SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

Leonard Bernstein works = Kaddish Symphony, Chichester Psalms, Missa Brevis

London performers conducted by Leonard Slatkin

Published on June 1, 2005

Leonard Bernstein works = Kaddish Symphony, Chichester Psalms, Missa Brevis
BERNSTEIN: Symphony No. 3 “Kaddish;” Chichester Psalms; Missa
Brevis – Jamie Bernstein, narrator/Ann Murray, mezzo-soprano/ Pablo
Strong, treble/Simon Baker, counter-tenor /Clare Loosley, soprano
(Chichester)/ Lindsay Richardson, mezzo-soprano/ Andrew Castle, tenor
(Chichester)/ Roger Carter, bass (Chichester)/ The London Oratory
School Schola and BBC Singers/BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Leonard Slatkin
conducts – Chandos Multichannel SACD CHSA 5028, 70:58 ****:

Leonard Bernstein’s Third Symphony “Kaddish” (1963) is the product of
the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the composer’s own crisis of
faith, his taking God to task as it were, for the state of the world.
Often atonal and bitter in tone, the six sections might seem to provide
a kind of rough consolation for the living in the course of praying for
the dead. The narrative for female speaker is supposed to invoke
Goethe’s Eternal Feminine, the image from Part II of Faust. Bernstein’s
own recitation intersperses comments on the Newtonian universe as a
pristine clock and praise of the artistic imagination: “You gave me the
power of song/To mirror your immortality.” The recitation suffers
abrupt interruptions from solo soprano, boys‚ choir and full orchestra,
expressing the agony and the ecstasy of adoration. Everywhere is the
eternal argument with God, the ambiguity to understand a plan that
seems lost in the trappings of human suffering.

On the occasion of the Cincinnati Symphony’s 2002 performance, the
composer’s daughter Jamie revised the original text rather heavily,
likewise coming to terms with her father’s use of serialism – perhaps a
fusion of his own academicism and the influence of Stravinsky’s
Symphony of Psalms. Jamie sees her emendations as a kind of rabbinical
commentary upon the original, a tradition among Talmudic scribes
arguing with God and each other, engaged in some metaphysical dialectic
organized to reveal something of The Truth. She calls it “another
generational layer of chutzpah.”  The declamatory passages remind
me of “The Creation” of James Weldon Johnson, although the rage and
conflict in Bernstein’s soul adds an anguished dimension not present in
Johnson’s pious conceits.

The Chichester Psalms (1965) have become standard choral fare,
warranting the same respect we give the 3 Russian Folksongs of
Rachmaninov. Again, the combination of piety and the secular rhythms we
find in West Side Story make a startling, eclectic effect, with the
special colors that brass, two harps, percussion and strings provide to
an energized chorus. The revised version of the Missa Brevis (1988) for
liturgical use derives much of its material from Renaissance-style
materials Bernstein had supplied for Noah Greenberg’s production of
Hellman’s play The Lark. The piece, which lasts eleven-and-a-half
minutes, is in six sections sung a cappella, and is relatively subdued
and lyrically reverent.  Conductor Slatkin has the honors for
having now recorded the premieres of the Kaddish with its new narration
and the expanded version of the little mass.

–Gary Lemco




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