About this Recording
8.559099 - BERNSTEIN: Symphony No. 2 / West Side Story
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Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Symphony No. 2: The Age of Anxiety

West Side Story Symphonic Dances • Candide Overture

Although Leonard Bernstein is not generally thought of as an orchestral composer, his compositions include three symphonies, several works for solo instrument and orchestra, and a number of suites derived from his theatre and stage works. It would be more accurate to say that Bernstein never tackled a work the same way twice, giving rise to a number of hybrid compositions the ambiguity of which shows a composer caught between the European classical tradition and the American vernacular of jazz and musical. Three of the ways in which he strove to reconcile these are represented by the works here included.

As originally composed, Candide was part musical, part operetta, with a book by Lilian Hellman derived from Voltaire’s eighteenth-century satire, and lyrics by Richard Wilbur. Opening at the Martin Beck Theater on Broadway on 1st December 1956, it achieved a run of only 73 performances. Bernstein began a process of revision that would last almost three decades, culminating in the near-operatic version he conducted and recorded in London not long before his death. The Overture, first heard in concert with the New York Philharmonic on 27th January 1957, is a brilliant potpourri of tunes from the show, including Dr. Pangloss’s The Best of All Possible Worlds, Candide and Cunegonde’s marriage duet Oh Happy We, and Cunegonde’s virtuoso coloratura aria Glitter and Be Gay.

Opening at Broadway’s Winter Gardens Theater on 26th September 1957, West Side Story notched up a total of 1025 performances either side of its first American tour. With a book by Arthur Laurents and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, this urban update of the Romeo and Juliet story broke new ground for music theatre, not least through the extensive and virtuosic choreography of Jerome Robbins. Lukas Foss and the New York Philharmonic gave the first performance of the Symphonic Dances on 13th February 1961, Bernstein dedicating the score to Sid Ramin, who, with Irwin Kostal, prepared the orchestration under the composer’s supervision.

Rather than take matters in chronological order, the Symphonic Dances freely re-order a selection of numbers from the musical, making for a coherent and satisfying suite. The Prologue graphically depicts the violence between two street gangs, the Sharks, Puerto Rican immigrants, and the Jets, native Bronx. Somewhere recalls the aspirations of the lovers Maria and Tony for a future of peaceful co-existence. A Coplandesque Scherzo leads into the testosterone- fuelled high-school dance of Mambo. It is here that Maria and Tony first meet, join together cautiously in a Cha-Cha, and realise their mutual attraction in the Meeting Scene. The antagonism of the rival gangs, however, barely suppressed in a tense fugue on the song Cool, erupts in the Rumble, during which the gang leaders are killed. After a pensive flute cadenza, Maria’s I Have a Love looks forward to the musical’s tragic yet cathartic outcome, a brief reminiscence of Somewhere providing a questioning half-close.

By 1948 Bernstein’s career as composer and conductor was well underway. Reading the recently published The Age of Anxiety by the poet W. H. Auden, he immediately seized upon it as the subject for a symphonic work. Composed partly in Israel during the war of independence, the work was first performed under the direction of its dedicatee Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony on 8th April 1949, with Bernstein himself playing the concertante piano part.

Auden’s Baroque Eclogue concerns the self-discovery of four people in a Western Avenue bar, and Bernstein reflects their spiritual journey by dividing his work into two parts.

Part One:

A - The Prologue introduces the four characters, Quant, a second generation Irish-American, Malin, a medical intelligence officer with the Canadian Air Force, Rosetta, employee at a department store, and Emble, serving in the Navy. After a duo for clarinets, a descending flute scale leads into

B - The Seven Ages, where discussion is depicted in seven variants of material already heard. After a tranquil piano solo, soloist and orchestra exchange motifs, then strings have a lyrical theme. A perky scherzo precedes a restless Prokofiev-like idea, before a pensive piano theme and some plaintive woodwind activity. A descending piano sequence leads into

C - The Seven Stages, seven further variations representing the four characters as they engage in a variety of relationships. After a stern passacaglia, a waltz section reintroduces the soloist for a syncopated passage, an incisive fugato and an ironic moto perpetuo. The passacaglia theme returns as an orchestral chorale, the piano re-entering to effect a brusque close to the first part.

Part Two:

A - The Dirge relates the four protagonists as they take a taxi-ride to Rosetta’s apartment, meanwhile regretting the absence of a spiritual ‘father figure’ in their lives. Opening with a subdued but intense twelve-note row, the music gradually becomes more impassioned, before leading into

B - The Masque, a scintillating scherzo in which the four characters throw an increasingly reckless party, piano accompanied by harp, celesta and percussion. This fades out as

C - The Epilogue starts with the four characters leaving their past behind them for something more spiritual, as represented by solo trumpet. The music builds as a slow but implacable chorale, taking in a piano cadenza which reviews earlier themes, and reaching a climax of hard-won triumph. As first performed and recorded, the piano was silent in this climax, but Bernstein revised the work in 1965, so that the personal, and likely autobiographical, perspective of the soloist is present right through to the close.

Richard Whitehouse


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