Monday 12 October 2015

Marin Alsop and her forces reveal Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony to be a much finer work than it has been given credit for on a new recording for Naxos

Of all of Leonard Bernstein’s (1918-1990) works his Symphony No. 3 ‘Kaddish’ has been the least performed and most misunderstood. The symphony is dedicated to the memory of John F. Kennedy who was assassinated on 22nd November 1963, just weeks before the first performance of the symphony. Written in 1963 to English texts by Bernstein and traditional Aramaic and Hebrew texts, it requires a large orchestra, a full choir, a boys' choir, a soprano soloist and a narrator. Kaddish is a mourning prayer spoken by Jews at the graveside. It is also spoken in synagogues as part of a service and in homes during a period of mourning.

The symphony was first performed to much praise in Tel Aviv, Israel, on December 10, 1963, with Bernstein conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Jennie Tourel (mezzo- soprano), Hanna Rovina (narrator)

The American premiere of the work took place soon afterwards on 10th January 1964 in Boston with Charles Münch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New England Conservatory Chorus and the Columbus Boychoir, again with Jennie Tourel (mezzo-soprano), but with Felicia Montealegre (narrator). The American reactions to the work were decidedly mixed, ranging from highly favourable to highly critical.

Marin Alsop  studied with Bernstein and is an indefatigable champion of his music, having already made a number of successful recordings of his music for Naxos. Now for Naxos she has recorded Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony with the Washington Chorus , the Maryland State Boychoir  and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with Claire Bloom (narrator) and Kelley Nassief (soprano) . It is coupled with Bernstein’s Missa Brevis and The Lark for which the São Paulo Symphony Choir and members of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra are joined by countertenor Paulo Mestre.

Bernstein’s Missa Brevis (1988) for mixed a cappella choir with countertenor solo and percussion takes the incidental chorus music that Bernstein composed in 1955 for an adaptation of the play by Jean Anouilh called The Lark, a concert version of which concludes this disc. The Kyrie rises quickly from a hushed opening soon pointed up by timpani. After the choir enters with an exultant Gloria it falls for countertenor Paulo Mestre to enter, soon gaining a typically Bernsteinian rhythmic forward pulse. Bells chimes are heard before the music falls and the countertenor re-enters but it is the bell chimes with choir that bring about the conclusion. There is a lovely hushed Sanctus with the countertenor singing over the choir, slowly gaining in expression and dynamics. A bell chime opens the Benedictus with the countertenor who alternates with the choir repeating Osanna in excelsis. Soon the choir moves the music forward more quickly with a peal of chimes at the end.

The choir overlay the female and male lines, to open the Agnus Dei. When the countertenor joins it is most lovely. When the Dona nobis pacem arrives, the choir leaps up singing the Agnus Dei before it quietens as the countertenor enters. A drum brings a rhythmic section to take the choir forward, suddenly halting for the countertenor to re-join. The choir joins quietly but rhythmically to reach the hushed Amen.

The São Paulo Symphony Choir prove themselves to be very fine and countertenor Paulo Mestre is a most effective soloist.

In 1977 Bernstein made changes and cuts to the narrator’s part of his Symphony No. 3 ‘Kaddish.’ Here the symphony is given in its original 1963 version. It is in three movements played without a break. There is a complete setting of the Kaddish prayer in each movement, the first troubled, the second peaceful and the third exultant.

The first movement opens with Invocation with narrator Claire Bloom entering over a hushed rumble from orchestra sound with the words ‘O, my Father; ancient, hallowed, Lonely, disappointed Father…’  bringing a real depth and character to the text. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra bring a plaintive theme over the narrator before rising dramatically after the words ‘…My Old Kaddish. Listen, Almighty…’’ before quietening to accompany and move around the narrator.

The music moves seamlessly into Kaddish 1 with the narrator continuing. Soon the choir enters with a Jewish prayer, soon picking up a fast rhythmic tempo to drive the music ahead, so typically Bernstein. There is rhythmic clapping from the choir as an air of quieter momentum appears. There are passages with a terrific forward flow and colourful and dynamic orchestration. Suddenly the narrator enters anxiously saying ‘Amen! Amen! Did you hear that Father?’ continuing over a hushed orchestral rumble. Woodwind enter before the choir re-join in a Jewish prayer.

As we are led into the Din Torah, the narrator again enters over a hardly noticeable background hum. Soon drums and percussion sound out to herald the choir humming a theme. The orchestra quietly join the percussion as the narrator leads on building in feeling as she says ‘And don’t shrug me off, as if I were playing…’  The choir vocalises when it enters around the narrator’s angry words ‘You ask for faith, where is your own?’ These are words of one who is very much questioning their own faith. There follows a dynamic, angry orchestral section full of anguish before the music falls quiet with a little woodwind section. The choir enters with brass and percussion outbursts for the Cadenza ‘Amen, amen, Amen’ in a spectacular passage rising to a tumult of overlaid choral voices into which a repentant narrator appeals ‘Forgive me Father, I was mad with fever.’

Kaddish 2 arrives where, after the narrator says ‘Be comforted. Be magnified … sanctified…’ The orchestra and women’s chorus bring a hushed Jewish prayer with soprano Kelley Nassief in an absolutely wonderful moment. There is a fine rising and falling melody before the women’s chorus gently enters, the soprano returning, rising with the orchestra through moments of strength, then tranquillity. The female voices lead gently accompanied by a harp until the narrator enters with ‘Sleep, my Father. Rest Your anger…’

The third movement opens with a Scherzo where a rhythmic, punctuated orchestral section brings many very fine orchestral details. The narrator soon enters against the lively orchestra with a text that brings back a critical, doubting element. This is an amazing Scherzo in its conception. It rises to a pitch at the words Magnified … and Sanctified…Be the great name of man!’ A sweeping, flowing, very American melody for orchestra comes in over the narrator before the choir joins and we run straight into Kaddish 3 where the narrator continues with orchestra which rises to a pitch before the narrator continues to plead ‘Believe …believe.’ The boys choir enters before the narrator joins alongside, taking us into the Finale.

After the narrator gives the words ‘The Dawn is chilly, but the dawn has come…’ the Finale brings a dramatic orchestral outburst, full of passion in some of Bernstein’s finest writing for strings. There are quieter, softer passages as a trumpet quietly leads on, woodwind joining then strings in a hushed, really lovely, melodic moment with some of Bernstein’s distinctive intervals. As the narrator re-joins she says ‘We have dreamed our Kaddish, and awakened alive’ surely a message of hope. To conclude, the music leaps into a Bernsteinian Fugue for soprano, boys’ choir and chorus, another brilliantly written section, ending with the orchestra on an affirmatory note.

Marin Alsop and her forces reveal the Kaddish Symphony to be a much finer work than it has been given credit for. One could at times believe it to be a great work. Certainly is often very moving. The large part for narrator will always limit its appeal as perhaps it does with such works as Arthur Bliss’ very fine Morning Heroes. Claire Bloom delivers the demanding texts most impressively with Alsop and her forces bringing a formidable dramatic and emotional thrust.  

Bernstein’s 1955 incidental music for an adaptation of a play by Jean Anouilh called The Lark concerns the life and death of St Joan. It is performed here in the 2012 concert version with narrator by N.G. Lew and M. Alsop by the São Paulo Symphony Choir and members of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra with countertenor Paulo Mestre.

It opens with an exultant Exaudi orationem meam, Domine for choir, continuing with some lovely melodic passages. Soon the narrator Claire Bloom enters alone, starting Joan’s story with her childhood. She is soon overtaken by the choir and clapping in a rhythmic, fast moving passage, the Spring Song before slowing at Laudate Dominum. The rhythmic choir and clapping returns for the Alleluia before soprano Kelley Nassief enters in the Court Song over the rhythmic line of the choir. The narrator continues before the chorus return for Laudate Dominum. Alleluia. There is further narration before countertenor Paulo Mestre arrives in Benedictus, alternating with the choir who gain in tempo and drama. Bells chime as the narrator tells of arrival at the Gates of Orleon. In the Soldier’s Song the choir whistle along with rhythmic drum taps before the narrator re-enters over which the chorus bring Qui tollis peccata mundi and we enter Sanctus with countertenor weaving a lovely line over the choir. The narrator makes a plea before Requiem where a subdued choir enters. The narrator alone leads to Gloria where the chorus rises up again before the countertenor joins. There is some fine choral writing here before bells chime to bring a sudden end.

This is an excellent performance all round. Sadly no text is given for the narrator’s part of Joan of Arc due to copyright but Claire Bloom, an inspired choice of narrator in both works, has such clear diction in the English text that for most this will not be a problem. 

There are full texts in English and Hebrew with English translations for the symphony and full Latin texts with English translations for the Missa Brevis. All are well recorded but the recording of Symphony No.3 is exceptionally fine.

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