LEONARD BERNSTEIN "A Jewish Legacy"
Israelite Chorus. Invocation and Trance (from Dybbuk). Psalm 148. Reenah.
Three Wedding Dances: The First Waltz (Canon); Cha-cha-cha; Hora).
Yevarechecha. Halil. Simchu Na. Oif Mayn Khas'ne. Vayomer Elohim.
Four Sabras (Hana, the Dreamer; Idele, the Chassidele; Yosi, the
Jokester; Dina, the Tomboy Who Weeps Alone). Sihouette (Galilee). Hashkiveinu.
BBC Singers/ Rochester Singers; Jean Barr/Barry
Snyder/Jack Gottlieb, piano; Hans Peter Blochwitz, tenor; Christopher
organ; Bonita Boyd, flute; Patrick Gnage, baritone; Angelina Reaux,
mezzo-soprano; Jason Smith, bass baritone; Michael Sokol, baritone;
Cantor Howard Stahl; Samuel Adler/Avner Itai, cond.
NAXOS 8.559407 (B) (DDD) TT: 55:47
BUY NOW FROM ARKIVMUSIC
Bernstein early, Bernstein late, Bernstein all over the place. Excepting
Halil, "Silhouette," and the excerpts from Dybbuk, Concerto
for Orchestra, and Arias and Barcarolles, none of the items on the program
have been recorded in roughly fifty years. Indeed, many receive premiere
recordings, and a few, premiere public performances of any kind. I doubt,
for example, that many have heard Hashkiveinu. It's certainly new to
me. The producers and Jack Gottlieb have burrowed into Bernstein's legacy
of paper and come back with treasure. As you can tell from the timings
and the number of works, most of the program consists of miniatures,
but they're wonderful miniatures, full of those things that attract listeners
to Bernstein's music in the first place.
The release belongs to Naxos's series on American Jewish music, appropriately
enough. Unlike many major American Jewish composers, Judaica figures
prominently in Bernstein's catalogue. I know of no comparable work in
Copland's output other than Vitebsk, for example, or Tehillim in Steve
Indeed, Bernstein's religious interests inform many of his scores not
explicitly "Jewish": the second symphony, Facsimile, Trouble
in Tahiti and A Quiet Place. Even Mass owes as much to Jewish tradition
(the accusation against God, for example) as to Roman Catholic. Strictly
speaking, however, some of the pieces on this program aren't Jewish at
all, but Middle Eastern -- Halil, Four Sabras, "Silhouette" --
and one, the "Three Wedding Dances," from the Bridal Suite Bernstein wrote for the marriage of Phyllis Newman and Adolph Greene.
A few things here more or less duplicate other recordings. Yevarechecha is an arrangement for organ by Bernstein of the last movement of the
Concerto for Orchestra. This version beautifully serves a practical,
liturgical function. Halil comes dressed in its chamber togs of flute,
piano, and percussion. "Oif Mayn Khas'ne" is just one number
from Arias and Barcarolles. The Dybbuk excerpt is just that, from (I
assume) the piano-vocal score. I like hearing the voices again (as opposed
to the orchestral suites), but the premiere recording of the complete
ballet - one of Bernstein's considerable bests - is still available on
Sony 63090. Nevertheless, all three pieces "work" here. The
Dybbuk number comes over as more sinewy than in its orchestral garb.
Halil becomes less lyrical, tougher.
The setting of Psalm 148 particularly interested me. The composer wrote
it at roughly age 17, before he took hold of Modernism with both hands.
Jack Gottlieb's liner notes characterize the work as "Victorian," which,
though slightly inaccurate, will do well enough. Among other things,
the young Bernstein shows a keen ear for harmony and effective voice-leading,
as well as a preference for leaner textures than his somewhat Wagnerian
progressions usually imply. However, Bernstein's melodic gift stands
out, even at this early point. He may have written an old-fashioned melody,
but it's a great melody of its type, beautifully constructed, with a
concern for the "real, right" note at its emotional peak. Bernstein
also shows poetic talent, as he adapts the psalm text to English rhyme
and meter. His later problems with his own texts stem, I believe, from
his overestimation of that talent. Nevertheless, he always had a real
flair for light verse.
The "Three Wedding Dances" are pièces d'occasion, as
in the sets of piano Anniversaries, the best-known Bernstein examples
of this genre. The composer wrote a number of these things throughout
his life for friends, family, even family dogs. However, the sheer amount
of inspiration and craft that go into such miniatures astonishes you.
In the Newman-Green wedding pieces, the first part (not recorded here)
puts the first prelude from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, against
the Comden-Green song "Just in Time." The first wedding dance
is a canonic waltz, the second a cha-cha (shades of West Side Story),
and the third a whirling hora.
Four Sabras and "Silhouette" come from Bernstein's trips to
Israel. One of the sabras made its way into Candide ("Once again
I must be gone, / Moving on to El Dorado"), and the rhythm of another
found itself at the dance at the gym in West Side Story. Although Bernstein
left plenty of good ideas hidden in such small places, he didn't leave
The "Israelite Chorus" comes from Bernstein's incidental music
to Christopher Fry's play The Firstborn. It's terrific. If there's more
music, I hope somebody records it soon.
S.G.S. (June 2004)