Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)
Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (1955)
On the Town: Three Dance Episodes (1945)
Serenade after Plato’s ‘Symposium’ (1854)
Fancy Free, Ballet (1944)
Benny Goodman (clarinet)
Zino Francescatti (violin)
Columbia Jazz Combo
Columbia Symphony Orchestra
New York Philharmonic / Leonard Bernstein
rec. 1956-1965, New York
Sony Classical SMK60559 
Presto Classical have licensed from Sony Classical this collection of recordings of his own music which Leonard Bernstein set down for what was then the CBS label.
Proceedings open with the 1963 recording of Prelude, Fugue and Riffs made in Columbia’s 30th Street studio in New York. This is important because the solo clarinet is played by Benny Goodman and the composer directs the Columbia Jazz Combo (did he also play the piano part, I wonder?) The booklet notes state that the piece was written for Goodman, but Humphrey Burton says in his hugely detailed authorised biography of Bernstein that the piece was, in fact, composed for Woody Herman, but “shelved when Herman had been unable to come up with the check (or even an acknowledgement of receipt).” This Goodman recording was, I believe the first one to be made of the work. The trumpets and trombones are bright and sassy in the ‘Prelude’, while the saxophones are reedy and punchy in the ‘Fugue’. Goodman and the full ensemble are heard in the ‘Riffs’ and the performance is full of verve and drive. But contrasts are also properly observed; this is no hot-under-the-collar ‘bash’. The recording is up-front and that really suits the music. This recorded performance really sounds authentic.
Authentic is also the word that came to mind as I listened to the Three Dance Episodes which Bernstein extracted from the musical On the Town. This recording was also made in 1963 but this time the venue was what was then Philharmonic Hall in the Lincoln Center. By this time, Bernstein had been at the head of the NYPO for some five years and the relationship results in a striking performance. The orchestra plays ‘The Great Lover’ with pizzazz, but then ‘Lonely Town: pas de deux’ is really soulful; here, the musicians display no little sensitivity. ‘Times Square, 1944’ is full of razzle-dazzle and vivid colour. As I listened to this performance of On the Town, enjoying it mightily, I wondered if there was ever a better orchestra to play music such as this than the NYPO in the heyday of Bernstein’s tenure as their music director.
Serenade after Plato’s ‘Symposium’ has been widely acclaimed as one of Bernstein’s finest concert works, though I must say I’ve not always warmed to it. It’s an extremely clever concept and the writing is highly skilled. It was first performed – and recorded – by Isaac Stern in 1954. In this 1965 rendition, set down in New York’s Manhattan Center, the soloist is Zino Francescatti. In the booklet, annotator Tim Page refers to Francescatti as “patrician” and that characteristic is certainly well to the fore in the extended, Lento solo which opens the first of the work’s five movements, ‘Phaedrus: Pausanias’. When the music speeds up into the main Allegro the performance has great rigour. The booklet also includes a note which the composer wrote to accompany the original LP release of this recording. I was amused to read his comment about the second movement, ‘Aristophanes’: he describes the great philosopher as playing, in the Symposium, the role of “the bedtime storyteller, invoking the fairy-tale mythology of love”. In this movement Francescatti’s playing is clean-toned and characterful. The heart of the Serenade is the fourth movement, ‘Agathon’. Here, we can savour the aristocratic, singing tone of Francescatti in addition to which there’s plenty of feeling injected into the proceedings from the rostrum. Both music and performance are very eloquent. The longest movement is the last one, ‘Socrates; Alcibiades’. Bernstein invests the slow introduction with as much emotional weight as he might bring to a Mahler symphony; the music-making is very intense and Francescatti matches that when he starts to play. There follows an extended allegro section which is, in effect, an upbeat party. This is a tremendous performance of the Serenade.
Bernstein made a recording of Fancy Free in 1963 with the NYPO. However, he hadn’t got his hands on that orchestra when the present recording was made in July 1956 at the 30th Street studio. Instead, the recording was made using the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, though I imagine that quite a few NYPO members were involved in the sessions, along with freelance players. There aren’t too many differences between the two recordings in terms of the interpretation, though there is one notable divergence between the two. I think the later recording is perhaps rather tauter: Lenny was by then using an orchestra who were very familiar with him. The recorded sound in the 1956 version is rather more up-front and bright but in some ways that’s not a bad thing. The score was only some 12 years old when this recording was made and what strikes the listener forcibly is the freshness, boldness and confidence of the music. So, for example, in the opening number, ‘Enter Three Sailors’, our trio don’t so much enter as burst onto the scene with a spiky, confident swagger. I said there was one noticeable difference between Bernstein’s two recordings: that comes in the ‘Enter Two Girls’ section. In this 1956 recording the episode plays for 2:59 but by 1963 the composer had tightened things up and the section lasts just 2:08. The later version is tauter, but when I played one after the other I preferred the earlier performance. At a slightly steadier tempo, the 1956 performance fairly crackles with sexual tension; that is still there in 1963, of course, but not to quite the same extent. Returning to the 1956 traversal, the ‘Competition Scene’ is brash at times – just as it should be; the section is full of vitality and exuberance. The Finale comes off with panache. This is yet another performance on this CD that sounds completely authentic.
Over the years I’ve heard many recordings of music by Leonard Bernstein, including a good number directed by protégés such as Michael Tilson Thomas and Marin Alsop. The later generation of conductors have brought their own insights to the various scores but, when the chips are down, no one interprets Bernstein better than Bernstein himself. And that’s particularly true of the recordings that he set down in New York in the late 1950s and early 1960s. All the recordings I’ve heard from this period have a certain something about them; an excitement, sometimes tipping over into brashness (and not in a bad way), coupled with sheer animal energy and, ofen, heart-on-sleeve emotion. Those characteristics are readily apparent in the performances preserved on this disc. The recordings are here presented in the 1998 remastering by Sony and sound immediate and exciting.
For admirers of Leonard Bernstein as composer or conductor – or in both roles combined – this CD makes for essential listening. If you didn’t acquire it in its original incarnation, Presto Classics can now help you fill a gap on your shelves.
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