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.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa