Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein -- A Total Embrace: The Composer

by Alison Wong

7 April 2004


Leonard Bernstein‘s prominence in American music as a composer during the latter half of the 20th century is celebrated on this new album released by Sony. The so-called concept behind this release is the celebration of Bernstein’s 85th birthday in August 2003 (although Bernstein passed away in 1990 at the age of 72). This seems a trifle superfluous, not to mention excessive, especially since this album comes with another three disc sidekick, Leonard Bernstein—A Total Embrace: The Conductor. Nevertheless, after a closer examination of the contents of the album, this concept can mostly be forgiven, particularly in light of the selection—and the stellar quality of the chosen recorded excerpts—that speak volumes on their own.

Bernstein’s output as composer is divided on this album into three discs: disc one, entitled “concert works” contains excerpts from nine of his works, while discs two and three are devoted to his “theatre works”. Split chronologically, disc two showcases the earlier theatrical works, culminating in excerpts from Candide (1956), while disc three picks up with the original 1956 cast recording of West Side Story and continues through his works to the ‘70s, including Dybbuk (1974), Trouble in Tahiti (1973), and concludes appropriately with tracks taken from the premiere of Mass (1971).

cover art

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein - A Total Embrace: The Composer

(Sony Classical)
US: 9 Sep 2003
UK: Available as import

The first disc contains excerpts from all three of his symphonies. Religious in matter, dense in texture, and colorful in expression, these symphonies are all too often overlooked in amongst the more light-hearted theatrical works. Not surprisingly, the selection includes the final movement of “Jeremiah, Symphony No.1, III. Lamentation”. The stirring conclusion to the Hebrew text set from the book of Jeremiah, this is one of the more dramatic and accessible of the symphonic movements, with its references to Jewish musical themes and emotional outbursts. The heaviness of the symphonic excerpts is sweetly balanced by the influence of Gershwin that manifests itself in the work “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs” and by the “Love Theme” track from Bernstein’s only film score On the Waterfront that closes out the disc in preparation for the theatrical works. Overall, this is well representative of Bernstein’s works, with the only striking omission being the “Concerto for Orchestra”, Bernstein’s last major work.

Despite the richness that the first disc brings, the highlight of this album is undoubtedly on the remaining two discs. The second offers snapshots from On the Town, Fancy Free Ballet, Peter Pan, Wonderful Town and Candide, while the third takes snippets from West Side Story, Dybbuk, Facsimile, Trouble in Tahiti, and Mass. The entertainment value resides in the “hits” of each theatrical work, such as the “Overture” and “Best of All Possible Worlds” from Candide, based on Voltaire’s satiric novella, and “Maria” and “Tonight” from West Side Story. The album concludes aptly with “Mass”, a huge cacophonic work that, in full form, requires over 200 performers. In essence, this encompasses all of Bernstein’s works to that date, moving through multiple genres and forms, all connected by the driving force of Jewish theology.

What really raises the quality of this album are the exceptional recordings from notable guest performers, such as Isaac Stern on “Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp, and Percussion (after Plato’s Symposium)” and Benny Goodman on “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs for Solo Clarinet and Jazz Ensemble”. In addition, the original Broadway cast recordings are used for the theatre works.

This is a thoughtfully composed album that is engaging and comprehensive. It covers the broad spectrum of Bernstein’s oeuvre with diligence. Unless you’re an absolute diehard face, chances are that you’ll hear something that you won’t have heard before. This is definitely an album worth checking out.

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