* Israelite Chorus
* Dybbuk -- Invocation and Trance
* Psalm 148
* Three Wedding Dances
* Simchu Na
* Oif Mayn Khas'ne
* Vayomer Elohim
* Four Sabras
* Silhouette (Galilee)
Hans Peter Blochwitz (tenor), BBC Singers/Avner Itai; Rochester
Singers/Samuel Adler; Bonita Boyd (flute), Barry Snyder (piano); Jean Barr
(piano); Jack Gottlieb (piano); Patrick Gnage (baritone), Angelina Reaux
(mezzo); Jason Smith (bass baritone), Michael Sokol (baritone); Cantor
Naxos 8.559407 Total time: 55:47
Summary for the Busy Executive: Bernstein early, Bernstein late, Bernstein
all over the place.
Excepting Halil, "Silhouette," and the excerpts from Dybbuk, Concerto
for Orchestra, and Arias and Barcarolles, none of the items on the program
have been recorded in roughly fifty years. Indeed, many receive premiere
recordings, and a few, premiere public performances of any kind. I
doubt, for example, that many have heard Hashkiveinu. It's certainly
new to me. The producers and Jack Gottlieb have burrowed into Bernstein's
legacy of paper and come back with treasure. As you can tell from the
timings and the number of works, most of the program consists of miniatures,
but they're wonderful miniatures, full of those things that attract
listeners to Bernstein's music in the first place.
The release belongs to Naxos's series on American Jewish music,
appropriately enough. Unlike many major American Jewish composers,
Judaica figures prominently in Bernstein's catalogue. I know of no
comparable work in Copland's output other than Vitebsk, for example,
or Tehillim in Steve Reich's. Indeed, Bernstein's religious interests
inform many of his scores not explicitly "Jewish": the second symphony,
Facsimile, Trouble in Tahiti and A Quiet Place. Even Mass owes as much
to Jewish tradition (the accusation against God, for example) as to Roman
Catholic. Strictly speaking, however, some of the pieces on this program
aren't Jewish at all, but Middle Eastern -- Halil, Four Sabras, "Silhouette"
-- and one, the "Three Wedding Dances," from the Bridal Suite Bernstein
wrote for the marriage of Phyllis Newman and Adolph Greene.
A few things here more or less duplicate other recordings. Yevarechecha
is an arrangement for organ by Bernstein of the last movement of the
Concerto for Orchestra. This version beautifully serves a practical,
liturgical function. Halil comes dressed in its chamber togs of flute,
piano, and percussion. "Oif Mayn Khas'ne" is just one number from Arias
and Barcarolles. The Dybbuk excerpt is just that, from (I assume) the
piano-vocal score. I like hearing the voices again (as opposed to the
orchestral suites), but the premiere recording of the complete ballet -
one of Bernstein's considerable bests - is still available on Sony 63090.
Nevertheless, all three pieces "work" here. The Dybbuk number comes
over as more sinewy than in its orchestral garb. Halil becomes less
The setting of Psalm 148 particularly interested me. The composer
wrote it at roughly age 17, before he took hold of Modernism with both
hands. Jack Gottlieb's liner notes characterize the work as "Victorian,"
which, though slightly inaccurate, will do well enough. Among other
things, the young Bernstein shows a keen ear for harmony and effective
voice-leading, as well as a preference for leaner textures than his
somewhat Wagnerian progressions usually imply. However, Bernstein's
melodic gift stands out, even at this early point. He may have written
an old-fashioned melody, but it's a great melody of its type, beautifully
constructed, with a concern for the "real, right" note at its emotional
peak. Bernstein also shows poetic talent, as he adapts the psalm text
to English rhyme and meter. His later problems with his own texts stem,
I believe, from his overestimation of that talent. Nevertheless, he
always had a real flair for light verse.
The "Three Wedding Dances" are pieces d'occasion, as in the sets of piano
Anniversaries, the best-known Bernstein examples of this genre. The
composer wrote a number of these things throughout his life for friends,
family, even family dogs. However, the sheer amount of inspiration and
craft that go into such miniatures astonishes you. In the Newman-Green
wedding pieces, the first part (not recorded here) puts the first prelude
from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, against the Comden-Green song
"Just in Time." The first wedding dance is a canonic waltz, the second
a cha-cha (shades of West Side Story), and the third a whirling hora.
Four Sabras and "Silhouette" come from Bernstein's trips to Israel. One
of the sabras made its way into Candide ("Once again I must be gone, /
Moving on to El Dorado"), and the rhythm of another found itself at the
dance at the gym in West Side Story. Although Bernstein left plenty of
good ideas hidden in such small places, he didn't leave these.
The "Israelite Chorus" comes from Bernstein's incidental music to
Christopher Fry's play The Firstborn. It's terrific. If there's more
music, I hope somebody records it soon.
The program also has a few of Bernstein's arrangements of traditional
tunes: "Simchu Na," "Yigdal," and "Reenah." These are not so much
"get-it-done" arrangements as little compositions in their own right.
For example, the choral "Yigdal" is a close canon.
Only ten measures, "Vayomer Elohim" seems like a sketch for a new, larger
work. Somebody found it among Bernstein's papers in a folder marked
"1989" (the last year of the composer's life), but Jack Gottlieb speculates,
on the grounds of style, an earlier date, somewhere around Dybbuk (1974).
Despite its brevity, it opens up vast mental landscapes, where planets
seem to stop turning.
Hashkiveinu, from the Forties, is (as I hope I've implied) a major event
for Bernsteinians. For chorus, organ, and baritone soloist, it sings
gorgeously, and yet in a different way from its obvious descendent, the
Chichester Psalms. Again, a synagogue choir - or a church choir, for
that matter - would do well to take it up.
The performances are uniformly fine, with Samuel Adler's Rochester
Singers standing out. As far as I'm concerned, this counts as one
of Naxos's major releases.