Leonard Bernstein was born in 1918, so celebratory releases of his music are appearing this year. Among the best (comparable with his own versions and even better in one case) are the Naxos recordings by Marin Alsop, conducting the Bournemouth, São Paulo and Baltimore Symphony Orchestras. Compiling material that is already available, this eight-disc set also contains several new recordings. Almost all the major works are included, plus rarities like the Missa Brevis (1988).
When Alsop was a student at Tanglewood, Bernstein mentored her. Anyone who heard her conduct the Sydney and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras in the suite from On the Waterfront knows her innate feeling for Bernstein’s idiom (Stravinsky meets Copland and Mahler in a post-war jazz cellar).
First-rate soloists include the French violinist Philippe Quint in the Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion (possibly the composer’s concert masterpiece; undoubtedly his most formally satisfying work), and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet in The Age of Anxiety. Alsop’s recording of the First and Second Symphonies is a recent one (2016), and the sound is exceptional. Thibaudet marries a bright touch with a feel for jazz (he once recorded a disc of Bill Evans’ music). He is the most dynamic pianist to tackle this piano concerto/symphony since Lukas Foss on Bernstein’s 1950 mono recording (currently reissued in a Sony collection).
Alsop proves a reliable guide to the dance scores Fancy Free and the more challenging Facsimile. The unattractive ballet score Dybbuk is the only major work missing.
Her triumph is the problematic Mass of 1970. Keeping the large forces on a tight rein, she uses strong Broadway singers as soloists and boasts the finest celebrant on record in Jubilant Sykes, an operatic baritone who slips easily into gospel and rock. Alan Titus in Bernstein’s recording sounds uncomfortable by comparison. Alsop’s Chichester Psalms also rates among the best. Thomas Kelly, the child soloist, displays excellent control. His only equal is Aled Jones on a long-gone RPO disc.
The set includes a DVD documentary, Bernstein, Larger Than Life, featuring interviews with Stephen Sondheim, Gustavo Dudamel and others. The recording premieres are of secondary occasional works: orchestrations of the Anniversaries – originally short piano pieces dedicated to friends – and A Birthday Bouquet (1988), where eight composers each wrote a variation on a Bernstein theme to mark his 70th birthday. The roster includes Berio, Corigliano, Takemitsu and John Williams.
It’s fun, if perhaps not essential.