- Leonard Bernstein - Musical Populist [Recommended Recordings]
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Leonard Bernstein
Recommended Recordings

A White House Cantata
(Victor Acquah, June Anderson, et al; London Symphony Orchestra, London Voices; Kent Nagano, conductor)
There is a resurgence of interest in Leonard Bernstein the composer these days. This disc helps to readdress the hegemony of West Side Story, a piece that has tended to eclipse his remaining output. Bernstein prepared A White House Cantata as a concert version of the musical that was written in collaboration with Alan Jay Lerner, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The cantata presents scenes that are centered on the White House, and simultaneously explores racial issues, in an engaging and often witty (sometimes hilarious) way. DG has assembled an all-star cast: Thomas Hampson is the perfect choice for the President, his voice deep and authoritative. The production is blessed also with the excellent chorus London Voices; the LSO under Kent Nagano is in top form. Special mention should go also to 15-year-old Victor Acquah, who is quite superb in "If I Was a Dove." Bernstein's musical voice is archetypically American, and his country of origin is immediately apparent in the nostalgic prelude. His send-up of perceived Englishness is deliciously witty, but it is when Bernstein is in inspirational mode that he is most successful. (review by Colin Clarke)

Bernstein Century - Bernstein: Mass
(Alan Titus; Berkshire Boys Choir, Norman Scribner Choir, et al; Leonard Bernstein, conducting)
While critics at the 1971 premiere found the work derivative and even tasteless, audiences loved this ardent, resourceful, somewhat brazen, ultimately moving Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers. Leonard Bernstein's affinity for his public and for the age in which he lived enabled him to successfully outfit his Mass with a stylish mix of contemporary and ancient modes--rock, jazz, electronic music, Gregorian chant--and place it in a context somewhere between Broadway and opera. Though it lacks the visual component of a live performance, the work holds up well on this Bernstein-led recording, the only complete version on disc. From the popular "Simple Song" to the Stravinskian rhythmic devices and abundant, memorable melodies, the vital creative force of Bernstein is never absent. (review by David Vernier)

Bernstein Century - Kaddish, Chichester Psalms
(Felicia Montealegre, Jennie Tourel, et al; Camerata Singers, Columbus Boychoir, et al; Leonard Bernstein, conducting)
Leonard Bernstein's Kaddish, Symphony No. 3, from 1963 is probably his most famous. It's dedicated to the memory of John F. Kennedy, and comprises spoken and sung texts from Jewish prayers for the dead. It's quite dramatic, very listenable, and not at all pretentious, as some critics have avowed. It ranks with Shostakovich's harrowing Symphony No. 14 and deserves more attention than it usually gets. Which is damned little. The same goes for Bernstein's Chichester Psalms (1964). It's a very engaging choral work that celebrates the practice of psalmody or choral festivals, a kind of celebratory music we don't hear much. (review by Paul Cook)

Bernstein: Trouble in Tahiti; Facsimile
(Nancy Williams, mezzo; Julian Patrick, bass-baritone; New York Philharmonic; Leonard Bernstein, conductor)
Lenny's famous conflict between his "popular" and "serious" ambitions was perhaps most acute in his work for the lyrical stage. This early one-act opera (from 1952) shows just how creatively he addressed the tension, as in the over-the-top parody of "South Pacific" in "O what a terrible movie!" However dated the composer's satire of bourgeois life in the '50s, "Trouble" contains some of his most tender moments as he depicts the sadly misfired attempts of an unhappy couple desperate to recapture their lost love.


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