Numerous bids are being made in this centennial year to redeem Leonard Bernstein’s three symphonies from their fatal flaws. None that I have heard makes a better fist of it than Antonio Pappano’s new set with the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome.
Pappano, who met Bernstein as his would-be repetiteur on an opera production, has a keen empathy for the composer’s melting-pot background. From first note to last, he tones down gestural excesses and desperate self-borrowings. The Rome orchestra plays like a Broadway pick-up band – Broadway usually recruited the best players in New York – and the soloists are exquisitely well-chosen.
Does that redeem the symphonies? That would be an impossible dream. The first symphony, titled Jeremiah, plays around with the tropes a barmitzvah boy sings on his big day. It is breezily precocious, energetically ingratiatiing, ultimately a juvenile error. Marie-Nicole Lemieux flunks out as the barmitzvah boy. The most original bits in this work belong to Aaron Copland.
The second symphony, Age of Anxiety, is a pretentious attempt to capture the spirit of a momentous year – 1948 – through the prism of an Auden poem and the form of a double-length piano concerto. Beatrice Rana carries off the solo part with aplomb and the softer woodwind passages are well worth the admission price, especially to anyone who loves Ravel. Definitely preferable to any other recording of the work.
The third symphony, ‘Kaddish’, written in 1963 in memory of John F. Kennedy, is an embarrassment from start to finish. Josephine Barstow’s restrained narration claws back some of the worst mawkishness, but the text reads like an early script of Fiddler on the Roof and the best of some very bad music is lifted wholesale from West Side Story. There’s a place for us. Not in this place. Happily, Warner have attached a performance of Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, a clarinet concerto written for Benny Goodman and tossed off with inimitable Roman flair by Alessandro Carbonare. This you will want to hear again and again.