise to let the boy marry the girl and instead arranges another marriage. The boy goes to the Kabbalah to gain the magic power to take back the girl, but the magic destroys him. He becomes a disembodied spirit and possesses the girl. Once he is exorcised, the girl destroys herself and joins him.

I've never quite understood the recent fad for the Kabbalah. Every story I've ever heard about it has as its moral, "Don't mess with this." The person who seeks that kind of power is the last person who should have it. It's the greed for power that destroys, as well as the magic. How the Kabbalah ever became a kind of self-help manual for the likes of Madonna (it seems to especially fascinate charismatic Catholics and ex-Catholics) is beyond me. Obviously, the bouncy idiom of Fancy Free doesn't suit the Dybbuk story. Bernstein comes up with a score full of the menace of unseen powers and the darkness of the shtetl. Imagine all the austere, prophetic bits of the "Kaddish" Symphony without its blush-making text. Like Stravinsky in Agon, Bernstein creates 12-tone sections and tonal ones, and I'd doubt most people would be able to tell which was which. Unlike Stravinsky, Bernstein uses the two languages to highlight the drama -- not light against dark exactly (because there's very little light here), but to intensify and relieve the action. It's a masterful score.

The performances are a mixed bag. First, every conductor labors under Bernstein's considerable shadow in this repertoire. Bernstein conducted his own music very well indeed. If you've got Bernstein, do you need this?

Fancy Free, surprisingly, comes off less well. However, in its favor is the inclusion of the opening song, "Big Stuff." Originally written for Billie Holiday, "Big Stuff" brilliantly opened the ballet -- a pop song wailing out of a bar juke box. Many recordings, including some of Bernstein's, leave this out. However, the dances refer to it. I consider it integral. On Bernstein's first recording (mono), Billie Holiday sang it. On the "official" DG recording, Bernstein himself crooned it in his basso, cigarette-ravaged croak, so unsteady you often can't tell the pitch. Abby Burke does it here, and not badly. Of course, she's no Billie Holiday. The rest of it, however, moves with arthritic abandon. Almost everything is way too slow and careful -- neither fancy nor free. This ballet should sound as if it were shot from guns. The exuberance of it should overwhelm you. It's not terrible, by any means, but it is a trifle boring.

On the other hand, I don't hesitate to call this the best Dybbuk I've heard. It beats Bernstein's own outings. The stiffness of Mogrelia's Fancy Free works well here, lending a kind of Caligari effect, thoroughly appropriate. Bernstein and the NY Phil sounded tentative in the premiere, as if trying to find their way -- to be expected in that kind of score. Mogrelia and his Nashvillians seem to understand everything, and they play as if they can't wait to chomp into the next phrase. A distinguished reading, and for a budget label, yet.

S.G.S. (May 2007)