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<<  -- 3 --  David Wilkins    LEONARD BERNSTEIN 1918 - 1990


It has often been assumed that the time Bernstein spent on conducting and, in earlier years, on writing his Broadway shows, deprived him of the time and energy needed for composing so-called more 'serious' works. There is, of course, another way of looking at this. Given that 'West Side Story' is more-or-less in constant production somewhere in the world, that Simon Rattle has recently given us an excellent new recording of 'Wonderful Town', that 'On the Town' and the theatre piece 'Mass' have just enjoyed very successful concert performances in the UK, the argument might almost be turned on its head. Perhaps, if he hadn't felt such a strong need to establish his credentials as a symphonic composer, we might have had more fabulous American musicals from his pen. The field that he effectively ceded to Stephen Sondheim still remains the one where not only his popularity but also his lasting reputation as a composer is likely to survive.

Bernstein: A White House Cantata. (c) 2000 DG

Now we have 'A White House Cantata' -- essentially a theatre-piece for concert performance using music reworked from the Broadway flop: '1600 Pennsylvania Avenue'. And what a fabulously dedicated and unapologetic recording Kent Nagano and his glitzy cast deliver (DG 463 448-2). A century or so of American history is encapsulated in scenes from the Presidencies of Washington through to Theodore Roosevelt. Thomas Hampson and June Anderson (Bernstein favourites, both) have a ball -- literally so when it comes to the waltzes of Buchanan's pre civil war festivities -- with their roles as the succeeding Presidents and First Ladies. We already knew from 'Candide' (always my own candidate for his single best work) what a superb master of pastiche Bernstein could be and there's plenty of similar quality here too. Some of the music also found its way into other works -- the riotous President Jefferson Sunday Luncheon March is familiar from the strangely neglected Divertimento that was written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra's centenary and there are allusions to his most personal and revealing episode from 'Songfest'. Barbara Hendricks and Kenneth Tarver are the black servants who accompany the Presidents on the path to the abolition of slavery and a brighter future. They both have numbers of energetic interplay as well as touching lyricism and sing with convincing mastery of all aspects of the required idiom. The real peach song of the work, 'Take Care of this House' is as hauntingly hummable as anything in the better-known shows. London Voices and the LSO all seem to be having a Yankee Doodle Dandy of a time and it's infectious. 'Fun' was always a central word in the Bernstein vocabulary and there's plenty on offer here.

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Copyright © 31 October 2000 David Wilkins, Eastbourne, East Sussex, UK





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