Whilst The Lark and Missa Brevis come from relatively earlier and quite late periods in Leonard Bernstein’s career, and are well worth having on disc, the main attraction for many will be the Third Symphony (‘Kaddish’), for speaker, boys’ and mixed chorus and orchestra, and which plays for around three-quarters-of-an-hour.
The ‘Kaddish’ Symphony has always been problematic for several reasons: hard-line symphonists will claim the work is not a Symphony at all, and in the late-1960s, when Bernstein’s own first recording was issued, I tended to agree. But a series of lengthy conversations with Hans Keller led me to rethink my attitude as to what constituted genuinely symphonic composition – for he maintained, and demonstrated to me the truth, that the heart of symphonic writing lay in what he defined as “the large-scale integration of contrasts”, which referred as much to string quartets and piano music as it did to the successors to the Austro-Hungarian orchestral Symphony.
Bernstein’s ‘Kaddish’ Symphony is certainly on a large scale, and – as is widely understood – is concerned with death, or, rather, mortality. It is a work which contains an extensive part for female speaker, the text written by Bernstein himself, a concept which daringly challenged the notion of what is or what is not symphonic to the point where many dismissed the work as a patchwork of emotional blackmail, for some even more so as it is dedicated “To the beloved memory of John F. Kennedy”, the work having been completed around the time of the President’s assassination.
Half a century later, we can listen to the work unencumbered by notions of recent international grief – although that experience, it would seem, is destined always to be with us in some form. Bernstein himself has been dead this last quarter-century, and so listening to his final Symphony does not have the ‘shock of the new’ (except for those who have not heard it before), as the work has passed into history, albeit within living memory.
Nonetheless, the concept of a work with such an important part for specifically a female speaker, with its connotations of ‘mother’ – be it, in some people’s perceptions, of Mother Earth or, given Bernstein’s ethnicity, My Yiddishe Mama – such a concept could pose immense problems in ensuring that contrasts are integrated on a large-scale in a performance.
In this Naxos recording, Marin Alsop has brought off a considerable achievement in relating all aspects of this mighty work in full accordance with Keller’s dictum, to the extent that long before the Symphony ended I was utterly convinced that Bernstein has achieved a quite masterly score of genuine significance.
No composer can wholly disguise his ethnicity, no matter how hard he or she tries, and there are essentially Jewish characteristics in the spoken text and in the setting of the Hebraic and Aramaic verses, but, despite the individuality – and indeed the importance – of the speaker, this is not an individual or intimate work: in this account there is a universality in the realisation of the score that could only come from it having been recorded at concerts. Such cohesion as here does not come from patchwork studio recording.
Much, therefore, rests on the paradoxical aspect of the great significance of the speaker in a work of musical art, and in this regard, Claire Bloom is incomparable. A large part of this release’s success, in revealing the significance of the work itself, rests with her, and her beautifully-modulated voice is simply perfect – indeed, the choice of such an essentially ‘British’ voice in delivering what many would regard as a wholly American-Jewish text reveals the inherent universality and breadth of meaning in Bernstein’s concept: Bloom does not attempt to replicate at any time the essentially dramatic rendering of Felicia Montealegre (Bernstein’s actress wife), powerful though that is on the composer’s first recording, but adopts a more intimate tone – yet no less challenging at times – in the narrator’s addresses to God, delivering a reading that is wholly unified with the music.
In this regard, it is Alsop who achieves the very difficult cohesion of the work overall; her tempos, in Keller’s observation, are indeed fully integrated, building something that may well come to be regarded as the composer’s concert masterpiece. None of Bernstein’s three Symphonies are ‘traditional’ in concept, yet they each, in their own individual way, form a coherent group, a claim made more readily demonstrable by this outstanding and quite compelling version of ‘Kaddish’.
The disc opens with one of Bernstein’s last works, the 1988 Missa Brevis: at less than eleven minutes in total for its six movements it perhaps ought to have been titled Missa Brevissima. It is one of those works that appeared at various points during the composer’s lifetime wherein he reached across to Christian thought, as in Chichester Psalms and Mass. And yet he could not (why should he?) ever discard the Jewish concept of dialogue with God, for in setting the Latin Ordinary of the Mass, Bernstein dramatises the supplications to the Almighty in almost challenging fashion rather than in the – perhaps more traditional – Christian concept of pleading. But it is a good piece, for all its brevity, and gets a wholly convincing account from these Brazilian singers and musicians (the work calls for a small group of percussion, apparently optional).
The basic material for the Missa Brevis comes from the music for The Lark, written over thirty years previously; this recorded performing version has been put together by Nathaniel G. Lew, with later editing by Alsop. For the original Anouilh play, as adapted by Lillian Hellman, Bernstein composed eight choruses for vocal septet (with bells and drum); in this recording, sung in the original French and Latin, a narrator has been added (from Hellman’s script) to make a coherent thread overall, setting the choruses in context.
The result is a remarkably effective concert piece, adding another strand to our understanding of Bernstein’s art: the music is from the composer’s top drawer, causing us to acknowledge again his profound creative musicianship.