Even with Krystian Zimerman, Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic on board, you can’t help feeling that Deutsche Grammophon is taking a bit of a risk by issuing ‘The Age of Anxiety’ by itself, and a couple of the disc’s forty-minute playing time are Leonard Bernstein talking. There is also the significant competition of Warner Classics having concurrently released Antonio Pappano’s version, boxed with Bernstein’s other two Symphonies (review-link below).
That said, Zimerman (whose CV includes having played this work with the composer conducting) is superbly insightful, and is less closely balanced than Beatrice Rana for Pappano, but conversely the Berliners are rather too spaciously and resonantly captured; detailed, yes, if sometimes at a distance.
Of course, should Bernstein’s concert-hall music be a stranger to you, then a bite-size introduction such as this, and we are talking masterpiece status – if allured by high-profile artists and a cover that won’t get lost in the crowd – may have greater appeal.
That said, writing as someone who got to know the Auden-inspired ‘Age of Anxiety’ too many years ago (roughly forty), and was deeply impressed by it (Bernstein conducting, the second of his three recordings, Entremont the pianist) I find Rattle – however sympathetic and well-prepared, and with virtuoso and sensitive playing – to be less magnetic than Pappano who elicits greater variety and also, in ‘The Dirge’, explodes a stomach-churning punch and intensity that the Berliners cannot match, although honours are more even in the two sets of resourceful Variations (seven in each, ‘Ages’ and ‘Stages’).
For more information on Bernstein’s Second Symphony I direct you to my Pappano review, and if you are in toe-dipping mood then Rattle and Zimerman offer an impressive introduction (and the latter performer is brilliant in ‘The Masque’, piano-and-percussion jazz), but the greater overall experience comes from Rome.