BERNSTEIN: Serenade / Facsimile / Divertimento (Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/ Marin Alsop/ Philippe Quint/ Timothy Walden) (Naxos American Classics: 8.559245)
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Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)
Serenade Facsimile Divertimento
Conductor, composer, educator, pianist, LeonardBernstein is without question the greatest musicianAmerica has ever produced. Born in Lawrence,Massachusetts to a family of Russian Jewish origin,Bernstein began piano lessons at ten against his father'swishes. His advanced training took place at Harvard andthe Curtis Institute where he studied composition withWalter Piston and conducting with Fritz Reiner. Duringthe summers of World War II at Tanglewood, he was theassistant to Serge Koussevitzky who became Bernstein'smentor. In 1943 Artur Rodzinski appointed Bernsteinassistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, andon 14th November of that year he substituted on shortnotice for the ailing Bruno Walter in a nation-wide radiobroadcast. This sensational debut launched his career,becoming the stuff of legend. The following year sawBernstein's early success as a composer with thepremi?¿res of the \Jeremiah" Symphony, the balletFancy Free and the musical On the Town. In 1958Bernstein was named music director of thePhilharmonic, the first native-born and trainedconductor of a major American orchestra. He becameknown to the general public as a tireless educator onbehalf of classical music through his televisedprogrammes and "Young Person's Concerts". Hisprofound intellectual knowledge and curiosity, as wellas emotional and spiritual generosity, continues toendear him and his work to all.
Bernstein's amazing genius and versatility enabledhim as a composer to bridge the chasm separating the"popular" idioms of jazz, Broadway and rock fromclassical music. His concert works still suffer from alack of appreciation of their genius, and are notprogrammed as frequently as they should, whichprevents their integration into the orchestral canon. Nocontemporary conductor has done more to correct thissituation than the present conductor, Marin Alsop, oneof Bernstein's greatest proteges.
Most of Bernstein's works spring from aprogrammatic impulse. A re-reading of Plato'sSymposium provided the germ for the Serenade. A workthat Bernstein himself called his "most satisfying", itwas commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation andis dedicated to the memory of Serge and NatalieKoussevitzky. Free from his demanding conductingschedule, Bernstein worked on it exclusively in thesummer of 1954 while vacationing with his wife anddaughter in Europe. He conducted the premi?¿re later thatyear in Venice with the Israel Philharmonic and IsaacStern as soloist.
While there is no literal "programme" for the work,Bernstein saw his music, along with Plato's work, as a"series of related statements in praise of love". TheSerenade is one of the best examples of Bernstein'screative approach to composition, whereby unity isachieved not through recurring melody but a "systemwhereby each movement evolves out of elements in thepreceding one". Melodic motives build one after anotherupon previous ones and serve as accompaniment as themusic appears spontaneously to generate itself. The titleSerenade reflects an expansive approach to form(perhaps a subconscious reaction to the relaxingcircumstances of its creation) typical of the classicalserenade. In technical demands the work is definitely aconcerto, the solo violin assuming the rhetorical r??le ofthe "speaker" in each movement.
Phaedrus, the hypochondriacal writer, gives theinitial speech in praise of Eros, god of love. The soloistdelivers a slow, lyrical melody containing the ascendingtritone figure soon to be immortalised in "Maria" inWest Side Story. Orchestra and soloist build this into anintense fugato texture. Pausanias's description of thelover/beloved duality is perfectly captured by thefollowing sonata-form allegro with its typicalBernsteinian energy and verve.
Aristophanes, "invoking the fairytale mythology oflove", develops themes from the opening Allegro. Themiddle section is a singing melody that explores motivesfrom the opening of the movement in canonic fashion.
Frequent parallel double stops in the solo violin add anaching, sonorous intensity to the lyricism.
Eryximachos, the physician who sees the harmonicworkings of the body as a scientific model of theworking of love patterns, is represented by a mercurialscherzo. Quicksilver contrasts of volume and texture(like heat lightning) become the "obstacle course" thesoloist navigates in this mix of mystery and humour. Themovement draws its material from the middle section ofthe previous movement led by the three-note "headmotive" with which it begins and ends.
Agathon's speech, one of the climaxes of theSymposium, "embraces all aspects of love's powers,charms and functions". It is represented in the greatpower and concentration throughout the movement. Theopening of the first movement sets the tone for thesoloist's transformation of the scherzo motive into anoble statement - the muting of the violin until thecadenza making the expression even more intense. Achromatic theme in the middle section builds to apassionate explosion and the solo cadenza. The openingreturns with the violin again muted, singing the threenotemotive, floating in suspended animation.
A stern, slow orchestral introduction based on thechromatic theme of the fourth movement representsSocrates's speech. The soloist enters for a rhetoricalduo-cadenza with a solo cello before the fast main bodyof the movement exploded forth (Alcibades and hisdrunken friends gate-crashing the proceedings). Inrondo form, elements of country fiddle music and jazzadd to the excitement. The work's opening returnspresto before the end, rounding off the work inexhilarating fashion.
Nearly all of Bernstein's works are concerned withthe search for meaning in a post-modern world deprivedof the traditional mooring of religious faith. The balletFacsimile (choreography by Jerome Robbins) is apsychological drama in which post-war men and womenuse outward, superficial "busyness" to attempt to fill aninner, spiritual vacuum, a common theme of post-WorldWar II literature. Similar in plot to Debussy's Jeux, itfollows three characters, The Woman, The Man andAnother Man, as the men vie for the woman's attention,ultimately ending in frustration and boredom for all.
Bernstein perfectly captures the melodramaticatmosphere in music that is by turns acerbic and angularas well as solemn and tender. A concertante solo pianoin Part Two adds a distinctive noir colouring as in FancyFree. Negative reviews at the premi?¿re only served todemonstrate its successful exposure of post-war malaise,where true intimacy could be shunned for a cheap"facsimile" of it.
One of Bernstein's final works, the Divertimento forOrchestra is, in essence, a tribute to the broad diversityboth of his compositions and the favourite works heconducted. It was composed for and dedicated to theBoston Symphony on the occasion of their centenary.
Paying tribute to the "hometown" orchestra whichnurtured him, along with the attendant memories andemotions, Bernstein heartily enjoys himself with manymusical puns as the eight-movement form and breezyhumour reflect the classical divertimento. The work isunified by a two-note motto B-C (Boston Centenary)which generates each movement. Sennets and Tuckets isa clear reference to the fanfares of Shakespeare's timebut nothing could be further from Elizabethan times thanthis music. The fanfare theme, strangely reminiscent ofthe Woody Woodpecker cartoon theme, usesBernstein's signature intervals, the final interval(strongly accented) being the B-C motto. The themerecalls the memorably witty, nose-thumbing fanfare ofStrauss's Till Eulenspiegel. Jocular, extrovertedvariations of the motto and fanfare capture theimagination. Waltz takes the warped 5/4 metre ofTchaikovsky's waltz from the "Pa