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CD Review

Leonard Bernstein

Naxos 8.559100
  • Symphony #1 "Jeremiah"
  • Concerto for Orchestra "Jubilee Games"
Helen Medlyn, Mezzo-soprano
Nathan Gunn, baritone
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/James Judd
Naxos American Classics 8.559100
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Anyone recording a major Bernstein work inevitably faces comparison with the composer's own recordings. Bernstein recorded this symphony twice, but I never heard his second effort, for DG, with the Israel Philharmonic. If memory serves, it was the first cycle he made for Columbia Records in the 1960s, with the New York Philharmonic, that is generally considered the better set anyway. Thus, the question at hand is, how does British-born James Judd and his supposedly second-tier New Zealand ensemble stack up against Bernstein and the NY Philharmonic? The answer – surprisingly well. In fact, Judd may even be the preferred choice here. In every movement he inspires the New Zealanders to play with an intensity and total commitment, as if this music had been written by one of their countryman. But then maybe they're a first-rate orchestra that has been overlooked for a good many years.

Try the second movement of the symphony, subtitled 'Profanation', and hear the drive and color, the brilliance and spirit of their playing. In the finale, British-born Helen Medlyn may not surpass Bernstein's nearly incomparable Jennie Tourel, but she is quite compelling nevertheless in this dark, beautiful movement.

In the Jubilee Games Judd and company turn in a fine performance, once again. In this Naxos issue the playing and choral work by the unnamed chorus brilliantly capture the wildness and colorful spirit of the work, and Nathan Gunn, one of the finest young baritones on the scene today, sings with utter conviction in his brief appearance near the close of Benediction, the final of the work's four movements.

The sound for both works is vivid and the notes by Sean Hickey are quite informative. A splendid release!

Copyright © 2004, Robert Cummings

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