Thursday, March 2, 2017

Bernstein, Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop

One thing seems sure to me this morning. The advent of Bernstein's first (1942) and second (1949) symphonies marked the arrival of an American musical titan. Subtitled "Jeremiah" and the "Age of Anxiety," respectively, they showed us a contemporary modern composer of great originality, of dramatic power and lyrical intensity, a supreme melodist and a sure master of modern orchestration.

When we hear them again today in the hands of conductor Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony (Naxos 8.559790), they speak directly to us, they cut through the more overtly successful later Bernstein works and his subsequent status as a conductor and musical guide of the first rank. They remind us that Bernstein was on to something special even then.

We hear rhapsodic sincerity and great rhythmic vitality in "Jeremiah," as well understandably as some very spare but subtle Bernsteinian transformation of Jewish liturgical elements. The final movement brings in the mezzo-soprano part (nicely sung here by Jennifer Johnson Cano) for an almost Mahlerian flourish. Yet in the end this is an American symphony that follows originally in the footsteps of Bernstein's mentor and friend Aaron Copland.

The "Age of Anxiety," heard in its 1965 revision, goes even further into an American idiom, with the piano part (beautifully realized here by Jean-Yves Thibaudet) straying into jazz influences (that remained an important part of Bernstein's approach later on of course) and further extensions of the lyricism we hear in "Jeremiah."

With Marin Alsop's faithful and passionate readings of the two symphonies we hear a contemporary freshness, a timeless depth of spirit. They come across as landmark milestones in American symphonic music, as well they should.

Ms. Alsop and her musical colleagues breathe fresh air into these scores and give us pause. There is everything here, in supremely balanced readings.

Very much recommended, for those who have not fully experienced these symphonies as yet, and even for those who have.


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