ALBUM TITLE: Bernstein
WORKS: Symphonies: No. 1 (Jeremiah) & No. 2 (The Age of Anxiety)
PERFORMER: Jennifer Johnson Cano (mezzo-soprano); Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano); Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
CATALOGUE NO: 8.559790
Marin Alsop, protégée and admirer of Leonard Bernstein, has been working her way backwards for Naxos through the series of works in which Bernstein portrayed the struggle for faith in the 20th century, and in his own mind. After the Mass and the Third Symphony, Kaddish, she’s now arrived, with her Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, at the first two symphonies. No. 1, from 1942, is named after the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, and ends with a setting for mezzo-soprano of verses from his Lamentations; No. 2, from 1949, co-opts a solo piano into its commentary on WH Auden’s long poem about a spiritual crisis, The Age of Anxiety.
The performances are predictably excellent. In No. 1, the imposing first movement is presented with fervour, and the Copland-like central scherzo with lightness and precision; Jennifer Johnson Cano brings sustained intensity to the finale. In No. 2, the orchestra and Jean-Yves Thibaudet negotiate the two opening chains of variations with wide-ranging characterisation; Thibaudet plays the central ‘Dirge’ with powerful weight and Romantic expression, and the jazzy ‘Masque’ with immaculate technique and immense flair, before a convincingly rhetorical ‘Epilogue’.
There’s keen competition in these works, including Bernstein’s own authoritative reading with the Israel Philharmonic (DG), and Leonard Slatkin’s vivid account (exceptionally well recorded) with the BBC SO (Chandos); and there’s an outstanding recording of Age of Anxiety by Dmitri Sitkovetsky and the Ulster Orchestra (Hyperion), with the mercurially brilliant Marc-André Hamelin. But Alsop and her colleagues are reliable guides to Bernstein the emerging, unconventional symphonist.
8.559790 59:32 mins Anthony Burton