Double Play: A nation's voices raised in song

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The Independent Culture
BERNSTEIN: Songfest; In Memoriam: Nathalie Koussevitsky; Symphony No 1

Soloists, St Louis Symphony / Slatkin, Bernstein

(RCA 09026 61581 2)

'SIX Characters in Search of an Opera': just one of the titles that Leonard Bernstein originally considered for Songfest. In some sense, he was always on stage. He had a way with words. And frankly there is no finer exhibition of his word- setting skills than this, his Bicentennial bash. 'Bernstein Sings America': that might have been another title. Three hundred years of the American experience through the eyes of 13 American poets. The eclecticism reflects the culture, and the range - both in content and style - is dazzling testimony to his musical wholeness. Consider the beautiful Whitman setting 'To What You Said', Bernstein's Morgen, the voice a hushed confessional, a private recitative over the benevolent cello melody; or the explosive head-to-head between two black poets set simultaneously with rip-roaring big-band climax; or the exquisite Anne Bradstreet setting 'To My Dear and Loving Husband', whose keening weave of female voices calls to mind Act 2 scene 1 of Britten's Peter Grimes; or the bitterly ironical 'Zizi's Lament'.

Slatkin and his team (with one dubious exception) shape up well here against Bernstein's own recording. Not even he made the cascading voices and tuned percussion of 'Israfel', Muslim angel of music, shimmer quite so brilliantly. And to add to the allure of this imaginative Bernstein tribute, the St Louis connection is celebrated with his very first symphonic recording: his own Jeremiah symphony, white-hot from 1945 with 24-year-old Nan Merriman an unforgettable soloist in the closing lamentation. Edward Seckerson


AGREED, Bernstein's 1945 mono recording of Jeremiah is a tour de force - there isn't a better phrase for it. The composer's direction may screech into overdrive early on, but that's just what the music needs. Ideas that could have been arch or cloying in other hands burn dazzlingly. Even the quietest passages can be searingly intense - doubt him if you dare.

But just when I think I'm beginning to like Bernstein the composer, along comes a piece like Songfest to set the hackles bristling again. Perhaps it's simply a musical allergy, but for me the sugary lyricism, heavy humour and camp, streetwise strutting has ersatz stamped across it in letters 6ft high. Perhaps the performance is partly to blame - if blame isn't rather a harsh word.

It's not that Slatkin doesn't feel for this music: there's a quiet, dignified intensity in movements like 'To What You Said' and 'To My Dear and Loving Husband' that almost won me over. But perhaps 'dignified' is the problem - what Songfest needs is more of the Bernstein chutzpah. Whatever, I felt more moved by the tiny piano solo In Memoriam: Nathalie Koussevitzky than by anything in Songfest. It's a deeply touching miniature, and Slatkin's unforced sensitivity is perfectly tuned to the musical substance this time - good to be reminded that conductors who can play aren't an extinct species yet; Bernstein would certainly have approved of that.

Stephen Johnson

DEBUSSY: 12 Etudes. BERG: Sonata. Maurizio Pollini (DG 423 678-2)

A CHILDISH scale in the five fingers of one hand, and before you can even register the irony, a startling illusion is out of the bag. The speed of Pollini's reflexes matches even Debussy's. And these studies are all about lightning deceptions, fleeting, oblique, elusive flights of fancy - music of fantasy born of theoretical abstraction. Pollini's technical and intellectual rigour is always challenging. The feats he performs here with rhythm alone: the quicksilver articulations of the chromatic study in Book 2, for instance, a kind of cubist flight of the bumble bee. And tone- colour: the placing of Debussy's 'opposing sonorities' in the 10th study as if the music were emerging from different perspectives. But my heart is drawn to the heady, neurotic harmonies of the Berg Sonata - music that would seem to have arrived on the page in one stroke of the pen. And that's the way Pollini plays it. ES

IN SOME ways Debussy's Etudes are a gift to a pianist like Pollini. Technically they are terrifyingly demanding, but treat them as simple showcases and you kill them. In all their moods - delicate, elemental, moodily allusive or grimly powerful - these unique 'studies' require super-cool clarity and a powerful intellectual grasp. Pollini has all these qualities, and some of the climaxes are built with such dynamic certainty that one feels surprisingly close to the grand, sweeping orchestral paragraphs of La mer. But Pollini is not one of the great piano poets. His lines are clearly etched - there's little blurring of edges or hanging teasingly over ambiguities. I like the slow, grinding tempo for the final 'Pour les accords' - the encroaching horror of the First World War seems very close in moments like this. But that can't be the whole story.

The Berg Sonata is even less atmospheric. Pollini's control doesn't falter, and the clarity he brings to Berg's heavy-laden textures is welcome - but expressively it's dry, unyielding. SJ