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Penguin Guide, January 2009

Dybbuck, written to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the State of Israel, is one of Bernstein’s darkest scores. Over 45 minutes in length, it tells the creepy story of a sinister ghost, with the battle between good and evil represented respectively (and very aptly) by tonality and atonality. It is well coupled with another ballet written for Jerome Robbins 30 years earlier, including Abby Burke, the jazz-influenced vocalist. It is a work involving three sailors and anticipates the musical On the Town and is one of Bernstein’s most colourful scores with its sharp syncopations well realized here.



Fox
American Record Guide, April 2007

Yet another superb issue from Naxos. I compared both to Bernstein's own recordings. These are so close in interpretation, orchestral excellence, and sonics, that, in a blind test, I don't think that even seasoned listeners could tell the difference. The New York Philharmonic had a tiny bit more orchestral brilliance, but Nashville is superb. Even the two singers in Dybbuk sound alike in both recordings-and impassioned. Naxos proudly indicates that both ballets are offered here complete. I think that is also true in the Bernstein recordings with one important difference: the Naxos Fancy Free includes the rarely heard blues number, 'Big Stuff, sung here by Abby Burke but originally by Billie Holiday. (In the ballet, it is the sound of a jukebox playing the song before curtain up.)

The 1944 Fancy Free was Bernstein's first big public success as a composer, and it has delighted listeners ever since with its jazzy, yet sophisticated insolence, high spirits, and humor. It was the inspiration for Broadway's On the Town -not musically (there is no music from Fancy Free in On the Town), but the plot (three sailors on a spree in New York).

Dybbuk is a world apart from Fancy Free. It is a serious work incorporating Jewish elements. Musically, it is sparse in melody, but intense in expression, brilliantly orchestrated and rhythmically rich. There is no question that it is thorny, especially if heard in tandem with the breezy Fancy Free. The "plot" is based on the drama by Shlomo Ansky about a spirit that seeks to enter the body of a living person. Plot details are beyond the scope of this review, but inasmuch as much of the music is sung by a baritone and a bass, it is unfortunate that the text is not included in the set. Dybbuk is a fascinating work, a far cry from the Bern­stein we know and love. I found it rewarding, but only after a number of hearings. If you are interested in these two works, I recommend this, especially at its attractive price.



Randolph Magri-Overend
MusicWeb International, April 2007

"Inasmuch as this recording conveys the original concept of the Dybbuk ballet envisaged by Bernstein this album is priceless. I am not quite sure that the vocals would work if and when the ballet is performed on stage but if you treat it as a piece of music and forget to visualize dancers pirouetting, pas-de-deuxing etc on a stage, then the work is quite original.The high point comes in the Exorcism episode when atonality reaches its highest expression with brass, percussion and strings exploding into a cacophony of sound."

"Fancy Free is much less strident and more pleasing to the ear. Of course, the basic tunes and central plot were incorporated into the film On the Town with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Plus the score has been recorded on numerous occasions by other conductors and recording labels. A juke-box playing a blues number in the distance - originally sung by Billie Holliday but sung here by Abby Burke - adds an element of originality to the opening scene. The basic concept is pure music-theatre, hard-edged and pulsating with forward-urging rhythms and themes. It could only have been composed by Leonard Bernstein....If you like your Bernstein and have never heard Dybbuk this is a good investment in your musical education. Fancy Free has been done before but this recording is just as good as you’ll get anywhere."



Herbert Culot
MusicWeb International, March 2007

Bernstein collaborated with Jerome Robbins on four occasions. It all started with Fancy Free (1944), went on with Facsimile (1945) and West Side Story (1957) and ended with Dybbuk (1974). These collaborations were differently received by critics and audiences. Fancy Free and West Side Story were immediate, resounding successes; Facsimile and Dybbuk got somewhat lukewarm receptions. The paradox is that in strictly musical terms both the choreographic essay Facsimile and Dybbuk are by far the finest; but the music for – or because of – all its seriousness obviously lacks the popular appeal that makes Fancy Free and West Side Story so successful. These scores belong to the Bernstein works that clearly demonstrate what Bernstein could achieve when he kept his invention and musicality under strict control. Other similar works are the gripping First Symphony Jeremiah and the beautiful Serenade for violin and orchestra.

Having Fancy Free and Dybbuk side by side makes it all perfectly clear. The music of Fancy Free is a fine example of Bernstein at his most extrovert, uninhibited; and displays the typical Bernstein mix of jazz, blues, Neo-classical Stravinsky and echoes of Copland - the latter is clearly to be heard in the penultimate section Danzón. The music is straightforward, colourful, lively, full of contrast, joyfully eclectic and superbly crafted. I have known this work for many years, and listening to it again sets me thinking that the whole score might well be a theme and variations on the opening number Big Stuff (“in juke-box style”). However, do not take my word for it; I may be wrong after all. There is not much to choose between this performance and that of Leonard Slatkin (EMI CDD 7 63905 2), in which Big Stuff really sounds as being played by an old worn-out juke-box, and the last recording made by the composer many years ago (DG), in which Bernstein sings and plays Big Stuff with his inimitable chain-smoker voice. The Nashville orchestra play with energy and obvious enjoyment, relishing the score’s many happy touches.

As already mentioned earlier in this review, Dybbuk, written to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the state of Israel, is a rather more serious affair drawing on Shlomo Ansky’s eponymous drama. The insert notes go into some detail about the action, and I will not repeat them here. Suffice to say that the subject of Dybbuk is about the universal and eternal struggle between good and evil, brightness and darkness, symbolised by the clash between diatonic and twelve-tone music. This is not particularly new in Bernstein’s output, since the diatonic-chromatic dichotomy is also present in much of the music of his Third Symphony Kaddish; but there is nothing here that may compare with the overtly ‘Coplandesque’ big tune heard in the Third Symphony. The most remarkable thing in Dybbuk is the extraordinary stylistic coherence displayed throughout. This is a substantial score and has been hailed by some as Bernstein’s finest achievement. The utter seriousness and austerity of much of the music are perfectly attuned to the no-nonsense subject of the ballet. There are many moments of real and great inspiration, and none of the ramshackle eclecticism that sometimes mars some of Bernstein’s serious, deeply-felt works. Dybbuk is undoubtedly an imposing achievement, but one that will never become popular, which makes as fine a performance as the one under review the more welcome. I do not doubt that the real Bernstein is here, in this serious, austere and complex work.

These performances are very fine indeed, beautifully played and obviously committed as well as nicely recorded. One slight grumble, however, concerning the all-too-clean rendering of Big Stuff at the beginning of Fancy Free. Well, yes, I know, juke-boxes are no longer what they used to be in 1944, but this had been successfully realised in Slatkin’s EMI recording. Nevertheless, this is a welcome release putting both sides of “Janus Bernstein” into sharp contrast. Another attractive instalment in this Bernstein series from Naxos.



Philip Clark
Gramophone, February 2007

If when Jerome Robbins and the New York city Ballet commissioned Dybbuk from Leonard Bernstein they were expecting a populist potboiler like Fancy Free, then Bernstein instead turned in one of his most pyschological and compositionally complex scores. Based on the drama by Israeli writer Shlomo Ansky, Dybbuk (1974) draws on a broad range of Jewish folklore and other source material; the opening vocal chanting by two male voices is based on the Jewish Sabbath Service, while the work has dignified solemnity that obviously came from somewhere deep.

Bernstein's own recording aside, Dybbuk hasn't fared well in the recording studio and it's refreshing to hear this cogently conceived interpretation. Like his Kaddish Symphony, Bernstein puts tonal material into a testy dialectic with atonal commentaries, but while this strategy gives Kaddish a natural curvature of the spine, Dybbuk is episodic and needs clear structural direction. Andrew Mogrelia assembles Bernstein's sections into a taut mosaic, and the lavishly detailed playing of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra showcases Bernstein's savvy orchestral timbres. The sometimes sparse and pointillistic nature of the writing is unexpected, and this is one of his most disciplined and cerebral scores.

Thirty years earlier, Fancy Free was wowing New York musical life for precisely the opposite reasons. The exuberance of Bernstein's imagination let the music all hang out, and Mogrelia certainly enjoys the hang. The unnamed orchestral pianist does a fine job with the swinging oblligato piano part, and it's good to hear a full version of the introductory "jukebox" song "Big Stuff". Great stuff.



Andrew Stewart
Classic FM, February 2007

Bernstein's ballet Dybbuk, after a famous Yiddish play and film, has been unfairly neglected, if this persuasive disc is any measure.



Frank Behrens
Brattleboro Reformer, January 2007

Naxos, the supreme CD budget label, has added to its marvelous American Classics series two ballets by Leonard Bernstein.

"Fancy Free (and) Dybbuk (Complete Ballets)" (8.559280) is the title, and never were two ballets by the same composer so different.

The 1974 "Dybbuk" acts out the story of a spirit, thwarted in love, who returns to possess the body of another. While the program notes give a fairly detailed synopsis of the plot, I should report that the music fares quite well on its own, something not to be said about many 20th-century ballet scores. It is moody, atmospheric, and quite worthy of Shlomo Ansky's play of the same name on which it is based.

"Fancy Free" on the other hand, is a lively account of three sailors who were to be reborn in the musical "On the Town." I could only wish there were videos of both of these ballets, but "Fancy Free" is highly enjoyable music on its own without any plot references.

The Nashville Symphony and soloists Mel Ulrich and Mark Risinger are conducted by Andrew Mogrelia.



David Hurwitz
ClassicsToday.com, December 2006

Not too many listeners are Dybbuk admirers, and even Bernstein's supporters find this music less interesting than much else that he wrote. The fact that the music resorts to some dodecaphonic and numerological compositional techniques isn't a point in its favor, though in actual sonority it's entirely characteristic of Bernstein, and at this late date it's easy to hear that his personality inhabits every bar. If there's a problem with the piece, it likely stems from the fact that the overall impression it makes is a bit glum, lacking in that special snap that makes his best work so memorable. Certainly the supernatural subject is a dark one, and it calls forth plenty of eerie, atmospheric scoring; but the actual musical material seems stretched thinly over the work's 45 minutes (48, if you're the composer). Bernstein recorded the complete work for Sony, but broke it up into a pair of suites for his DG remakes. I do prefer the original; the music is what it is, and over time it has grown on me--and might well do so for you too.

Fancy Free of course is delightful, and often recorded, but this performance holds its own with the best--and I frankly prefer Andrew Mogrelia to the composer in Dybbuk. He's just that much livelier, and the Nashville Symphony sounds as inside the idiom as the New York Philharmonic of several decades' past. This newcomer also is better recorded than Bernstein's performances either on Sony or DG, and the excellent version of "Hot Stuff" that opens Fancy Free also is a plus. If you're a Bernstein fan, you will certainly want this.



Lawson Tattie
The Dallas Morning News, December 2006

AMERICAN THEATER BALLET: This album brings together the piece that made Leonard Bernstein's reputation as a composer and Jerome Robbins' as a choreographer, and the work that marked their final collaboration.Fancy Free remains as fresh as it must have seemed when it premiered during World War II, with its theme that captures some of the period's angst as well as the prevailing sense of jazzy liberation. (The plot follows three sailors on shore leave, after all.) Dybbuk, sadly, feels more like rewarmed early Stravinsky, with a bit of Prokofiev thrown in.

HOUSE BAND:Especially for recordings of Bernstein, the Nashville Symphony has become something of a hometown institution for Naxos (which has its American headquarters in the city). Andrew Mogrelia leads sharp performances, full of life. Dybbuk actually sounds better than it did in its initial New York City Ballet run in the early '70s.

BOTTOM LINE: Everybody loves Fancy Free, but Dybbuk is mostly for those curious about the career of America's most famous classical musician to date.



John Pitcher
Nashville Scene, December 2006

In 1958, not long after he composed the score for West Side Story and shortly before his appointment as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein penned a short but fascinating testament that proclaimed both the diversity of his taste and the extraordinary scope of his ambition.

“I don’t want to give in and settle for some specialty,” he began. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life, as Toscanini did, studying and restudying, say, 50 pieces of music. It would bore me to death. I want to conduct. I want to play the piano. I want to write music for Broadway and Hollywood. I want to write symphonic music. I want to keep on trying to be, in the full sense of that wonderful word, a musician. I also want to teach. I want to write books and poetry. And I think I can do justice to them all.”

Bernstein was certainly true to his word, insofar as he kept his hands in everything. During his tenure at the New York Philharmonic, he became (and in legacy remains to this day) the great American conductor. He wrote the great American musical and, through his Norton lectures at Harvard University, became the great American musical philosopher. He was a fine pianist (he played a mean Rhapsody in Blue) and a fantastic teacher. (Tom Wolfe went so far as to nickname him the “Village Explainer.”) Perhaps most importantly, he was the first classical musician in history to become a bona fide television personality, which in turn gave him the power to proselytize to millions about Beethoven—and about whatever knee-jerk cause tickled his fancy.

Yet for all of his accomplishments, a new recording of Bernstein’s music (featuring Andrew Mogrelia conducting none other than the Nashville Symphony Orchestra) begs the question of whether America’s musical renaissance man really did do justice to his every endeavor. The best-known work on this CD, the ballet Fancy Free, is seldom heard. The other piece, the sprawling ballet Dybbuk, has made no dent in the repertory whatsoever. And there’s the rub: almost none of Bernstein’s serious classical compositions are played with much frequency. (His short and jaunty Candide Overture is an exception, but in recent years even that piece has lost ground to John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine.)

It bothered Bernstein to no end that his serious concert music was so often overlooked. And quite frankly, its absence is something of a puzzler. Certainly, few composers have been as successful at crossing the great divide between high and popular culture. Bernstein found a way to fuse Brahms with Broadway in a manner that sounded completely natural. And in his most ambitious works, which often had a religious inspiration, he created music that was as richly chromatic and thematically urgent as anything you might hear in Mahler (who, by the way, was Bernstein’s hero).

The ballets on the NSO’s CD represent the two extremes of the composer’s style. Fancy Free, written in 1944, reveals the 26-year-old Bernstein as a natural born Broadway-style melodist. The main theme is remarkable for its high energy and irresistible, finger-snapping rhythms. (Indeed, this music could practically be a rough draft for some West Side Story rumble—not an implausible idea, actually, since both the ballet and musical shared choreographer Jerome Robbins.) This is challenging music, a veritable minefield of off-kilter rhythms, and the NSO, to its credit, performs it with precision and gusto.

Dybbuk, composed in 1974, is often as inscrutable as Fancy Free is approachable. The piece is a bit of a hybrid, and includes Russian-Yiddish writer Shlomo Ansky’s text about a spirit trying to find a home in a living person. It also features some truly dark and theatrical Sondheim-like orchestral writing. In performance, this combination of the words and music can seem a bit strange—in a Sweeney Todd meets the Three Cantors kind of way. Suffice it to say, though, that this piece is never boring, and the NSO delivers a reading full of color, energy and emotion.

One more thought about Bernstein’s place in the repertory. Familiarity breeds contempt, and Bernstein was once such a ubiquitous celebrity that he was often disparaged as the Peter Pan of American music. As such, it’s going to take time, and perhaps even a little pixie dust, before we can all agree he did justice to it all






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1:11:09 PM, 16 April 2014
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