* Dybbuk (1974)
* Fancy Free (1944)*
Mel Ulrich (baritone), Mark Risinger (bass)
Abby Burke (vocal)*, Stephen Kummer (piano)*
Roger Spencer (double bass)*, Samuel D. Bacco (drums)*
Nashville Symphony/Andrew Mogrelia
Naxos 8.559280 Total time: 74:14
Summary for the Busy Executive: Dance fever.
Critics generally agree that the best of Bernstein's "serious" work lies
in the ballet. Not counting the dances in his Broadway shows or works
later adapted as dances, he certainly wrote a lot of them, relatively
speaking, for such a slim catalogue: Fancy Free, Facsimile (1946), and
Dybbuk -- indeed, as many ballets as symphonies and all choreographed
by Jerome Robbins.
Fancy Free is the first and most often-played. Its plot of three sailors
on leave in New York furnished the story of Bernstein's first Broadway
musical, On the Town, which in turn spawned the even more popular concert
score 3 Dances from On the Town. Fancy Free announced, with a roar, a
major voice: unique, personal, thoroughly American, and completely of
its time and place. Nothing like it had been heard before. Most attempts
at pop or jazz -- always excepting composers like Gershwin, Copland, and
Morton Gould -- had kept the vernacular at arm's length, as irony or
exoticism, or so sublimated, so abstracted, that it was hard to pick out
the popular elements at all. Not since Gershwin had anyone so successfully
blended concert music with the American vernacular. If Gershwin is the
American Verdi, Bernstein is our Puccini -- more knowing, more polished,
more theatrically sophisticated. Gershwin ultimately, I think, resonates
more with an audience, but he also composes more clumsily, the amalgam
of pop, jazz, and Modernism somehow unstable, the joins visible. Bernstein
gives you a smoother, more integrated product. He takes both his
background and his education as a matter of course, as opposed to Gershwin,
who seems a bit self-conscious about both jazz and Modernism. Fancy
Free, a miracle of a score, fully lives up to its title. It has the
insouciance of pop, the voice of pop, and the smarts of concert music.
Dybbuk, the last of Bernstein's ballets, has had a troubled reception.
When it appeared in the Seventies, the turf wars flared hot and heavy,
with Bernstein caught in a no-man's land. The score has both its serial
and traditional sections. The dodecaphonists thought it hopelessly
old-fashioned while the tonally genteel thought Bernstein had sold them
out for the dubious pottage of Prestige. It never occurred to either
side to take the piece on its own terms. Bernstein recorded the complete
ballet once (the premiere recording, originally on Sony, currently
available in a 7-disc set on DG). Then he made suites and recorded
those. The suites are generally what got recorded. This represents, I
believe, the first complete recording of the full ballet since Bernstein's.
It reveals a powerful score, one of Bernstein's best, and I hope it leads
to an upward re-evaluation of the composer, who I believe gets a raw
deal. The ballet certainly lies outside the expectations of those who
wanted Bernstein to keep writing new Fancy Frees and West Side Stories.
It tells the story of a young man and woman "destined" for each other.
The girl's father, however, breaks his promise to let the boy marry the
girl and instead arranges another marriage. The boy goes to the Kabbalah
to gain the magic power to take back the girl, but the magic destroys
him. He becomes a disembodied spirit and possesses the girl. Once he
is exorcised, the girl destroys herself and joins him.
I've never quite understood the recent fad for the Kabbalah. Every
story I've ever heard about it has as its moral, "Don't mess with this."
The person who seeks that kind of power is the last person who should
have it. It's the greed for power that destroys, as well as the magic.
How the Kabbalah ever became a kind of self-help manual for the likes
of Madonna (it seems to especially fascinate charismatic Catholics and
ex-Catholics) is beyond me. Obviously, the bouncy idiom of Fancy Free
doesn't suit the Dybbuk story. Bernstein comes up with a score full of
the menace of unseen powers and the darkness of the shtetl. Imagine
all the austere, prophetic bits of the "Kaddish" Symphony without its
blush-making text. Like Stravinsky in Agon, Bernstein creates 12-tone
sections and tonal ones, and I'd doubt most people would be able to tell
which was which. Unlike Stravinsky, Bernstein uses the two languages
to highlight the drama -- not light against dark exactly (because there's
very little light here), but to intensify and relieve the action. It's
a masterful score.
The performances are a mixed bag. First, every conductor labors under
Bernstein's considerable shadow in this repertoire. Bernstein conducted
his own music very well indeed. If you've got Bernstein, do you need
Fancy Free, surprisingly, comes off less well. However, in its favor
is the inclusion of the opening song, "Big Stuff." Originally written
for Billie Holiday, "Big Stuff" brilliantly opened the ballet -- a pop
song wailing out of a bar juke box. Many recordings, including some of
Bernstein's, leave this out. However, the dances refer to it. I consider
it integral. On Bernstein's first recording (mono), Billie Holiday sang
it. On the "official" DG recording, Bernstein himself crooned it in his
basso, cigarette-ravaged croak, so unsteady you often can't tell the
pitch. Abby Burke does it here, and not badly. Of course, she's no
Billie Holiday. The rest of it, however, moves with arthritic abandon.
Almost everything is way too slow and careful -- neither fancy nor free.
This ballet should sound as if it were shot from guns. The exuberance
of it should overwhelm you. It's not terrible, by any means, but it
*is* a trifle boring.
On the other hand, I don't hesitate to call this the best Dybbuk I've
heard. It beats Bernstein's own outings. The stiffness of Mogrelia's
Fancy Free works well here, lending a kind of Caligari effect, thoroughly
appropriate. Bernstein and the NY Phil sounded tentative in the premiere,
as if trying to find their way -- to be expected in that kind of score.
Mogrelia and his Nashvillians seem to understand everything, and they
play as if they can't wait to chomp into the next phrase. A distinguished
reading, and for a budget label, yet.
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