First, the good news: The album offers the music of one of the world's finest composer-conductor-pianists, Leonard Bernstein; played by one of the world's finest pianists, Krystian Zimerman; conducted by one of the world's finest conductors, Sir Simon Rattle; accompanied by one of the world's finest orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic; and recorded by the world's oldest continuously operating record label, Deutsche Grammophon.
The bad news: DG or DG's producers or Simon Rattle himself decided to recorded the album live; that is, before a live audience. This was Bernstein's wont during his later years, and it has been Rattle's wont for many years as well. They would no doubt say recording live better captures the spirit and spontaneity of the moment; I would say it usually sounds worse than a studio recording; that is, without an audience.
Whatever, Bernstein (1918-1990) completed his Symphony No. 2, "The Age of Anxiety" for piano and orchestra in 1949, revising it in 1965. He subtitled the two-part composition after W.H. Auden's Pulitzer Prizewinning poem of the same name. Bernstein intended that the two parts be performed without pause, although there are a number of subsections (variations) plus a prologue that pretty much mirror Auden's lengthy verse. Here's a run-down of the parts:
The Prologue: Lento moderato
The Seven Ages: Variations 1–7
1. L'istesso tempo
2. Poco più mosso
3. Largamente, ma mosso
4. Più mosso
6. Poco meno mosso
7. L'istesso tempo
The Seven Stages: Variations 8–14
8. Molto moderato, ma movendo
9. Più mosso (Tempo di Valse)
10. Più mosso
11. L'istesso tempo
12. Poco più vivace
13. L'istesso tempo
14. Poco più vivace
The Dirge: Largo
The Masque: Extremely Fast
The Epilogue: L'istesso temp - Adagio; Andante; Con moto
When Bernstein celebrated his seventieth birthday, he invited Krystian Zimerman to perform the solo piano part with him. Thirty years later, we have Zimerman doing it again, here with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. Incidentally, this live recording also marked Rattle's final performance as the Berlin orchestra's chief conductor.
The album begins with a two-minute interview excerpt with Bernstein that is not too distracting. At least you can bypass it. Rattle's interpretation of the music is probably as exacting and as emotional as one could want. Frankly, I've never cared much for the work; one is hard-pressed to find much peace or harmony in it, but that is the point, of course, the "anxiety" of the title. Zimerman tells us in a booklet note that Bernstein never played the symphony the same way twice; there were always shifts and turns in the way he handled it. Zimerman called Bernstein's way with it "daring," and he says Rattle approaches the music in the same way. Apparently, it was an improvisational spirit the two conductors shared, and certainly Bernstein's score allows for any number of different readings.
So Rattle's realization is no doubt as good as any and shows real imagination in its handling of complex sections, especially the jazz interludes. Zimerman's piano, which is front and foremost throughout much of the proceedings should be considered authoritative as well, given the pianist's association with the piece and its composer. And the Berlin Philharmonic remain one of the world's treasures, even if the live recording doesn't fully do them justice.
Producer Christoph Franke and engineer Rene Moller recorded the symphony live in the Berliner Philharmonie, June 2018. The audience is as quiet as one could expect, helped by the close-up recording, I'm sure, and probably a bit of noise reduction. The sound is mostly warm and comfortable, despite its closeness. It's also exceptionally dynamic, so when big crescendos enter, they are, well, big. They are also a touch hard at the high end, but nothing of serious concern. I can't say there's much depth to the orchestra, either, except for the occasional percussion part; it just seems one big entity surrounding the piano. Thankfully, the engineers have edited out any final applause.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: