Bernstein - Broadway to Hollywood

CD Spotlight

His Music Glows

RICHARD MESZTO listens to works
by Leonard Bernstein

'Iain Sutherland leads the Hannover Philharmonic in these fine and well thought out performances.'


Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was one of those remarkable geniuses that crowd musical history. A conductor, composer, pianist, and educator, he sadly befell the trivializing (but well meaning) American penchant for diminutive nomenclature: 'Lenny' as he was known. (The colossal Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein was 'Ruby' and the great pianist Ignace Jan Paderewski - later Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary of the newly refound nation of Poland - was 'Paddy'.)

But this nickname offends me because it diminishes Leonard Bernstein's genius - which is in some danger of being forgotten. The centennial celebration of his birth last year was important, but, I do fear that he will be left behind by a generation that would disdain to wear its grandmother's hat, as Jacques Barzun once said.

But Bernstein's genius is far greater than his time and indeed far greater than the resources he had at hand. He was also prey to the American situation of his day.

This wonderful CD includes performances of those compositions of Bernstein that migrated his activities to Hollywood - at least in part. Candide never made it to the West Coast, Fancy Free was a ballet, and On the Town only partially transferred. Only On the Waterfront and West Side Story - in their film versions - are actually complete Hollywood material.

Candide is the overture to the 'operetta' of that name based on Voltaire's savage indictment of witless optimism in the face of horrifying reality. Bernstein has created here one of the most perfect gems of introductory music, with a genius tinge of Broadway and a strong serving of classical inner steel - far too much Broadway music could do with a dose of classical form and harmonic study - melded into a witty, urbane, genteel and implodingly vivacious score. The performance here is very fine and captures the wit and brilliance most effectively.

Listen — Bernstein: Candide Overture
(track 1, 0:59-1:56) © 2018 SOMM Recordings :

If On the Waterfront were retitled 'Symphony' it would be hailed as one of the greatest masterpieces of American orchestral creation in the mid twentieth century (which already has many other great exemplars). This titanic piece deserves to be performed constantly to remind people of Bernstein's genius and that the musical possibilities are still not fully exhausted in twentieth century compositional techniques. The performance here is powerful and profound.

The suite is taken from the movie of the same name, which is itself a masterpiece and includes powerful performances by Marlon Brando and Karl Malden. The screen writing is superlative, the directing extraordinary, but the message is grim and out of fashion in a modern Marvel Universe, where the good guys and bad are clearly distinguished by costume and manner. In Elia Kazan's depressing vision, goodness is hard to find, though suffering and troubles come in battalions.

Bernstein creates sonic moods that are so potent, so deep, and so anguished, that the climactic rising is beyond heartbreaking: it is soul shattering.

Listen — Bernstein: On the Waterfront - Symphonic Suite
(track 2, 19:13-20:12) © 2018 SOMM Recordings :

No one who listens to this work can ever forget and ignore the suffering of of a single human being. In this way Bernstein's symphonic work is an adjunct to his Symphony No 2 Kaddish (and other works), and all are commentaries worthy of the wisest Rabbi. This is musical theology.

Bernstein unfortunately came to the fore after the war and into the American jingoistic world where American military might, American wealth and American culture had successfully subdued the world. Jazz in music reigned supreme and I doubt that this was a good thing for any of the composers of classical bias who lived at that time. Bernstein's jazz is good, but it is the jazz of a musician who knows a little too much. Occasionally, he lapses in using silence as a rhythmic gesture - once too often and we begin to hear it as the trick it is.

Thus, I am less interested in Fancy Free and even West Side Story. Both are too much Americana, and yet, I suppose that is something.

I do wonder though, if this version recorded here is the orchestration of Bernstein himself - as I understand union rules in Broadway days prevented the composer from also preparing the orchestration. I leave that to the pedant to discuss.

Iain Sutherland leads the Hannover Philharmonic in these fine and well thought out performances. Amazingly, he catches the sound world of Bernstein very well and the orchestra gives a rousing performance - and this from from classical musicians! They even catch the jazz music 'slightly ahead of the beat' type of accent. Well done!

I read the booklet some time ago and so decline to write about it, but, I'm sure it's good and answers any and every question I have about the music (as all modern CD booklets are veritable Macaulay-esque essays of information at an encyclopaedia level).

I would not wish Leonard Bernstein to be forgotten. I had the great good fortune to hear him directing the Vienna Symphony orchestra in the 1980s when he was finally allowed to connect fully with Europe. And of that performance, I recall a striking instance of Bernstein's genuine humanness.

In those student days I had an acquaintance who was completing his doctoral degree in composition. To make ends meet he played piano in an upscale restaurant. Bernstein was staying at the attached hotel. The night before the concert Bernstein walked up to the pianist/composer and talked at length, asking questions of the young musician's studies and music. Bernstein asked if he was attending the concert. 'I can't afford a ticket' was the reply. Bernstein - without writing down name or making any notes, said 'There will be a ticket for you at the box office'. I met my friend on the way up the steps to the concert hall the evening of the performance, and he said, 'How could he be bothered, or even remember? He didn't write my name down!' Moments later he returned from the ticket counter with his ticket! 'He remembered!!'

Of course he did. He was a genius and also a human being of considerate and fine character. That's also why his music glows.

Copyright © 2 July 2019 Richard Meszto,
Mazeppa, Alberta, Canada




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