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CD Review

Marc Blitzstein

  • Symphony: "The Airborne" 1
  • Dusty Sun 2
1 Charles Holland, tenor
1,2 Walter Scheff, baritone
2 Leonard Bernstein, piano
1 RCA Victor Chorale/Robert Shaw, Narrator & Director
1 New York City Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
RCA Victor Gold Seal 09026-62568-2 ADD monaural 59:04

This CD is entitled "Leonard Bernstein: The Early Years III," but the focus really should be on Marc Blitzstein. His oeuvre has been undergoing a re-evaluation in the past few years, and I believe that this is the first appearance on CD of one of his most "popular" works, in the most literal sense of the word. Nominally, this three-movement "symphony" depicts man's search for flight, but the second and third movements deal with flight as it relates to warfare in general and World War II in particular. It has more than a few embarrassing moments that come from the composer's having bitten off more than he can chew. His period piece texts are artless, naïve, and charming, and the music is highly eclectic, going from art song to Broadway to patriotic Americana at the turn of a prOp. It's hardly a masterpiece – "The Airborne" is too variable a work for that – but it's solidly entertaining and atmospheric. The ending, which reminds us that victory has come "Not without grief!/Not without warning!" still rings true.

Blitzstein started writing "The Airborne" in the early 40s when he was a U.S. Air Force corporal stationed in London. The score was lost when Blitzstein was transferred back to the States, and the composer let the project drop until the young Leonard Bernstein expressed interest in performing the work with the New York Symphony Orchestra. Blitzstein rewrote most of it, and then the original score resurfaced. He decided that he liked the original version better, and the complete score was premièred on April 1, 1946.

This recording was made in October of that same year. When the set of six 78s was released by Victor it was acclaimed for its (then) remarkable sound quality, and it still sounds good today, considering. (The song "Dusty Sky" occupied the last side, so its inclusion here is appropriate.) People who are curious about choral director Robert Shaw's narrative skills should know that they are very good. When Bernstein recorded this score in stereo the narrator was Orson Welles, whom I suspect is less histrionic than Shaw – I'm going to hunt that LP down. The chorus is excellent, and so are the soloists. The New York City Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1944 by Leopold Stokowski. Bernstein took it over the following year, and probably many of its young musicians ended up in the New York Philharmonic when Bernstein took over the reins of that orchestra. Their contribution is solid too.

This is the sort of work that I can adore even as I cringe. "The Airborne" is exhilarating, albeit bumpy, and RCA Victor showed good sense in making it available again in this historic recording.

Copyright © 1996, Raymond Tuttle