BERNSTEIN A Jewish Legacy

BERNSTEIN A JEWISH LEGACY • Various performers • NAXOS 8.559407 (55:47)

PSALM 148 (1935). HASHKIVEINU (1945). REENAH (arr. 1947). SIMCHU NA (arr. 1947). YIGDAL (arr. 1949). FOUR SABRAS (c. 1950). SILHOUETTE/GALILEE (1951). ISRAELITE CHORUS (1958). THREE WEDDING DANCES (1960). THE DYBBUK (1974): Invocation and Trance. HALIL (1981). YEVARECHECHA (1986). ARIAS AND BARCAROLLES (1988): Oif Mayn Khas’ne. VAYOMER ELOHIM (c. 1989)

This release belongs to Naxos’s American Classics series, as well as being a part of its recently-undertaken project on American Jewish music sponsored by the Milken Archive. It is a real grab-bag of scraps, which I have attempted to organize and clarify somewhat, by listing the contents above in chronological order, although I couldn’t begin to include the variety of different performers and ensembles in the headnote. However, grab-bag though it may be, this compilation is not without value, albeit unevenly so, and I suspect that all enthusiasts of Leonard Bernstein’s music will want to have it once they realize what it holds.

The release itself seems to have been annotated and compiled by or under the direction of Jack Gottlieb, a close associate of Bernstein and his preferred program annotator, as well as a composer of Jewish music in his own right. Most of the selections were recorded at the Eastman School of Music, under the musical direction of Samuel Adler. Most of the choral numbers feature the Rochester Singers; an assortment of pianists and vocalists are heard as well. Though I will comment little about the individual performances here, I will state that, collectively, they are excellent.

Judaism was a prominent element in Bernstein’s world-view and an important aspect of his compositional personality—far more than was the case with Ernest Bloch, for example. Many of Bernstein’s major Jewish works—such as the “Kaddish” Symphony and the Chichester Psalms—are well known. But a glance through the list of contents above indicates the presence of some very unfamiliar items. The material assembled here can be divided into three categories: a) arrangements of folk or folk-style melodies done for particular publications or recordings; b) originally-composed fragments or occasional items that have been rescued from oblivion; c) extracts from and/or arrangements of larger, more familiar works. The latter group, e.g., Halil in an arrangement for flute, piano, and percussion, seems largely pointless and comprises the least interesting material, although the excerpt from The Dybbuk does serve as a reminder that there is some haunting and intriguing music in this often overlooked, relatively late ballet score. But the first two categories offer some real surprises and delights, of which I will mention just a few. 

Listeners who love to discover pieces with which to stump their friends should have some fun with the 17-year-old Bernstein’s first surviving completed piece of music: a setting for mezzo-soprano and piano (here, Angelina Réaux and Barry Snyder) of the Psalm 148. Though utilizing a musical language rooted in those of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Wagner, and even Elgar (the latter probably coincidental), it is a surprisingly poignant setting.

Simchu Na is perhaps the most exciting of the choral folksong arrangements. Bernstein arranged this “composed folksong” for a 78 rpm record of Jewish dance music. There is no original score, so the arrangement heard here was notated off the recording by another hand. 

I am sure that piano teachers would find the Four Sabras—relatively easy character studies for piano solo—very useful, should they be published and made available to the public. 

The first of these found its way into Candide, as “Candide’s Lament;” a few phrases from the fourth appeared in the score for On the Waterfront. All are catchy and appealing.

The foregoing gives some sense of the kind of music found on this disc. Other selections include three dances scored for two pianos, written for the wedding of Adolph Green and Phyllis Newman; the Yiddish song from Arias and Barcarolles, marvelously sung by Michael Sokol; and the setting of a Lebanese folk melody presented at a birthday celebration for Jennie Tourel. 

None of the music on this CD will have any significant impact on our understanding or assessment of Leonard Bernstein’s place in musical history. On the other hand, those whose interest in Bernstein’s music goes beyond the essential canon, and those with a special interest in Jewish folk music will surely find much here to enjoy. However, this latter group is likely to notice that—perhaps inadvertently—Hebrew and Yiddish texts are missing, though the English translations are included.