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CD Review

Bernstein Conducts

Music from 20th-century France

* Vera Zorina (Choéphore)
Irene Jordan (Electra)
McHenry Boatwright (Orestes)
Virginia Babikian (soprano)
Schola Cantorum of New York
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
Sony MHK62352 73:53
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Packs a punch.

Outside of the popular Debussy and Ravel, Bernstein wasn't much known for his advocacy of French music. Clearly, however, he had an affinity for it, as his performance of the Ravel G-major piano concerto and the landmark complete recording of the Debussy Martyre de Saint Sébastien show. To some extent, he caught "French fever" from his teachers, notably Edward Burlingame Hill. More important, however, was the immense influence of Stravinsky on him, both in his composing and in the formation of his musical taste.

Stravinsky dominated Modern European and American music between the wars. Hindemith, Bartók, and Schoenberg don't even come close. He lurks behind every composer on this disc like a musical John Beresford Tipton, with the single exception that he wasn't exactly anonymous. In essence, Stravinsky called the tune of Western European music twice: with Le Sacre du printemps and again with the neoclassical works of the late Teens and Twenties, especially L'Histoire du soldat, the Octet, Les Noces, and Oedipus Rex. The fact that he lived in France well into the Thirties increased his influence over French musical life.

Because of works like La Création du monde, Saudades do Brazil and Suite provençale, many tend to think of Milhaud as exclusively a purveyor of superior light music, but you have only to read Copland's essays on the composer to realize first how serious he could be and second that you probably haven't heard any of the pieces Copland talks about. Bernstein served the composer very well indeed by picking Les Choéphores (1915-17) in the first place. The text, by Milhaud's favorite poet, Paul Claudel, shows the French fascination with and need to recreate classical Greece, in this case the Aeschylus tragedy. Milhaud's music takes the barbarism and painfully bright colors of Le Sacre to evoke a stark, primitive, violent world. This score lies at the antipodes of the "clubbable" Milhaud. It howls with anguish. One feature of interest is a rhythmic chanting to a percussion accompaniment. Milhaud, one of the few French composers with a highly-developed creative rhythmic sense, avoids having his libation bearers sound like high-school cheerleaders. Vera Zorina, Columbia's resident récitant (and wife of the head of the classical division), does her usual superior job. She's one of the few "speakers" (Madeline Milhaud, the composer's wife, was another) who not only managed to keep a composer's rhythm – she was a star of the Ballets Russes – but also performed credibly in the French classical dramatic style. Bernstein not only gives us the physicality of the score, but its gravitas as well.

If Milhaud's viable output has shrunk to his "happy" scores, Roussel – at least outside of France – has never really held much listener interest. He began as an Impressionist, turning out decent and well-made, but not particularly distinctive imitations of Debussy and Ravel. However, his mind refused to sit still. The early stuff is simply a beginning. He began searching for a music he could call his own. Again, Stravinsky's was the music that liberated him, as one can easily hear in the stamping opening movement to the Symphony #3 (1930), one of Koussevitzky's legendary commissions for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony (Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms was another). But one hears something more as well – a sense of measure, a classical balance of form, and a rhythmic and orchestral approach highly influential on many French and French-resident composers of the time. You've only to listen to the scherzo and the finale, for example, to discover where Martinů, who went to Roussel for composition advice, got at least some of his sound. Poulenc, a composer untouched by Roussel, nevertheless said of this symphony, "It is really marvelous to combine so much springtime and maturity." From its animal high spirits to a cool, tender lyricism, it's hard to disagree. This is indeed a marvelous work.

The two Honegger tone poems (the original LP included a third, the warm-hearted, slightly bluesy Pastorale d'Eté) come from the Twenties. Rather than call them tone poems, however, Honegger designated Pacific 231 (1924) and Rugby (1928) "mouvement symphonique" numbers 1 and 2, respectively. The composer chafed under programmatic restraints and felt more comfortable with formal design, a sign of the symphonist to come. Indeed, he described Pacific 231 not as a locomotive puffing through the countryside but as a musical structure that gave the feeling of acceleration, even as, on paper, it slowed down. Nevertheless, I still hear the choo-choo, propelled by an engine from Fabrique Stravinsky, Rite of Spring division. Four years later, the Stravinsky influence has lessened considerably, although occasionally it peeks out from behind the curtain. An actual football match gave Honegger the initial inspiration for Rugby. Machines and sport were big themes of Twenties art (Martinů wrote Half-Time in 1925, for example). Even so, Honegger was more fascinated by the rhythm and give-and-take of the game than by the game itself. One finds this mirrored in the antiphonies between orchestral groups in a huge, highly contrapuntal gigue. There's one brilliant virtuoso passage toward the end that sets competing strands together in four different, though related, pulses.

I consider these four of Bernstein's most exciting performances. The playing of the Sixties New York Phil is its usual scrappy, but they do get the body moving. Bernstein emphasizes the jolts and jabs of these scores, good for the Honegger and the Milhaud, less good for the Roussel. Even so, Bernstein makes a very persuasive case indeed for this little-known symphony. The sound improves on the original LPs.

Copyright © 2003, Steve Schwartz