Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Berstein's Candide and other works: eclectic mixture of styles

Back in March 1996, I “journeyed” to the old Washington waterfront and saw Leonard Bernstein’s “operetta” Candide, in the old, somewhat smallish Arena Stage, as it had been as far back as the 50s, in the days of what the Washington Post used to call “City Life.” This performance, I believe, was the older, “lighter” version that comes across as a bit of light satire, opera buffet and bel canto. The opera / operetta is based on the well known Voltaire satire, with libretto and book from Lillian Hellman, Richard Wilbur and others. (I found the Arena Stage's history of performances for that year here.)

In fact, that version was the only one available in the early days of CD. While still in Dallas, I got the New World Records performance from 1982 from the New York City Opera. (Yahoo! offers a re-release here.) But in 1989, Bernstein expanded the work into “grand opera,” adding songs and making the orchestration more expansive and “symphonic.” What results is an odd mixture of styles. It starts with the same comic overture, but the music gets progressively more serious and now the closing “Garden Grow” chorus (even with the a cappella passage) turns into majestic coda, almost evoking the ending of Mahler’s 2nd or 8th symphonies. He plays some tricks in the composition, suddenly modulating to the open key of C Major, and punctuating his progress with the phrase “any questions?” before the final massed orchestra chords. The definitive CD now has Bernstein conducting the London Symphony and Chorus (forces usually appropriate for large romantic works) on DG, dated 1991. Wikipedia has a list of the contents of the latest version in a detailed article.

Bernstein takes the climax of the opera slowly, and later in his career, he showed a preference for Klemperer-like tempos in many works. Try, for example, his recordings of the Brahms Second or Third symphonies. Of course, we properly credit Bernstein for awakening public interest in many of the previously little performed works of Mahler in the 1960s, and in other post-romantics like Carl Nielsen.

Bernstein loved to mix styles in his three symphonies. In #1 (Jeremiah) and #3 (Kaddish) he echoed the use of song and chorus into the symphonic form in a manner of Mahler. The Third is more effective in the earlier 1962 version, which Columbia records issued as a memorial to John F. Kennedy in 1963 on a special edition. Bernstein, reversing his artistry from Candide, compressed the work some for his subsequent recording on DG with the Israel Philharmonic. The work includes some “Sprechstimme” where the speaker questions a God (“your bargain is tin”) who seems to demand so much self-effacement and loss of personal sovereignty as a requirement for any kind of salvation, which is not exactly the same thing as atonement. The slow movement includes a song that recalls the Mahler of “Das Lied von der Erde.” The finale has an exciting choral fugue (maybe reminding one of Verdi’s “Falstaff”).

The Second Symphony, “Age of Anxiety” is for piano and orchestra, but rather echoes the idea of Brahms – a composition that is more a symphony with piano obbligato that a concerto. The music is lush, even in the second movement where Bernstein makes some rather obvious references to the operatic world of Alban Berg. The finale goes for majesty and grandeur rather than virtuosity, with the closing chordal passage recalling Copland’s Third Symphony.

I thought I would mention another late romantic work somewhere: Max Reger’s “Sinfonietta” in A Major, which is a full-blown late romantic symphony of over 50 minutes with a crunching scherzo that plays in the head and that I think has appeared in the movies a couple of times. The scherzo will sound familiar, even if the work is obscure. The main recording now is conducted by Bongartz with the Dresden Philharmonic on Berlin Classics. This amazon UK link allows the visitor to sample some excerpts.

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