Bernstein: Symphonies 1 & 2 - Lindberg

Bernstein: Symphonies 1 & 2 - Lindberg

BIS  BIS-2298

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral

Bernstein: Symphonies 1 & 2

Anna Larsson, mezzo
Roland Pöntinen, piano
Arctic Philharmonic
Christian Lindberg

At the age of 21, Leonard Bernstein wrote what he described as a ‘Hebrew song’ using a text from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Three years later the song became the final movement of his Symphony No. 1 and in January 1944 Bernstein himself conducted the premiere of the work. What is being lamented is the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC, but according to the composer, he primarily wanted to convey the text’s ‘emotional quality’. The first movement thus aims to parallel in feeling the intensity of the prophet’s pleas while the scherzo gives a general sense of the destruction and chaos. Being a setting of the biblical text, the third movement is naturally more literary: the cry of Jeremiah, as he mourns his beloved Jerusalem.

During the next few years, Bernstein’s career as a conductor took flight, while the musical On the Town made his name on Broadway. Towards the end of the 1940s he returned to the symphonic genre, however – once more with an extra-musical inspiration. W. H. Auden’s poem The Age of Anxiety is set during the recently concluded war, and falls – like the symphony – into six sections during which four characters express their anxieties, hopes and the quest for meaning and identity. Bernstein chose to portray all four characters via a single instrument, the piano, but he did not want to label the work a piano concerto. The instrument does however come to the fore at various points and in one of the final sections Bernstein supplies what is arguably the most exuberant and rhythmically dazzling display of piano writing in the symphonic literature. For this Christian Lindberg and the Arctic Philharmonic have enlisted the aid of Roland Pöntinen, while Anna Larsson is the soloist in Jeremiah.

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Reviews (1)

Review by Mark Werlin - April 11, 2020

Why should we still listen to the symphonic music of Leonard Bernstein? Doesn’t he belong to a period of time when a few square miles of real estate in New York City declared itself the center of American art music? Wasn’t Bernstein too busy with his conducting responsibilities, Broadway stardom, self-aggrandizing fundraising, radio and television appearances, to harness a once-promising talent to the arduous task of composing serious work? Shouldn’t we regard him as a failed wunderkind with, at best, two or three influential works of musical theater to his credit?

Evidence that Bernstein's reputation as a failed composer of symphonic music is being revised, and that his non-theatrical scores merit reconsideration can be found in outstanding recent recordings of his first two symphonies: on the Naxos label, conducted by Bernstein protégé Marin Alsop; and on this new BIS SACD release with conductor Christian Lindberg and the Arctic Philharmonic.

In 1939, the year composition student Leonard Bernstein gave his teacher Aaron Copland a new work based on verses from Hebrew scripture scored for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, Jewish composers and musicians in Europe were being systematically persecuted and expelled from their posts in conservatories and concert halls. In that same era, pervasive anti-Semitism in America drove many Jewish artists, actors and musicians to change their names and disguise their religious-ethnic origins. It was exceptional — and characteristic — that Leonard Bernstein not only refused to efface his Jewish identity, but chose to emphasize in this early composition the liturgical roots of his musical heritage. Over the next few years, that original impulse flowered, as a single movement grew into a full symphony.

Symphony No. 1, entitled "Jeremiah" after the prophet of bitter exile and the text of the Symphony's vocal movement, incorporates statements, variations and development on the melody of the Hebrew "Amidah" prayer recited in Jewish services. Bernstein absorbed influences from a diversity of sources; declamatory passages for brass and dark-hued massed strings seem drawn from composers of the Second Vienna School; while Latin American dance rhythms in the second movement evoke the vibrant music of New York’s Cuban and Puerto Rican dance orchestras. Bernstein’s delight in orchestrating for all of the sections is evident in his distribution of themes. Towards the middle of the second movement, the flutes fleetingly state the central melody of "Maria", the transcendently beautiful song that would appear in the musical "West Side Story."

In the third movement, "Lamentation", the mezzo-soprano soloist delivers Jeremiah's prophecy in sweeping lines of emotional fervor. A quieter melodic development for the flute and oboe ensues, and swells into rhapsodic lines for the strings. The climactic verses (“Away! Unclean! People cried at them.”) echo across the decades, resonating with the drama of our present-day condition. Bernstein's bravura writing could easily lead a soloist into melodramatic gestures, but Anna Larson holds onto the meaning of the text, and manages the emotional turns with graceful dexterity. By the time of the Symphony’s premiere performance under the composer's baton in January 1944, the lamentation of the third movement was understood as a tragic commentary on the catastrophe unfolding worldwide.

At such a long remove from the milieu of W.H. Auden’s coruscating 1947 poem "The Age of Anxiety", is it possible to encounter the music of Bernstein's Second Symphony stripped of its textual garment? Auden reportedly disdained the music that Bernstein composed under the spell of his poetry, but Bernstein’s colleague and collaborator, composer-conductor Lucas Foss, accorded it the status of one of the major works of 20th century American classical music.

Conductor Christian Lindberg, an accomplished composer whose work can be heard on the BIS release Lindberg / Golijov - Jonason / Lindberg, skillfully propels the Arctic Philharmonic through the Symphony's varied moods, revealing the profound lyricism and inventive orchestration of the score. The ambiguity of the form – neither a four-movement symphony nor a three-movement piano concerto – tilts the Second Symphony off balance, and conveys the unsettling sense of anxiety that underlay America's post-war malaise.

Soloist Roland Pöntinen brings to the piano part the energy and drive, jazzy rhythms and emotional intensity that recall the musical high water marks of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Concerto in F". While the "Masque" revels in a surreal clash of musical styles, Art Tatum at one end of the piano, Arnold Schoenberg at the other, the Britten-esque "Epilogue" that follows paints a bleak landscape in washed-out colors of melancholy and disenchantment.

The May-June 2017 recording at Stormen, Bodö, Norway, produced by Ingo Petry and engineered by Fabian Frank, positions the piano in a realistic perspective and vividly renders Bernstein's percussion scoring, to the sonic advantage of Lindberg's energetic performance. The audio standard of BIS releases since label chief Robert von Bahr committed to recording in 24/96, has been consistently high, and this new release is no exception.

Leonard Bernstein's first and second symphonies charted the young composer's moral and musical response to a decade of catastrophic war and unparalleled human suffering. In a later career that balanced the demands of conducting, recording, broadcasting, fundraising, marriage and family, the portion of time he devoted to symphonic writing might well have been inadequate to the task; yet his was an instantly recognizable voice, and the totality of his work left an ineradicable and irreplaceable contribution to American culture.

Copyright © 2020 Mark Werlin and


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Comments (4)

Comment by hiredfox - February 19, 2020 (1 of 4)

This is a first for SACD but are the Bernstein symphonies any good? I cannot recall hearing them before which in itself may be quite revealing. Obscure ensemble as well so leaves a few question marks hovering.

Comment by john hunter - February 27, 2020 (2 of 4)

It's been along time John since I heard these works and since then my tastes have changed(or grown.)
Didn't think much of them then!
However I would suspect Lindberg would be the guy to show them in their best light.
His earlier disc for Bis of Bernstein's theatre and film music,I thought first rate.
The orchestra is special to him and would be up to the task.

Comment by hiredfox - March 6, 2020 (3 of 4)

The snippets on Presto do not convince that they are worth having, John. Will be interesting to read a review on here if Adrian or A.N. Other has that in mind.

Comment by Mark Werlin - April 4, 2020 (4 of 4)

Two years ago, on Bernstein's centenary, the Guardian published this piece:

I will soon review this BIS release, and at some point, Bernstein: On The Waterfront - Lindberg, for which there are several site user recommendations.