Top Ear

The American Job: Bernstein conducts Bernstein and Gershwin

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Jeremy Lee writes

This album, released in 2010 on what Leonard and I like to call Sony’s Cheap-Cheap-Series-Without-Booklet-Notes (actually called Sony Classical Masters), is a compilation of two previous albums separating the Bernstein pieces and the Gershwin pieces (of which Gershwin album I had borrowed donkey’s years ago), and as such it combines two legendary performances of Bernstein conducting quintessentially American music–his own, and Gershwin’s.  And what can I say about it?  It’s just brilliant.

It’s obvious that Bernstein knows his own music–the Bernstein idiom, so to speak–best, so it’s no surprise that the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story is the most vibrant and colourful performance there is–a truly all-stops-out performance.  Being rather new to the piece, I was fascinated by the insane Mambo and couldn’t help laughing at the references made to Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra in some of the movements, and here it is presented by its composer most fervidly, with the NYPO completely unabashed at all the razzle-dazzle they are required to display.  The brass–trumpets!–in particular are just unbelievable:  they’re so jazzy and wild it’s difficult to imagine that they play in an orchestra that would otherwise play Haydn or Mozart than in a fully-fledged jazz band.  Bernstein also lets the percussion section go bonkers–an excellently captured drum kit there–yet extracts some truly beautiful playing from the strings and woodwinds.  In contrast, I find Eschenbach is a bit too mannered and heavy-handed while Judd on Naxos hasn’t the colour nor the intensity.  The Candide Overture is tremendously exciting, although quite ill-coordinated, and ultimately Previn and the LSO outclasses him–but that’s one piece only.

Gershwin’s ever-popular (overplayed, perhaps?) Rhapsody in Blue with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra comes next, and sad to say I cannot consider it as a definitive version of the work:  it’s badly cut and, yes, I don’t like the over-pompous penultimate E flat major theme.  What’s more, the piano tone is ghastly–extremely woody and suffocated, and although the present remastering corrects things a bit it’s still not state-of-the-art.  But Bernstein redeems himself in the most idiomatic and jazzy American in Paris ever, surpassing that of Previn/Pittsburgh (I haven’t heard the one with the LSO well enough to come to a verdict) and Tilson Thomas/RCA.  The jazzy theme in the middle is beautifully played, and the 12-bar-blues that follows cannot be groovier–part of the credit, of course, goes to the brilliant NYPO brass.

Last quibble is the conspicuous absence of the “Mambo!!” shout in the Mambo of the Symphonic Dances, but it sort of grows on you.  Overall, it can be a mixed bag, but if you want to hear a performance that grasps the idiom of authentic, 1900s American-ness so well, and at a low price too, Bernstein’s your man.  Sonics are spectacular save for the piano tone in the Rhapsody.  Very highly recommended.


  • Album name:  Bernstein:  Symphonic Dances, Candide Overture;  Gershwin:  Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris
  • Performers:  Leonard Bernstein (piano and conductor); New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Columbia Symphony Orchestra (Rhapsody in Blue)
  • Label:  Sony Classical Masters 88697757642
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD
  • Total playing time:  59:49

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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