Review By Max Westler
This impressively programmed disc joins Leonard Bernstein's first and last collaborations with the choreographer Jerome Robbins. The instant success of Fancy Free (first performed in 1942 by the New York City Ballet) launched Bernstein's career, and established him as a composer to be reckoned with. The premiere of Dybbuk took place thirty years later at a time when Bernstein's reputation as a composer was suffering from the recent (and very public) failures of his idiosyncratic theater piece Mass and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, his last attempt to compose a Broadway hit. Alas, Dybbuk didn't provide Bernstein with the great popular success he hungered for. Though some of the initial reviews were respectful, most were dismissive, if not openly hostile. Though Bernstein later arranged the ballet into two suites, Dybbuk remains his most woefully neglected composition. Taken together, these two radically different scores give us the chance to see both sides of Bernstein's Janus-faced personality: the smiling aspect he liked to show in public, and the darker, more conflicted one he mostly kept to himself.
As a celebrity, Bernstein seemed born to play the cock-eyed optimist. He approached his many roles (composer, conductor, pianist, educator) with a life-affirming exuberance that was (at least for those of us who were there at the time) irresistible. The title of his best-selling book, The Joy of Music, is an apt summation of his attitudes: joy is our collective destination, and music the surest way of getting there. It was altogether appropriate that the night after the Berlin Wall fell, there was Bernstein right on the spot conducting Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."
No music does a better job of capturing the upbeat Bernstein than the brash and irreverent Fancy Free. Though many American composers of the period tried to fuse blues and jazz with the European art music of Stravinsky and Hindemith, none of them could claim Bernstein's encyclopedic knowledge of American popular music, or could speak its many languages with greater authority. Even Lenny's harshest critics had to admit the man was no highbrow; he knew and genuinely loved show tunes and big-band swing every bit as much as he loved the European classics he conducted in the concert hall. Small wonder Fancy Free sounds just as fresh and vital today as it did 64 years ago.
Of course, we now know that the public face Bernstein wore sometimes masked a darker and more conflicted personality. Bernstein was a man beset by questions. And though some of those centered on the nature of his sexuality, there were others as well. Was he a conductor or a composer? What kind of composer? Should he be writing hit shows or symphonies? Was he a believer or a nonbeliever? And if a believer, what kind of God did he believe in? As a celebrity intellectual, what kind of public, political role should he play? As Bernstein got older, these issues weighed more heavily on him. Certainly his Mass, as uneven a piece of music as it is, can be seen as an attempt to give these same nagging doubts a transcendent outcome. Back in the day I never begrudged Bernstein his need to provide his audiences with happy endings. But especially as he got older, he could at times be accused of trying too hard.
In Dybbuk, there are no happy endings. Based on a drama by the Yiddish playwright Schlomo Ansky, the story involves a malign spirit that enters the living body of a groom on his wedding day, and the unsettling consequences that follow. Clearly the play struck a responsive chord in Bernstein; his personal demons seem to have been fully engaged in the project. If any in the opening night audience expected to hear something more assuring — amazingly, the score was written to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the state of Israel — they must have been sorely disappointed. What they heard instead was the most neurotic, convulsive music Bernstein ever wrote. In Dybbuk, you don't find the voluptuous tunes or the snappy, jazz-inflected rhythms (or even the pure schmaltz) that characterize his other religious music. The tunes are dark and mournful, the rhythms sharp and angular. Though the music is theatrically gripping--Bernstein was always at his best when composing for the theater — it is overall a harrowing, disruptive experience, and I guess it should come as no surprise that neither the ballet nor the two suites have ever been popular. This is both sad and unjust, for Dybbuk is one of Bernstein's most revealing scores, and it contains some of the most remarkable and compelling music he ever wrote.
Recording the orchestral music of Leonard Bernstein is a risky enterprise: you're automatically competing against the composer's definitive versions of the same pieces. Bernstein was undeniably a great exponent of his own music, especially with the New York Philharmonic playing (as it always did for him) like a house on fire. Nevertheless, I can think of several good reasons to purchase this disc, not least the (very low) price. Also, Naxos gives us both ballets complete, 74+ minutes of music. But of course, the best reason to get this disc is the stunning performances by Andrew Mogriela and his Nashville players. No, you won't mistake them for the Philharmonic, but their playing in both scores is precise, spirited, and thoroughly idiomatic. Clearly Mogriela knows and loves this music, and he is able to project the athleticism of Fancy Free and the bristling tension of Dybbuk with equal success. This might be heresy, but I'm not sure I don't prefer his version of the later ballet to Bernstein's own. Mogriela builds the drama more gradually, and gives the narrative an inevitability that makes the climax all the more terrifying. I should add that the vocal interludes in Dybbuk (by baritone Mel Ulrich and baritone Mark Risinger) are appropriately dark-hued and Hebraic. Abby Burke, who opens Fancy Free with the bluesy number "Big Stuff," is no Billie Holiday (who sang it on Bernstein's first recording), but her voice is sultry and her delivery very stylish indeed.
In general, I've always enjoyed the house sound on Naxos recordings. They've set an especially high standard in their "American Classics" series. But they've outdone themselves here. Jim Mancuso's engineering projects a large and convincing presentation that's transparent on the top, exact in the mid-range, and rock-solid on the bottom. The clear delineation of inner voices and the overall sense of detail here are thrilling, and offer ample testimony, if such be needed, of Bernstein's genius as an orchestrator (a skill he doesn't often get credit for). In brief, a disc for both those who want to know more about Bernstein and those who think they already know Bernstein. Highly recommended.