Whipper-Snapper

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Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2 / Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major

Leonard Bernstein, piano & conductor / New York Philharmonic / Columbia Symphony Orchestra

Columbia ML 5337

When a piano concerto starts off with the crack of a whip, you know it’s going to be very different from most music you’ve heard. Such is the intro of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (1929-31), and from there it’s like some experiment in jazzing up classical. In that regard, Bernstein is a fabulous interpreter, being a composer of jazzy works from West Side Story to his more serious 3 symphonies, not to mention his prolific conducting of pretty much everything in the symphonic and the concerto repertoire up to that time.

On this rare mono recording from Columbia, Bernstein conducts from the piano (there’s only a few such recordings of him at the ivories, with another notable one being Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 15), playing Ravel, along with Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 from 1957–two very different concertos.

The Shostakovich concerto was a birthday gift to his son. For a present, it doesn’t skimp on starkness or intensity, but it does have some uncharacteristically lyrical, almost sentimental themes in the slow middle movement. Something of a polar opposite of Shostakovian austerity, the Ravel is colorfully flamboyant. After the freewheeling opening movement, an Adagio assai presents a lengthy songlike melody that’s almost jarringly classical in comparison. The brief Presto begins harmonically before the tune is sabotaged by dissonances from the brass and wind sections, and after a kerfuffle between them, the same four chords that set the whole concerto in motion bring it to a conclusion.

It’s certainly a virtuoso work, calling on the performer to navigate a spate of moods, styles and rhythms, and Leonard Bernstein pulls it off admirably.

The Worst of All Possible Worlds

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Leonard Bernstein: Candide

Columbia S2X 32923

Based on Voltaire’s 1759 scathing critique of Leibniz’s dictum that this is “the best of all possible” worlds, Leonard Bernstein’s comic operetta was first staged in 1956 on Broadway. While the music was a hit on par with Gershwin, the actual show was a flop. In its revised version of 1974, which is presented here with the original cast, Candide stuck closer to the source material, and was majorly popular when it debuted at the Chelsea Theater Center of Brooklyn.

Candide has a ridiculously impressive roster of behind-the-scenes talent: Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman were involved in the 1956 adaptation. The great poet Richard Wilbur and soon-to-be-famous Stephen Sondheim provided additional material to the updated work, and was directed by Harold Prince.

This 2xLP gatefold sleeve by Doug Johnson features the Quixote-like hero traipsing on a ball composed of all the depravity and cruelty he encounters on his perambulations. Voltaire would be proud.

Lenny and Gustave

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Symphonically, no one does it like Gustave Mahler. Leonard Bernstein, an early advocate of Mahler’s difficult scores, was one of the first conductors, along with Bruno Walter in Europe, to record the complete symphonies, and bring the composer out of near neglect and into the concert hall. Probably his most accessible work after the 1st Symphony, the Fifth’s polyphonous orchestration is astounding, with each instrument given a distinctive part. To paraphrase gossipy musicologist Norman Lebrecht, Mahler was the greatest composer of operas who never composed operas. The Adagietto, occasionally (and perversely) performed without the surrounding movements, is an achingly ponderous elegy and one of the most sublime things ever to come out of Western civilization. For this double LP from Lenny and the NYP, Barbara Hatch did a collagist cover that’s as hypnotic as it is indecipherable.