Bernstein’s Spiritual Bent

Three new offerings of the maestro and his work for the holidays

Few contemporary composers would transform a cathedral commission into an opportunity to create a pantheistic, subtly subversive statement of universal brother/sisterhood. But that is exactly what Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) did when, in response to a commission for the combined choirs of England’s Winchester, Salisbury, and Chichester cathedrals, he set his “Chichester Psalms” (1965) in Hebrew rather than Latin. Not only that, but he entrusted the first performance not to a traditional cathedral all-male choir, but to a mixed, adult choir accompanied by the New York Philharmonic.

As a new Naxos recording of “Chichester Psalms” from Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra demonstrates, Bernstein created one of the most accessible and likeable choral works of the 20th century. Tonal to the core—he called it “the most B-flat majorish piece I’ve ever written”—its three sections are set to complete and excerpted Old Testament psalms. The performance is aptly bookmarked by performances of music from Bernstein’s “On the Waterfront” and “On the Town.”

The “Psalms”’ opening is classic Bernstein, its “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands” couched in the same jazzy, swinging idiom as “West Side Story.” It hardly matters that we’re skipping down the streets of New York rather than immersing ourselves in the pious sanctity of cathedral worship; the music is that good-natured and appealing. “The Lord is my shepherd” is couched in gentle lyricism, abruptly interrupted by a jarring “Why do the nations rage?”

After a brief interlude that sounds like a knife striking into the heart, the work blankets us with the same tenderness as felt in Bernstein’s classic “To Make our Garden Grow” and “One Hand, One Heart.” Almost any Jew will recognize the concluding “Hineh mah tov, Umah naim…/Behold how good, And how pleasant it is/For brethren to dwell/Together in unity” as the words from Psalm 133 sung at countless Jewish festivities. But here, clothed in new melody, the Psalm becomes a touching affirmation of the blessing of universal peace.

Bernstein recorded the work twice, first in 1965 with the New York Philharmonic, later with the Israel Philharmonic. The debut rendition just reissued in the three-disc Sony Classical Legacy box “Leonard Bernstein—A Total Embrace: The Composer” offers an authentic alternative to Alsop’s performance. Comparison is especially apt because when Alsop was a conducting fellow at Tanglewood in 1988, she was selected to conduct with the man she describes as her “hero,” Leonard Bernstein.

Alsop’s version, recorded with 192 kHz, 24 bit resolution, offers a clear, convincingly at-mospheric cathedral perspective enhanced by excellent miking. The Bernstein NYP version’s soundstage is wider, the music far more upfront and in your face due to unrealistic multi-miking. Given that New Yorkers have Bernstein’s sound in their blood, their performance is also brasher and more colorful, the percussion stronger. In the end, both performances speak truth, with Alsop’s bargain-price version especially distinguished by the wonderful boy soprano Thomas Kelly.

Again from Naxos’ invaluable American Classics series comes “Leonard Bernstein: A Jewish Legacy.” This invaluable issue from the New York-based Milken Archive of American Jewish Music—one of 50 releases currently being issued to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the first Jews to the U.S.—includes many first re-cordings.

Among the 14 compositions are Bernstein’s first surviving complete work, a neo-Romantic setting of Psalm 148 for mezzo-soprano and piano written at age 17. The longest work, “Halil: Nocturne for Flute, Percussion and Piano” was written to honor Yadin Tannenbaum, a 20-year old Israel flutist who was killed in his tank in the Sinai during the 1967 War. Showing Bernstein at his most personal and familial are three wedding dances written for his friends and collaborators Adolph Green and Phyllis Newman.

The performances and re-cording quality are equally stellar. The soprano who sings both Psalm 148 and the 1951 song “Silhouette (Galilee),” written to honor the birthday of Berntein’s friend and frequent collaborator, mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel, is Angelina Réaux. Known for her performances of Weill’s “The Seven Deadly Sins,” Réaux recorded “La Bohème” with Bernstein. Other performers of international renown include tenor Hans Peter Blochwitz, organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, and the BBC Singers. For a side of Bernstein that also surfaced in such works as the early “Jeremiah” symphony and “Symphony No. 3 (Kaddish),” this disc cannot be beat.

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