Symphonies Nos 1-3; Prelude, Fugue and Riffs for Solo Clarinet and Jazz Ensemble
Nadine Sierra (soprano), Marie-Nicole Lemieux (mezzo-soprano), Dame Josephine Barstow (narrator), Alessandro Carbonare (clarinet), Beatrice Rana (piano); Coro e Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Antonio Pappano
Warner Classics 9029566158 112:53 mins (2 discs)
It may have been tempting in Bernstein’s centenary year to bundle his symphonies into a box set; and Antonio Pappano and his Santa Cecilia forces, both with strong Bernstein connections, tackle their assignment with enthusiasm and care. What, though, of the listener? Even with best will towards America’s legendary composer-maestro, it’s hard to view his symphonic journey as anything other than the chart of a decline. He starts at his peak in 1944 with the Jeremiah: a young man’s music, fierily Jewish in the age of the Holocaust, cogent and affecting. More piano concerto than symphony, The Age of Anxiety, inspired by Auden’s poetic study of 1940s angst, dilutes the mix while inserting jazz and pretension. The jagged, windy, brow-beating Kaddish (1963), another interrogation of faith in the modern world, further shatters symphonic form, but to no good purpose. After that hell, one lands upon the simple jazz mischief of the Prelude, Fugue and Riffs with immense relief.
The set’s considerable saving grace lies in the electric spark of Pappano’s live performances and the soloists’ star turns. Beatrice Rana glitters away at the piano as the observer of inner turmoil in Anxiety; Josephine Barstow makes an excellent fist of Bernstein’s often embarrassing Kaddish narration; while soprano Marie-Nicole Lemieux is all Hebrew soul (plus considerable vibrato) in Jeremiah. But the lynchpin remains Pappano, who enhances whatever is genuinely lyrical, tones down the bombast, and tries to ignore the bathos. Some balance issues in Anxiety aside, these must be the symphonies’ most accomplished recordings.