Marin Alsop Conducts Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Kaddish’

Claire Bloom narrates an English text by Bernstein himself, while Kelley Nassief (soprano) and the São Paul Symphony Choir, Maryland State Boychoir and the Washington Chorus sing contrasting settings of the traditional Jewish prayer, the Kaddish.

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COMPOSERS: Bernstein
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Bernstein
WORKS: Symphony No. 3 (Kaddish); Missa Brevis; The Lark
PERFORMER: Claire Bloom (narrator), Kelley Nassief (soprano); São Paul Symphony Choir; Maryland State Boychoir; Washington Chorus; Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
CATALOGUE NO: 8.559742

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The Kaddish Symphony (1961-63) is the most problematic of the series of works in which Leonard Bernstein questioned the whole concept of religious belief. Choirs sing contrasting settings of the traditional Jewish prayer the Kaddish, and a narrator speaks an English text by Bernstein himself, an anguished interrogation of his heavenly Father – while in the score, he wrestles fruitfully with three musical father-figures, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Copland.

The problems arise over the tone of voice and placing of the spoken passages, much rewritten by Bernstein and later by others. For this (well balanced) live recording, Marin Alsop opts for his original version, specifically for female voice. Claire Bloom delivers it in a calm, inward manner, as if at prayer, without the fierce anger generated on Bernstein’s first recording by his wife Felicia Montealegre, and on his second (of his own revision) by Michael Wager. Despite assured, purposeful contributions by the choirs and Alsop’s excellent Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the narration’s gentleness of tone nullifies an essential element of the work.

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Before and after the Kaddish Symphony, the fresh-voiced choir of Alsop’s other orchestra, the São Paulo Symphony, impresses in two overlapping concert versions of Bernstein’s 1955 music for choir and percussion for Jean Anouilh’s play about Joan of Arc, The Lark: a Latin Missa Brevis, and a suite linked by some of Joan’s speeches, which are spoken by Bloom. Mixing jazzy rhythms and period colouring, the music is bright and positive, as if offering a response to the desperate questioning of Kaddish. Anthony Burton