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CD Review

Bernstein Century

  • Nikolai Lopatnikoff: Concertino for Orchestra
  • Luigi Dallapiccola: Tartiniana
  • Harold Shapero: Symphony for Classical Orchestra
Ruth Posselt, violin
Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
Sony Classical SMK60725 ADD monaural 74:08
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Bernstein's meat.

Early on, Bernstein had a reputation as an advocate of Modern music, and he did his share of shocking the incredibly timid, but with such show-biz flair that no one really minded. He specialized in certain Modern Americans, and I firmly believe that he single-handedly (other than, of course, the composer himself) deserves the credit for making Copland an almost-popular figure. I doubt we would have had the "Beef – It's What's for Dinner" commercials to a snippet of Rodeo, had it not been for Bernstein. But a lot less of this sort of thing went on than many realize. Other than Copland and perhaps William Schuman (and Bernstein's terrific performances of Bernstein), I don't really think of Bernstein as a champion of very many Modern composers. Often, he followed rather than led. Nevertheless, those composers he took on, even once, have every reason for gratitude.

Bernstein did his considerable best, I think, with the music influenced by Stravinsky and Hindemith. The Schoenbergians and Webernistes didn't fit him all that well (his own twelve-tone music derived from Stravinsky and Copland). Although he did perform them occasionally, it was generally speaking only once. The ghost of Stravinsky hovers over the pieces performed here, recordings made on March 31 and April Fool's Day, 1953.

Nikolai Lopatnikoff's music seems to have sunk almost without a trace, although his career peaked in the early Fifties. Whitney and the Louisville recorded his Music for Orchestra and that's the only other music of his I know, although the Albany and Centaur labels have covered other pieces. The Concertino is vigorous, full of delightful ideas, well worked-out. In general strategy and in the way it treats the balance between solo and ensemble, it reminds me a lot of something like the third and fifth Brandenburg concerti. You will wish there was more of it.

Dallapiccola, of course, has the reputation of Twelve-Tone Troll among those upset by such things, but this work is tonal, even diatonic much of the time. He bases his Tartiniana on the 18th-century violin sonatas of – surprise – Tartini. The general style of the originals consists basically of melody with simple accompaniment. Dallapiccola takes the original themes and folds them in on themselves, building up a freely-canonic texture – a contrapuntal method familiar to aficionados of dodecaphonic writing. It's very beautiful and very startling at the same time. It sounds as if someone sang in an extremely live echo chamber with a huge delay – with the melody phasing against itself. A diatonic melody means a diatonic texture, with an occasional dissonance as the melodies don't quite line up. However, this paradoxically weakens the sense of tonality, of functional harmony. The music doesn't seem "anchored" in a key, even though you can almost always find a tonic. The part-writing keeps to the strictly melodic, with very little regard for root positions of chords – horizontal rather than vertical writing, as they say in the trades. Even Bach's counterpoint hangs from an harmonic skeleton. Dallapiccola doesn't bother, and the result is weirdly gorgeous. I'd recommend this piece not only for its own stunning sake, but for those who want some clue as to what the twelve-tone school is up to. The tonal nature of the piece sweeps aside the tonal-atonal red herring that usually gets in a listener's way, allowing one to dip one's toe in the water without worrying about getting bitten.

Harold Shapero's Symphony is the big work on the program, in more ways than one. Shapero, hypersensitive to criticism, essentially gave up composition, although he continued to teach. Most people who give up composition probably should. Shapero is the exception. You listen to his work and mourn the loss of those things unwritten. I've not heard less than a masterpiece from him. The Symphony counts as his most ambitious work. For many years, most listeners knew it only through this recording, never truly firmly in the catalogue, and the symphony developed a cult base of fans, as did the recording. The symphony stands as one of the monuments of American neo-classicism, Stravinsky branch, and it's the equal of any symphony actually by Stravinsky, excepting the Symphony of Psalms, which says a lot. One notes not only the music's visceral impact and vigor, but the tremendous erudition, the near-Schoenbergian assimilation of the Western European musical tradition, behind it all. I've heard the work nominated for Greatest American Symphony, and the only doubt I have is that – superb as it is – I don't find it particularly representative of American music, except for here and there a certain kind of rhythmic élan, quite different from, say, Stravinsky.

Robert Simpson, in a wonderful essay, discussed why, in his opinion, Stravinsky didn't write true symphonies – that what he titled symphonies turned out ballet scores in disguise. They lacked the element of symphonic argument, of the sense of going from here to there along a bridge, rather than from stepping-stone to stepping-stone in a pond. In this sense, we can say that Shapero wrote a real symphony, and it's very interesting as to what kind he wrote. In a sense, a "shadow-symphony" clings to this music, hidden behind the Stravinskian vocabulary, teasing the listener with the sense of something else going on, just out of realization. In the last movement, Shapero makes his intent plain with an unmistakable shard of Beethoven's Seventh, which he nevertheless integrates into the movement itself – a surprise, but not a surprise. Suddenly, the previous movements come into sharp focus, and you marvel at how something so original owes so much to its predecessor. Shapero got into trouble over this in some rather influential corners. Copland himself – not only the most prominent American composer, but also a very influential booster of American music – wrote an essay stating his concern that Shapero seemed to act out a weird rite of ancestor-worship, rather than expressing himself. In my opinion, Copland missed the point. This was Shapero's self, and it was genuinely original. Americans by environment are musically eclectic. We listen to all sorts of things, whether we want to or not. We are both part of Europe and apart from Europe. The American artistic tradition includes not only The Unanswered Question and Appalachian Spring, but "Rockin' in Rhythm" and "God Only Knows." This is why Ives is prototypically American. As far as I know, no one has followed Shapero in his application of Stravinskian language to the Beethoven symphony. I think we have less trouble with digesting this gumbo now, since the rise and passing of Post-Modernism. I strongly doubt that listeners would have any problem accepting this symphony on its own terms.

Bernstein, at more or less the beginning of his amazing career, electrifies in the Lopatnikoff. He succeeds on a lower level in the Dallapiccola and the Shapero, mainly due to the scrappy playing of his pick-up band. I'd love to hear what someone like Boulez or Dohnányi could do to clarify Dallapiccola's textures and to introduce a wider dynamic range. As for the Shapero, I cling to the heresy that André Previn's account on New World 80373 supersedes Bernstein's account. Not only do the playing and sonics outstrip this recording (although the sound is astonishingly good for its time, despite some noticeable tape hiss), but Previn has a stronger grip on the symphony's architecture. Bernstein generates a lot of energy, but it tends to dissipate. Previn focuses the energy and thus makes a greater impact. Also, you get Previn's coupling of Shapero's Nine-Minute Overture – a joy.

Copyright © 2003, Steve Schwartz