Psalms – Yvonne Kenney,soprano/ Williard White,speaker/ Royal Liverpool
Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/ Gerard Schwartz- Naxos Milken Archive
8.559456 CD ***:
Leonard Bernstein was a true musical gadfly: cantor, classical
composer, conductor, Broadway composer, performer, teacher. He had
success in all of these endeavors, often combining fragments of
different forms within the same composition. Theatricality seems to be
a common theme which crosses the boundaries of his diverse musical
pursuits. Bernstein’s dramatic sense is always on display and can
be quite distracting as he mixes the trappings of the classics with the
I have listened to this CD several times. Initially, quite struck
by the brilliance and apparent power of Kaddish, I am not certain
now that this symphony should not be titled Kaddish Comes to Broadway.
There is no avoiding Leonard Bernstein’s genius. He diddles in musical
form with the ease of a child in a sandbox, equally facile with tonal
and atonal writing. Bernstein has been celebrated as conductor, teacher
and composer of “serious” music and music for the Broadway stage.Yet,
for all of Bernstein’s achievements, much of his music
verges ultimately upon sentimental kitch.
Kaddish is the Hebrew prayer intended to sanctify and glorify God in
all of his compassion and wrath. The mourner’s Kaddish raises the ante,
being observed upon the death of a loved one. It is serious
stuff. The prayer extols the power of a God, whose actions
are beyond mortal understanding.
Does Bernstein’s Kaddish belong in the synogogue, the concert hall or
on the Broadway stage? Bernstein would have all three as proper venues
for his music. This symphony is an ambitious work. It deals with the
struggle between God and Man, Life and Death, tonality and atonality.
It aspires to profundity, yet gives way in the end to cliche.
The work is in three sections, seven movements. The second movement,
the Din Torah, is the highlight of the symphony. The Speaker
berates God for abandoning His contract with man, then supplicates
himself before the omnipotent. This movement is composed serially,
representing the elemental conflict between the mortal and
immortal. Here is all powerful music, devoid of adornment, worthy
of Beethoven. It is great art. Alas, Bernstein does not sustain this
level of achievement. His finale is a reprise of “There’s A Place
for Us”, the warm, fuzzy Broadway climax from West Side Story.
Composed in 1963, Bernstein revised the 3rd symphony in 1977. Having
recorded the symphony in 1973 with the New York Philharmonic, his wife,
Felicia Montealegre, Speaker, Jennie Tourel, Soprano, The Camerata
Singers and The Columbus Boychoir. Bernstein considered his revision
“better…tighter” than the original. After listening to the
original Sony recording,however, I find it more cohesive,more
intense, and more brilliantly performed than this recent Naxos
Liverpool release. [And I feel the same way about his early
Sony/Columbia Mahler series vs. his later DGG Mahler symphonies…Ed.]
The Schwartz/Royal Liverpool recording is a good one.The soloists are
excellent, the orchestra plays well, and is sympathetic to Bernstein’s
idiom, It is very well recorded. Sony #60595 is the Bernstein
1973 recording. It is paired with the Chichester Psalms as is the
Naxos Schwartz recording. In all aspects of performance, the Bernstein
disc is superior. The Naxos sound, however, is more natural, better
balanced, the soundstage more real. The revised Kaddish (with male
speaker rather than female) is different in timbre, but similar in
ultimate effect. I suggest purchasing both recordings.
The Chichester Psalms were commissioned in 1965. Bernstein conceived of
a “Psalms Suite” with text in Hebrew. He characterized it “as popular
in feeling” with “old fashioned sweetness as well as violent moments.”
This is emminently singable music for chorus and orchestra . ” I think
the Psalms are like an infantile version of Kaddish”, Bernstein said
after the premier in 1965. He allowed that the “Psalms were simple,
direct..almost sentimental.” The Chichester songs are Bernstein’s most
frequently sung choral work, having a direct appeal to audiences. The
Psalms are well served by the Liverpool forces. This performance almost
rivals the composer’s; the recording is superior.
Kaddish and Chichester are exciting, provocative, theatrical music, not
quite but almost masterpieces. The CD is well recommended.
— Ronald Legum