The LSO Begins its Celebration of the Bernstein Centenary

10/11/2017

Bernstein, Mahler: Jamie Barton (mezzo-soprano), London Symphony Orchestra / Marin Alsop (conductor). Barbican Hall, London 9.11.2017. (CC)

Bernstein – Symphony No.1, ‘Jeremiah’
Mahler – Symphony No.1 in D

LSO Platform Pre-Concert Recital: Harriet Burns, Mimi Doulton (sopranos); Henri Tikkanen (baritone); Thomas Ang, Michael Pandya (pianos)

BernsteinI Hate Music; Two Love SongsLa Bonne Cuisine (four recipes)
CoplandOld American Songs: The Boatman’s Dance; Long Time Ago; I bought me a cat; The Dodger; At the River; Ching-a-ring Chaw; Poems of Emily Dickinson: Why do they shut me out of Heaven?; The world feels dusty; Heart, we will forget him; Dear March, come in!; When they come back; Going to Heaven!

Leonard Bernstein became president of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1987; it was fitting, then, that the LSO trailblazed Bernstein’s centenary celebrations with this performance of the Symphony No.1, ‘Jeremiah’.

The First Symphony (1942) is a work of less than half an hour’s duration yet one that holds huge power. The piece was entered into a competition at the New England Conservatory. It did not win, but Fritz Reiner invited Bernstein to conduct the premiere in Pittsburgh (the first performance was in January 1944).

The first movement, ‘Prophesy’ holds a long horn theme near its beginning, shared impeccably here between first and third horns; it immediately returns on full-bodied strings. The references in musical language to fellow American symphonists are clear – this is very much in their tradition – but Bernstein adds his own heft to the mix. The intensity of ‘Prophesy’, well shaped by Alsop, herself mentored by Bernstein, led to the Scherzo ‘Profanation’ with its piping woodwind opening (charmingly delivered on this occasion) leading to a wild, driving party with brass particularly noteworthy for their tightrope balance of accuracy and abandon.

Leaving soloist Jamie Barton to enter between the second and third movements was an interruptive decision (there’s a similar decision to be made in several Mahler symphonies of course – just when should they come into public view?). Nevertheless, Barton, winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World’s First and Song prizes in 2013 was stunning in her delivery of the touching text from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Barton has a big voice, yet she phrases with intense musicality, full voiced and anguished yet tender. Solo strings from the LSO’s fine body created a web of the utmost beauty. This was a wonderful performance of a significant work that simply deserves more credit.

Marin Alsop has recorded this piece for Naxos with the mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano and the Baltimore Symphony, coupling it with Bernstein’s Second Symphony, ‘The Age of Anxiety’ (for review click here) .

Less successful, perhaps, was Mahler’s First Symphony, another work that appears on Naxos recorded live in 2008 by Alsop and her Baltimore Orchestra (for review click here). Alsop’s way is direct, an approach perhaps immediately in evidence by her launching straight into the ‘Naturlaut’ without any attempt to wait the for the audience to quieten down. The offstage trumpets worked well, and the first movement exposition repeat was magically effected, but the whole was low on charm. One could argue this was an affectionate reading, or perhaps a muted one. The first movement climax, when it came, was loud but ultimately uninvolving; the ear was led to the excellence of the horn arpeggios but the emotions led nowhere in particular.

Laboured agogics scuppered the Scherzo’s opening. If this was an attempt to introduce Bruno Walter-like, stomping, Mahlerisch rusticity, it was a failed one. Again, it was Alsop’s affectionate way with the Trio that was most successful. Thankfully the third movement opened with solo double-bass (the trend for full section is singularly misguided, at least according to my ears); and while the Kletzmer passages were well done, perhaps Bernstein himself in his performances and recordings of this symphony provided the reference point.

The cataclysmic opening to the finale was, sadly, rather underwhelming and led to a finale that was far from structurally driven, resulting in an unnecessarily fragmented impression. The horns stood for the final peroration, as did a trombone but the musical impression was not truly climactic. While this was Mahler played by a palpably great orchestra, this was not great Mahler.

The concert was prefaced by a 6pm performance of songs by Bernstein and Copland in the Barbican Hall. This was given by members of LSO Platforms: Guildhall Artists and comprised fascinating repertoire. The light soprano of Harriet Burns and the sprightly, attentive accompaniments of pianist Thomas Ang brought much joy in Bernstein’s I Hate Music, particularly the rapid-fire, less than a minute ‘A big Indian and a little Indian’ (Ang was beautifully clear for this). Baritone Henri Tikkanen brought a truly lovely voice to Copland’s Old American Songs: ‘The Boatman’s Dance’ was impeccably catchy and ‘Long Time Ago’ rocked like a lullaby. ‘I bought me a cat’ in its splendid animal impressions (and human impression – a wife who cries ‘honey, honey’) tried to out-Hampson Thomas Hampson, whose 1992 recording with the St Paul CO, Minnesota under Hugh Wolff is a classic. Tikkanen does not suffer with the comparison. Later, Tikkanen, joined by Michael Pandya, proved his expertise in the ‘patter song’ in Copland’s ‘The Dodger’.

Two Love Songs by Bernstein, well performed by Burns and Ang, were particularly poignant – again, music worthy of investigation.

British soprano Mimi Doulton was joined by pianist Michael Pandya for six of Copland’s famous Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson. Doulton absolutely had the range required by the song ‘Why do they shut me out of Heaven?’ (exceptionally clean slurs too). Her voice can be quite smoky, which was effective in ‘Heart, we will forget him’. Her most impressive attribute, however, is her ability to tell a story, as in ‘Dear March, come in!’. Only in the final ‘Going to Heaven!’ was there the feeling that Doulton was a touch careful; and only here was she outshone by her pianist.

Burns and Ang had the final word, with Bernstein’s setting of the four recipes of La Bonne Cuisine. Ang’s scampering way with the final ‘Rabbit at Top Speed’ contrasted well with the suave performance of ‘Ox-Tails’.

Three singers, two pianists; five people of exceptional talent. Marginally, Ang was the more characterful of the two pianists. Among the singers it is hard to call. Tikkanen clearly has a fine future ahead, and Doulton has clear stage presence married to a full and wide-ranged voice that left me, at least, wanting to see and hear more.

Colin Clarke

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