Bernstein: Symphony No. 2 "The Age of Anxiety" (CD review)

Krystian Zimerman, piano; Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic. DG 483 5539.

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:

Part I:
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
5. Agitato
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

Part II
The Dirge: Largo
The Masque: Extremely Fast
The Epilogue: L'istesso temp - Adagio; Andante; Con moto

Krystian Zimerman
Yes, that's quite a lot for one "symphony" to cover. According to Wikipedia, the poem deals with "man's quest to find substance and identity in a shifting and increasingly industrialized world. Set in a wartime bar in New York City, Auden uses four characters--Quant, Malin, Rosetta, and Emble--to explore and develop his themes." Bernstein attempted to establish a musical relationship with those subjects.

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:

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Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

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I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

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