Original Jacket Collection: Bernstein Conducts Bernstein
Recent history is littered with Bernstein Conducts Bernstein
boxes and singles, but this new issue, a joint production
of Carnegie Hall and Sony Classical, puts together all of
the composer/conductor’s Columbia Records recordings, most
of them with the New York Philharmonic.
Although it’s part of Sony’s Original Jacket Collection series,
which packs the CDs in cardboard miniatures of LP albums,
these discs have been filled out beyond LP length, so there’s
some creative fiddling with that original artwork.
Speaking of fiddling: Bernstein’s Serenade for Violin, Strings,
Harp and Percussion after Plato’s “Symposium” has withstood
its pretentious title and become a something of a repertory
item, but here’s a chance to enjoy two Bernstein-helmed performances.
First, and the first-ever recording, features Isaac Stern
as soloist. He concert-premiered the piece in 1954; this mono
recording was made two years later with the Symphony of the
Air (the former NBC Symphony).
With the smash popularity of stereo a few years later, this
work became one of many re-recorded in the new format. This
time (1965), Zino Francescatti was soloist; along with the
expanded aural spread and Columbia’s strange, thin audio quality
during that era comes a more consistently focused violin performance.
Other pieces that get mono/stereo re-recordings are the ballet
“Fancy Free” (suggested and choreographed by Jerome Robbins),
with the 1956 Columbia Symphony (a pickup studio orchestra)
recording edging the 1963 N.Y. Phil version for dynamicism,
and the Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety,” an Auden-inspired
1949 work whose original recording used piano soloist Lukas
Foss for but one measure. Pianist Philippe Entremont suggested
an expansion of the piano part, and is thus heard in the 1965
Another period piece, so to speak, is Bernstein’s Symphony
No. 3, “Kaddish,” whose over-the-top theatricality was rewritten
with more restraint subsequent to this 1964 recording: But
it’s still a worthy museum piece, with the composer’s wife,
Felicia Montealegre, declaiming the fiery text.
Other concert works include the Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”),
Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (with Benny Goodman), Facsimile and
his other Jerome Robbins ballet collaboration, the surprisingly
The On the Waterfront Suite is derived from Bernstein’s
only film score, and of his several musical-theater pieces,
he conducted only On the Town for Columbia—but it’s
the definitive recording, far better than the remake he conducted
for DG. West Side Story is represented by the popular
suite of Symphonic Dances. And we get a rousing overture from
Bernstein’s works for voice remain affecting even when they
weren’t written for the Broadway stage, and “Trouble in Tahiti,”
a one-act chamber opera, is a trenchant example, beautifully
sung by Nancy Williams and Julian Patrick. Also included are
the “Chichester Psalms” and the once-controversial Mass,
with a young Alan Titus as Celebrant. And there’s a bonus
of two song cycles (“I Hate Music!” and “La bonne cuisine”)
with the composer piano-accompanying Jennie Tourel.
The booklet includes a too-brief overview by Humphrey Burton
and then excerpts that claim to be (but aren’t always) from
the original issues. And hang onto that book: you’ll need
it for the CD track listings.
Bernstein yet again recorded much of this material for Deutsche
Grammaphon in his post-NY Phil years, but my money is on this
set: He’s younger and more vigorous here. Although all of
this material has been available on CD (some of it expensively
out of print), and even in the same groupings, this is a comparative
bargain—and a great gift. For someone like me, who collected
the records this, there’s a pleasant aspect of nostalgia,
even though I have to stop myself from hurrying over to flip
the thing halfway through.